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The Formula 1 Champion Kidnapped by Cuban Revolutionaries

The 1958 Cuban Grand Prix was marred by tragedy on the track and political maneuvrings off it. This is how the most famous driver of the time became embroiled in the country's revolution.
May 12, 2015, 1:05pm
Photo by PA Images

Seven people were killed during the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix when a competitor lost control of his car and crashed into a crowd of spectators. Dozens more were injured and the race was called off, though the driver survived. A few days earlier a fellow competitor had not been so lucky: Diego Veguillas lost his life in a pre-race practice session when he crashed and his car burst into flames.

But the loss of life that took place in Havana that February weekend is not the reason for the event's enduring place in history. The real headlines were made off the track when a small band of revolutionaries kidnapped the most famous driver of the day.

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A Cuban Grand Prix during the late '50s matches Formula 1's penchant for travelling to locations other sports would not dare (see also Apartheid South Africa and Bahrain amidst its early 21st century uprising). The country was beset by unrest as Fidel Castro's July 26th Movement looked to wrestle power from President Fulgencio Batista, who ruled a violent and repressive dictatorship that had killed thousands of its own citizens.

Batista knew that such internal repression required external displays of normality. So in February 1957 his government organized a non-championship Formula 1 race in Havana aimed at boosting tourism and portraying a sense of order to the world. Though not an official round of the F1 calendar, it did attract some of the sport's most famous drivers, who were tempted to compete by a lucrative prize-pot and the chance to spend a few days enjoying the Havana nightlife. The circuit was impressive too, taking a scenic route along the city's Malecón Avenue waterfront.

The Havana waterfront in January 1958, one month before that year's race | Photo by PA Images

The inaugural race was won by the sport's biggest star, reigning four-time world champion Juan-Manuel Fangio, and deemed enough of a success that a second edition was planned for the following year.

So, in February 1958, Fangio was back in Cuba to contest the country's second Grand Prix. The Argentine driver had secured a fifth world title in '57 and, though now heading towards retirement, remained the star attraction.

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But the race was very much a sideshow to the real story in Cuba at the time. 1958 was a pivotal year in the island nation's history. Batista had lost power within 12 months of the Grand Prix, driven into exile by Castro's revolutionary forces in January 1959. Fangio was to become an unwitting participant in this revolution.

On the track the champion topped practice and looked set to once again play a starring role. It was the ideal scenario for Batista: the biggest racing icon of the day taking center stage in a seemingly peaceful Cuba. This perception would be shattered on the eve of the race.

Like many of the drivers, Fangio was staying at the luxurious Hotel Lincoln during the event. On the Sunday night before the Grand Prix, he headed downstairs for dinner. Unbeknownst to him, a group of revolutionaries were dotted about the lobby awaiting his appearance. As he stepped in, Fangio was approached by a young man holding a pistol, who politely informed the Argentine that he was being kidnapped.

The man was a supporter of the July 26th Movement and part of a small group who had orchestrated the kidnapping to shift the headlines from sport to politics. Arnold Rodriguez Camps was among them. Speaking almost 40 years after the event in 1997, he explained the motives behind the kidnapping.

Posters advertising the 1957 (left) and 1958 (right) Cuban Grands Prix

"We had to do something to show the world we were serious about the revolution, and to ridicule Batista," recalled Camps. "But we also needed to show we were not the murdering thugs and bandits Batista kept saying we were. So we decided to have Fangio as our guest for 24 hours."

The group had three men stationed in the lobby awaiting Fangio and more outside in cars ready to make their escape. Camps believed that many of the hotel staff were also supporters of the revolutionary movement; they may have suspected something was afoot, but they weren't about to blow the group's cover.

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Having accosted Fangio the kidnappers drove him to a small suburban villa, explaining their political viewpoint during the journey. Having missed his dinner at the hotel, Fangio was invited down to share food with the house's owner, a woman who lived with her two adult daughters and their children; despite being a hostage, Fangio obligingly signed autographs.

"He didn't seem threatened. He seemed quite at home. He chatted to us all and we had a laugh," said Camps.

While Fangio might have been calm, news of his kidnapping had quickly spread and caused panic among the Cuban authorities. Camps, however, was not too concerned.

"We felt fairly safe. Batista was detested throughout Cuba, and we knew no one apart from police spies would give us away," he recalled. "The whole town was laughing at Batista's expense. For him it was a political defeat that would now echo around the world—which was exactly what we wanted."

The story became headline news in America and Europe; Cuban magazine Bohemia reported: "In Paris, London, New York, Rome, Buenos Aires and Mexico City the kidnapping was given significant [newspaper] space." Meanwhile the start of the Grand Prix was delayed in the hope of finding Fangio; eventually, on Batista's orders, the race went ahead without its star attraction.

But Batista's public relations nightmare was to worsen during the race. Britain's Stirling Moss led the early stages, but on lap six Cuban driver Armando Garcia Cifuentes hit an oil slick and crashed into the crowd, killing seven and injuring 40. Amid the air of paranoia, rumors soon circulated that the crash was the result of Castro-influenced sabotage, though more rational reports suggested that the oil was dropped by another car. Regardless of the cause, the accident resulted in tragedy. The race was halted with Moss declared the winner.

Fangio, meanwhile, was still at the villa. The kidnappers had never harboured any intention of harming him and were now negotiating his release to the Argentine ambassador in Havana. They elected to use the Argentine military attaché's house in an apartment block five miles away as a handover point. The ambassador agreed to go without police to ensure the kidnappers' safety.

"It was all quiet, but we motored past once just to be sure," Camps remembered. "We took the elevator to the ninth floor and found the door of the flat open. Juan Manuel was the first to speak. He introduced us as his new Cuban friends—I think he meant it."

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Camps gave the ambassador a letter apologizing for the trouble and calling Fangio an honorary member of the revolution. Then they left; no charges were ever brought against them for their actions.

"Fangio could have identified us and he could have revealed where we held him, but he never did. That says a lot about the man. I greatly admired him—what he stood for and the way he lived his life.

"Fangio and I became good friends in those 26 hours, and it was a friendship that lasted until the day he died. "

Surprisingly, the Cuban Grand Prix did not end following Castro's rise to power in January 1959. There was no race that year, but in 1960 the socialist government organised an event at the Camp Freedom airfield. Moss won again, but the death of Venezuela's Ettore Chimeri—who crashed through a barrier and plunged 150 feet into a ravine—significantly soured the event. International motorsport did not return to Cuba thereafter.

Fangio quit racing in 1958, though the kidnapping is unlikely to have had any bearing on this: his father was ill and he did not have a competitive car that year. He remained in touch with his kidnappers and later returned to Cuba to meet up with them—as well as Fidel Castro.

Fangio died in his native Buenos Aires in July 1995. He is still considered one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time, and undeniably the best of the sport's early period. Despite meeting in bizarre circumstances, his friendship with Camps endured. Following the revolution Camps became a trade minister in Castro's government and also worked in the foreign office. He died in Havana in 2011 at the age of 80.

Fangio's experience in Cuba would prove to be fairly harmless, though for Batista it caused huge international embarrassment. To call it a contributing factor to the revolution would be overstating its importance, but the events of February 1958 did form part of a broader narrative that eventually saw Castro claim power less than a year later. Unwittingly, one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century had become embroiled in one of its most famous political struggles.