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“Maserati, Italia, Fangio!”

“Maserati, Italia, Fangio!”

As I make my way from Havana’s Capitol Square filled with vintage taxis, in the blinding morning sun already stifling at 10 o’clock, people start to shout “Maserati, Italy, Fangio!” all the way to the Malecon. Not surprisingly, it is a shock for Cubans to see a GranCabrio here in the streets of the capital, fifty-three years after the last appearance of a Maserati. But it is precisely the persistence of that fateful day, and the consequences it had on the island’s history, that justifies this return, so full of memories and emotions.

This 4-km wide asphalt road so close to the ocean that waves practically break on it, was the site of the February 1958 Cuban Grand Prix. It was the second edition of the Formula One invitational race, organized by the strongman General Fulgencio Batista. The great champion driver Juan Manuel Fangio, “El Maestro”, (The Master) or “El Chueco” (the knock-kneed) to millions of his fans around the world, was back with a Maserati 450S lent by the American car collector Temple Buell, after having won the previous year on board of a 300S by the same Italian coachbuilder. A long line-up of Ferraris was there to challenge him: Stirling Moss with his flaming 335S and Masten Gregory with an old 860 Monza; Phil Hill with one more 335S, and Porfirio Rubirosa with his 500 TRC.

A fine mix of celebrities from the worlds of sports and high society had been brought in to celebrate the dictator’s power and his control of national security. In reality, the dictator’s grip was steadily weakening, as Castro’s revolutionary movement was ready to leave the mountainous Sierra and close in the capital city. On the eve of the race disaster struck: Fangio was kidnapped by the “26th of July” brigade and kept from entering the Grand Prix. He would be released 27 hours later in the hands of an Argentinean military attaché. The General’s planned party never took place. Instead it turned into a nightmare when the car race started amid delays and high tension. After five laps it was marred by the Testarossa number 54 driven by the Cuban Armando Garcia Cifuentes leaving the track hitting dozens of spectators standing across from the American Embassy. Seven died and 40 were injured. The red flag came out, the race was called over and the inglorious victory given to Stirling Moss who was in the lead at that moment.

It turned out to be a fateful day for everyone: Batista was exposed as a naked king no longer in control of his country; the kidnapping and return had taken place right in front of his police force, with not a drop of blood shed. Only10 months later on New Year’s Eve, El General fled Havana in a rush on his way to Santo Domingo, still in his dinner jacket. It was a triumph for the July 26 brigade, who made front pages of newspapers all over the world, thereby launching the revolutionary movement beyond the reach of state censorship. Fangio too that night had an encounter with destiny. At the venerable age of forty-seven he had reached the top of his career, winning 5 world championships in the previous 7 years, and was an idol to hordes of adoring fans all over the world. He never admitted how deeply that nighttime race to safety had weighed on him but the facts speak for themselves: El Maestro never won another race after that day, and 5 months later retired from the sport for good.

Manuel Nuñéz is one of the two men from the July 26 movement who fifty-three years ago entered the lobby of the Lincoln Hotel to do the deed. He had a Thompson 45 machine gun concealed under his arm. I met him in Viñales, where he returned at the end of the revolution to farm the land and cultivate the memories of those tumultuous years. He recalls with detachment the four times he was arrested and the police torture he underwent. He tells of his mother’s state of mind, consumed by the pain caused by his persecution. He remembers the events in detail. We sat across a table in the local section of Combatientes de la Revolución (Revolution’s Fighters).“We had been following Fangio for days wherever he went, from his arrival at the airport Friday February 21st to the press conference at the Hotel Nacional on Saturday, then Sunday the 23rd when we had planned to kidnap him during the competition trials. For one reason or another we had not been able to do it.

Faustino Perez, the citizen leader of the “26th of July” Brigades was so anxious that he announced to our group leader Oscar Lucero, ‘If you don’t do it right away, I will have to take action myself!’ That night we decided to act.”

