Like many, I am a huge admirer of Juan Manuel Fangio. As the great Michael Schumacher said, “What he achieved, at the wheel of fairly basic cars in just shirt sleeves and with no helmet, hardly bears thinking about…. That man was a hero.”
He was a step ahead of his competitors on pace, and yet never went over the limit. He was clever and could control his competition. He was humble, just an ordinary guy with no pretense. What he does not get credit for is his mechanical prowess. El Maestro knew his machines inside and out. In this respect, he was not alone, but his creativity and ability to work through a problem are unrivaled, as you'll see.
A few years back, I read Fangio’s autobiography Fangio: My Racing Life, and there was a small story in there that made a huge impression on me. It reveals better than any other what made him such a great champion. You may be surprised to learn that it was a race in which he did not place well, but as he wrote, “I finished tenth, but I felt as satisfied as if I had won.”
It was the summer of 1942 in Argentina. While Europe and Asia were engulfed in the worst war in human history, South America was a place where life remained fairly normal. Goods and supplies were starting to become scarce, yet sporting competitions such as crowd-pleasing automobile races were still taking place.
The man from Balcarce, a small coastal town in Argentina, was already on his way to becoming a national hero. Despite being a late bloomer, having only entered his first race in March 1938 at age 27, he started winning in 1940, and was named the Argentine Road Racing Champion in both 1940 and 1941. It would still be another seven years before he set foot in Europe.
Road racing in South America was radically different than in Europe. They were typically week-long events that covered thousands of kilometers on primitive dirt roads traversing mountain ranges, and crossing deserts and jungles. They were as much a war of attrition as they were a test of driving prowess.
The cars of choice were American coupes modified to handle the rough terrain. However, part of the challenge was keeping the machine running, and fixing it when it wasn’t. There were no pits or support caravans. The driver and co-driver had to figure things out with the tools and spares they carried in the vehicle.
In 1942, a new race was added to the calendar called the Gran Premio del Sur, which was organized to publicize the south of Argentina. It started north of Buenos Aires, traversed the Pampas, climbed over the Andes into Chile, and then returned to the capital. It covered 7,192 kilometers or nearly 4,500 miles. The word “epic” is an understatement.
Fangio was coming off a big win, his first victory in the prestigious Mil Millas, the South American counterpart to the Mille Miglia, in December 1941. One month later on January 21, 1942, he was at the starting gate of the GP del Sur, along with 59 other entrants. He was behind the wheel of the #16 1940 Chevrolet coupe, emblazoned with his hometown “Balcarce.” Basque immigrant Antonio Elizade, a car washer and not a mechanic, was in the passenger seat as navigator.
After the first stage, Fangio finished in third place, 46 seconds behind the winner, and was just pacing himself. He rebounded and won Stage 2, was only seventh on Stage 3, but was among the top three overall.
Fangio had reconned the route and knew there was a stretch between Esquel and San Julian that had huge rocks. As expected, the big stones took their toll and all but destroyed the spring mounts. Then, they drove through a hellish maelstrom that broke the windshield and even blew many competitors completely off the road. Fangio pushed through, but had to limit his speed as they had no eye protection. The #16 Chevy finished tenth, 2-½ hours after the winner.
After the stage in the town of San Julian, Fangio and Elizade worked feverishly to repair the car. A crowd of townspeople crowded around them, so much so that the Basque couldn’t get out from under the car. In frustration, he struck a man with a hammer.
As Fangio wrote, “What a thing fate is!” During the next day’s stage, the oil pressure dropped only a few miles from the start. When they pulled over, the oil plug had been completely removed -- with Fangio suspecting foul play by one of the mischievous bystanders.
The damage was done. The end bearing seized, which threw a connecting rod and punched a sizable hole in the engine block. If it were anyone else it would have been game over, but Juan Manuel Fangio was not just anybody. He limped the car into Comandante Luis Piedrabuena, the next small town, and rolled into a garage. A group of onlookers gathered around, and then set out to help by removing the engine. Here’s how it was recounted in Fangio’s autobiography:
One group shot off to a general store, where they bought an aluminum cooking pot. This was melted down and used by Fangio to patch up the hole in the block. Thanks to patience, hammer blows, and soldering, the repair was perfect. In his stock of spares, he of course carried a rod, piston, and piston rings.… The car was fixed up and reached the end of the stage…before the deadline.” (p.69-70)
Through resourcefulness and dogged determination, he was still in 12th place -- with only 14 cars still surviving in the race.
He was confident in his repair because Fangio was still pushing in the next stage, arriving at the first checkpoint with the fastest time. Then bad luck struck once again when he heard a loud noise, only to discover another con rod had come through the block. The pair flagged down a local and ended up getting a rope tow for 60 miles (!) to the next town. Luckily, Fangio knew a local mechanic that specialized in Chevys.
With an expert to help, they tore down the engine and once again repaired the engine block, and got the motor up and running. Thankfully there were no penalties for the tow because the field was so depleted that the organizers were happy to let anyone continue who was able to do so.
Knowing that the engine was on borrowed time, Fangio still decided to go for it until it gave up once and for all. In the eighth stage, he finished fourth and then third in the ninth. With the race finishing in Bahia Blanca, Fangio finished first on a twice-patched engine block! However, due to the delays caused by his major repairs, his overall position was only tenth out of 12 finishers in a total time of 86 hours and 34 minutes, 7 hours and 37 minutes behind the winner, Esteban Fernandino.
Fangio raced one more time that summer before a long hiatus. As a result of severe rationing, fuel and tires were scarce, so racing was stopped and did not resume until 1947. Fangio worried that his best days had passed as he was now in his mid-30s, but it was just the beginning.
In 1948, he made his first trip to Europe to participate in two French races -- with each ending inauspiciously with DNFs. The following year, thanks to the patronage of the Argentine Automobile Club and funding by the Peron government, Fangio was handed the seat of a state-sponsored Maserati 4CLT Grand Prix car. He won his first three races, which set him forth on his path to becoming one of the most celebrated drivers of all time.
Of all the figures in automobile racing history, I think this story shows the essence of El Maestro’s greatness better than any other. His commanding knowledge of mechanics, supreme skill, and unbending resilience justify his position as the greatest racing driver that ever lived. As he summed up his career, he said, “I simply expressed what I had in me: respect for others, a love of machinery, and a passion for speed.” I cannot think of a more worthy person of the title “the greatest driver of all time” than El Maestro.