Imagine the world driving champion being kidnapped on the eve of a Grand Prix and held hostage by rebels trying to overthrow a government.
That’s exactly what happened a year before Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, when his rebels kidnapped world driving champion Juan Manuel Fangio the day before the Cuban Grand Prix.
Sir Stirling Moss – who won the race – remembers it well.
“They kidnapped him to draw attention to Castro’s cause,” the 79-year-old racing legend recalled in a recent telephone interview.
It was 50 years ago this month – on Feb. 16, 1959 – that Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba after he led rebel forces in ousting President Fulgencio Batista.
It was just a year earlier – in February 1958 – that members of Castro’s 26th of July Movement kidnapped Fangio and held him hostage during the Grand Prix.
Castro had been leading a band of rebels since 1953, trying to overtake power from Batista, who attracted U.S. investors and promoted Cuba as a “Latin Las Vegas” with gambling and resort hotels. There were frequently anti-Batista demonstrations and street riots, and Batista responded by suspending constitutional rights, censoring the media and suspending elections.
Castro thought one way to embarrass Batista would be to spoil the Cuban Grand Prix in 1958. The event was to showcase Cuba as a big tourist attraction and money maker.
The star was Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina, one of the greatest racing car drivers of all time and certainly the dominant driver of the 1950s. He won his first world championship in 1951, and won again in 1954, ’55, ’56 and ’57. His record of five titles stood until 2003, when Michael Schumacher won his sixth.
On Feb. 23, 1958, the day before the race, Fangio left his room at the Hotel Lincoln in Havana, went downstairs and was kidnapped at gunpoint.
“A guy came up to him, pulled out a gun, and said, `Come with me,'” Moss recalls.
Fangio went obediently to a waiting car and was whisked off. The kidnappers explained that their intention was to hold him only until the race was over. Fangio was kept under guard in a comfortably furnished apartment.
“I spoke to him after and they caused him no harm at all, and gave him food and drink and all that sort of stuff, and looked after him in every way,” Moss says.
Moss and Fangio had been friends since 1955, when they were teammates for Mercedes.
The kidnapping was one of the most widely publicized acts of terrorism against the Batista government.
It was front page news in the Toronto Daily Star, with the headline: “Cuba Rebels Seize Auto Racing Star On Eve of Big Race.”
The article said: “Embarrassed police searched frantically for abductors of the 46-year-old, five-time world title holder as the capital – jammed for today’s Grand Premio auto races – buzzed over the audacious feat. Special guards were assigned to the 24 other internationally famed drivers here for the race in an effort to avert any more incidents.”
Moss remembers that terrifying night, when government guards were stationed in the hallways of his hotel.
“Every three hours, they’d knock on the door and say: `Moss, are you there?’ And I’d say `Yes, I’m okay.’ So it was a very disturbing night,” Moss recalls.
Moss later found out that Fangio was worried that Moss – who was considered to be the world’s No. 2 driver behind Fangio – might also be a target of Castro’s rebels.
“Fangio said to the people who took him `You mustn’t take Stirling Moss because he’s on his honeymoon’ – which was not true, but nevertheless was very decent of Fangio.”
Moss had been married a little over four months to the former Katherine Molson of Montreal, of the famous Molson family.
On race day, a crowd estimated at 150,000 lined the five-kilometre course along Havana’s coastline.
Moss, driving a Ferrari, took the lead.
But just a few laps into the race, the circuit was slicked with oil. A Cuban driver, 27-year-old Armando Garcia Cifuentes, skidded as he was coming out of a turn, and sailed into a crowd of spectators. Seven people were killed and 40 injured.
There was immediate suspicion that the rebels had coated the course with oil, but an investigation later found that the oil was not rebel sabotage, but came from a broken oil line in a Porsche driven by Roberto Mieres of Argentina.
The race was halted after only 15 minutes and Moss was declared the winner after just five laps, and collected the $3,000 winner’s prize money.
Fangio was released unharmed shortly after the race ended. He said he was treated with great care and civility by the rebels, and referred to them as polite young men.
Fangio retired after the 1958 season, saying the cars had become too fast and too dangerous. He achieved success as a Mercedes distributor in Argentina and died in 1995, at the age of 84.
Sir Stirling Moss remarked that throughout his racing career, he’s never seen anything that compares with the kidnapping at the Cuban Grand Prix of 1958.