I was casually leafing through a recent copy of the Porsche Magazine, Christophorus, (March 1998), when a number of splendid black and white photographs of road racing cars of the 50’s and 60’s caught my attention. Somehow it is appropriate that photographs of cars of that era be black and white; color would be totally superfluous, even distracting. Staring at the photographs I am immersed in the facial expressions of the drivers who betray, in their open face helmets with goggles, their intense concentration and total commitment to their work. Today’s closed-face helmets add a significant safety margin, but, alas, photographer and spectator alike are deprived of contact with the drivers. Among the many iconic cars presented in this story are early Porsches – RS Spyders, RSK’s, 550’s – driven by the likes of Masten Gregory, Jo Bonnier and Ricardo Rodriguez.
Ricardo Rodriguez practices a Le Mans start in his #39 Porsche 1600 RSK just prior to the 1960 Grand Prix held in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Tom Burnside, from the collection of The Revs Institute, copyright www.santens.co.
The featured photographer is Tom Burnside, who traveled the road racing circuits from 1954 to 1968, capturing the essence of sports car racing in those early years after World War II. On page 36 of Christophorus I study Ricardo Rodriguez, caught by Burnside’s lens as Rodriguez leaps over the door into his Porsche 1600 RSK practicing the traditional Le Mans start in 1960. Rodriguez is wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt, goggles dangling around his neck, driving gloves without fingers (like today’s bicycling gloves), and – not to be missed above his penny loafers – his pants legs gathered up around his ankles under small belts to keep his pant cuffs from interfering with the furious pedal work that lies ahead. I know Mexicans are very proud of their motherland, so Rodriguez uses electrical tape to write MEXICO in block letters on the faring behind his head restraint.
Then I glance over at page 37 and I can’t believe my eyes – a photograph of road racing cars in the 1960 Havana Grand Prix! It is obvious in the photograph that the race is being run on the wide-open spaces of a runway, and then I shudder as goose bumps course up and down my spine. I WAS THERE! It’s the first time I’ve seen a photograph of that event, which took place on the Columbia Military Airport in suburban Havana in early 1960. I was born in Havana, and it so happened that we had our home on 21st Avenue, between 82nd and 84th streets. The military airport, which was the venue for this race, was at the south end of 84th street, only one block from my house. As a young child, oftentimes I would run up to the fence to see bombers, propeller fighters, venerable DC3’s and assorted aircraft warming their radial piston engines at the eastern end of the runway (visible at the far end in Burnside’s photograph). My favorite airplane was the Lockheed Super G Constellation, an early 1950’s transatlantic carrier with its unmistakable triple vertical stabilizer and four piston engines of 9,000 combined horsepower. Its crew would carefully warm up one engine at a time, and I would wait patiently, staring through the cyclone fence at the monster about 200 yards away. The pilot would hold the brakes, rev up all that horsepower until the window glass on our houses shook, and then release the brakes, beginning the takeoff roll, headed to parts unknown. Like some annoying song that sticks in your head, the roar of those engines is still in my ears.
But how did this Grand Prix race come about? The late Joel E. Finn, the author of the prized book, Caribbean Capers, wrote that “Kenneth ‘Ken’ Coleman of West Palm Beach, FL, had been involved in road racing for some years as an active member of the Florida Region of the SCCA.” Flinn indicates that it was Coleman who approached the new Director of the Cuban Sporting Commission, Captain Felipe Guerra Matos (“Guerrita” to his friends) and convinced him that organizing a sports car race would entice tourists from the US, whose numbers had plummeted. I personally remember the gentleman, Guerrita because my mother’s younger sister, Edith Romagosa, was his Executive Secretary. This explains why my Dad and I had unfettered access to that Grand Epreuve.
Finn goes on to explain that Guerrita accepted Coleman’s proposal and allowed Coleman and two other Cubans with racing experience, Juan Garcia and Alfonso Gomez Mena to coordinate the Havana Speed Week. After concluding that the seaside boulevard, “El Malecon”, the venue used in previous races, was unsafe and uncontrollable. (In a personal conversation I had with the late Phil Hill when I asked him which was the most difficult track he had ever experienced he said El Malecon in Havana because sea water is constantly washing over the wall onto the street and creating a soapy scum on the pavement). For a venue, Coleman’s team chose the military airport, Campo Libertad (Freedom Camp). They decided to hold an event, Havana Speed Week, commencing on February 20, 1960, and concluding with the GP on Sunday, February” 28. The 3.11-mile course at the airport was set to run clockwise, for a total of 65 laps (about 202 miles).
Action near Havana Country Club: Alfonso Gomez-Mena (sporting Cuban flag on the hood) in the #14 Ferrari 250 GT LWB, leads Jim Jeffords, USA, in the #4 Chevrolet Corvette C1. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
Back to the photographs. As I was only 11 years old at the time, so my father was at the track with me. He mentioned that he helped keep lap times for one of the teams during the race in 1958. I think it was for a team of privateers with a Mercedes sponsored by the Cuban cigarette makers, Trinidad y Hermanos (the MB factory teams had abandoned racing after Pierre LeVegh’s crash at Le Mans in 1955). As I stare at the photograph I recall the ripping sounds of small bore engines, straining at their redlines, the musical sequence of heel & toe downshifting and the pungent smells of racing oil, clutch and brake dust and racing fuels (which occupy a special place in my sense of smell, right next to cordite from antiaircraft shells and exploding bombs, but more on this later). I remember that the spectator stands lining the runway were provisional, made of wood, housing the makeshift pit area along the “front straight.” My house was so close to the runway that I could stand at the fence and watch the racers run the left sweeper in the “Curva Camaguey” followed by the tight right turn into the long straight. That was the most important sequence for the quickest lap. Crowd control was evidently not terribly tight, what with next-to-nonexistent racing car restraints like a hay bale every ten feet or so. But such was the innocence of that era: on track, my Dad let me roam about at will, evidencing all confidence that I would be alright.