Fangio had come down that Sunday night from his room – 810, which today is a mausoleum to the champion’s memory, full of objects and emotional significance for anyone who wants to reserve it for the night – to dine with few friends, and with Maserati’s sport director Nello Ugolini, who was following Fangio even though the company had just announced it was withdrawing from competitive racing, and the mechanic Guerino Bertocchi who had just finished repairing his 450S. The car had stability problems ever since the American Gregory had flipped it over during the Venezuela GP. In the hotel’s foyer Fangio was approached by Manolo Uziel who ordered him at gunpoint to follow him. “He was a mountain of a man with the courage of a lion,” Nuñéz remembers, “I was covering the exit. Outside we had 3 cars parked and there were another 6 of us, each protecting the other’s back.” The Argentine driver Alejandro de Tomaso was near the action and tried to grab an ashtray, but Uziel warned, “Nobody move or I’ll shoot.” “We left, 2 in front, and me in the back. We led Fangio to a black Plymouth that drove him away. Our orders were to die first before touching a hair on the champion’s head.”

Fangio had no idea what was behind it all; he thought he had been kidnapped for ransom. It did not help clarify matters when Uziel insisted on stopping at home during the mission just so he could show off the champion to his wife and get an autograph – an unacceptable risk for an underground militant. They resumed their nighttime flight changing cars and stopping at an apartment in the urban section of Vedalo. where the twenty-six year-old Angel Vila, was waiting for them. Vila today is an handsome man of 79, with a sharp taste for telling old stories. Back in 1953 he was a medical student enrolled nowhere because Batista had shut down the university 3 years earlier out of fear of student protests. Vila had gone underground after his third arrest, printing propaganda for the movement. It was his duty to take Fangio on the last leg of his kidnapping, and he drove him nervously in his Chevrolet. Years later Fangio was speaking of him when he was quoted saying: “They were real gentleman those kidnappers, but they were the worst drivers.” According to Vila, “Fangio became visibly calmer as time went on and as he realized that for the mission to succeed no harm should come to him. He was curious about the movement and wanted to know more about what went on in Cuba under Batista’s dictatorship. He spoke a lot with his kidnappers in the third and last house where he was taken, a small two-floor house in the Nuovo Vedado where a widow of a militant lived with her two daughters. He spent the night there. Faustino Perez came the morning after to officially apologize in the name of the movement and to invite him to return to Cuba after the revolution triumphed.

It was there that Fangio heard how the race went and about the tragic accident, which prompted him to see the bright side of his condition: ‘Maybe you saved me from a worse fate,’ he confided in his kidnappers.” The Stockholm syndrome has been cited to explain the bond that formed between the hostage and the kidnappers that night but Vila rules the theory out emphatically, “First of all it was not a kidnapping but a patriotic detention. Fangio opened his eyes and understood: until that day he had never had a political conscience and he was impressed by our struggle.” Whatever his motives, when he was released at midnight he greeted the Argentine dignitary by saying, “Allow me to introduce you to my friends the kidnappers.” And later on he stubbornly refused to name them in identity photos the police would show him. The friendship was to last for decades, until Fangio died in ’95: the “detainers” visited him in his house in Argentina more than once and “El Maestro” himself returned to Havana in 1981, this time as president and representative of Mercedes in South America. He had been invited to Cuba to negotiate a sale of trucks with Perez who had become Minister of Foreign Trade. Perez deemed the terms unfavorable for his country and did not sign the contract.

The Gran Prix season lasted 2 more years in Havana after the advent of the revolution before being abandoned. Ever since race -ars have been a myth of the past. Automobile clubs are still illegal except for the cultural association called “Friends of Fangio,” which arranged for the Maserati’s return to the Malecon.The urge to race is limited to a few nighttime clandestine runs of old Ladas and Polish Fiat 126’s in the Parque Lenin, or to the bravado of budding impresarios who are trying to organize quarter mile drag competitions on a shoulder road of a canal at the Hemingway Marina. Gas is a precious resource – the government gets it from Venezuela in exchange for doctors trained at Cuba’s acclaimed schools. Owning a car is a privilege and only a few music or sports stars can afford to drive around in contemporary Audi, BMW or Mercedes. But no one has forgotten. All it takes is the sudden appearance of a Gran Cabrioto bring out the fans shouting “Maserati, Italia, Fangio!”
December 2011

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