Observing the photographs taken by Burnside, there are many signs and banners advertising products – Shell gasoline, Goodyear tires, LASO batteries, Hilton Hotels (the racing headquarters were at the Habana Hilton) Coca-Cola, and Polar and Hatuey beer. This may seem totally obvious to readers, but there’s more. Later that year Fidel Castro ordered the “intervention” of all businesses, beginning with the expropriation of major U.S. corporations. On August 6, 1960, the Castro government formally nationalized all foreign-owned property in the nation. By the end of 1960, the revolutionary government had stolen more than $25 billion worth of private property owned by Cubans – 1960 was the end of private enterprise.
Maurice Trintignant, France, negotiates a right-hander onto the front straight in his #9 Maserati 300S. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
I wish I could give you more details on how the race went. Neither my father nor I had the foresight to hang on to a race program. But how was I to know, at age 11, of the magnitude of the event before me? Although my idol, Juan Manuel Fangio was not there, here were gathered the world’s best dueling at 180 mph in their golf shirts and penny loafers, darting about on skinny Dunlops sans driver restraints. Researching racing history, I found one version of the program (complete with someone’s handwriting) which listed 43 entries representing 14 nations. Among them were well known competitors including Joaquim Bonnier (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Jack Brabham (Cooper-Monaco 2.5L), Ettore Chimeri (Ferrari 3.0L), Masten Gregory (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Dan Gurney (Maserati 2.9L), Stirling Moss (Maserati Tipo 61 “Birdcage” 2.9L), Ulf Norinder (Porsche RSK 1.5L), brothers Pedro (Ferrari 3.0L) and Ricardo Rodriguez (Porsche RSK 1.5L), Eddie Sachs (Nisonger KLG Special 5.3L), Harry Schell (Ferrari 4.1L), Carroll Shelby (Porsche 1.5L), Maurice Trintignant (Maserati 3.0L), Huschke Von Hanstein (Porsche RSK 1.5) and Rodger Ward (Ferrari 2.9L). (Briggs Cunningham had been invited but refused to participate because Castro had already expropriated his businesses in Cuba). One Italian lady, Ada Pace, hurled her OSCA MT4 around the airport runway, her helmet more likely a leather head sock, with goggles and, in the tropical sunshine, sporting a sleeveless blouse – her careful manicure evident in her fingerless driving gloves. She finished her race!
Pedro Rodriguez, Mexico, in the #10 Ferrari 250 TR 59, finished second overall and second in class in the 50 lap main race. Photo: Tom Burnside, copyright The Revs Institute.
As I look at the photograph, Tom Burnside suddenly becomes my hero, the only person who can bring back details of a memory that I’ve carefully nurtured all these years. I become infatuated with the photograph – I must locate him. Finding a phone number for him, I ever so cautiously ring him up. He answers. I can’t believe he answers his own phone! I introduce myself, and I tell him about the photograph and that I was there. I’m thinking he’ll say, “Yeah, so what, I know many people who were there, big deal.” But instead, he says, “You’re the first person who has contacted me who says he was there!” Burnside remembers that Stirling Moss drove a birdcage Maserati (a white number 7, I remember distinctly). He also knows that a Jaguar XKSS was entered (and that it was just repatriated from Cuba to the US for some astronomical sum). He also tells me about the time in ’57 when he was in Havana for the Gran Premio, staying at the El Presidente hotel where he received a visit at 3:00 am from Castro’s representatives, who take him back to their lair (but that’s Burnside’s story to tell). At the airport, he said the race was run clockwise using the runway with mostly curves to the right using some of the service roads. There is one more personal detail that I recall: as the featured race ended and the crowds were leaving, I gathered a few of my friends and stuffed wads of paper in the tailpipes of spectator cars parked all around our neighborhood. Then we watched with glee as the wads rocketed out of the tailpipes when the engines were started.
One year later, on Saturday, April 15, 1961, at 6:00 am, the thunder of low flying airplanes shook the house. But accustomed as we were to airplanes overhead, this was different: there was more than one, and their approach to the airport was not supposed to be over our house, and they are coming in TOO LOW! Then all hell breaks loose as these airplanes begin strafing the military airport and Castro’s Czechoslovakian 4-barrelled antiaircraft batteries reply in kind. The ground leaps as bombs hit their targets. I grab my baby sister out of her bed and our family runs screaming into the dining room, sliding under the dining room table, everyone praying loudly for God to spare us and literally feeling every bomb hit through the cold hard, tile floor. I have never before or since been so afraid for my life. We expect a bomb to hit our house any second as the bombers (CIA-supplied Douglas A-23’s of the anti-Castro assault force of Alpha 66) make their runs at their targets. Twenty minutes later the bombers leave, but they have decimated the airport. The ordinance, which had been trucked into the air base only a week earlier, is now exploding at will. We run to the car, in our sleepwear, not stopping for anything. We drive away to my mother’s cousin in the western suburbs of Miramar. Two days later, 1,500 men make shore in a crocodile-infested swamp known to the rest of the world as the Bay of Pigs.