Kidnap, race and death along the Malecon

2nd Grand Prix of CubaAlbarrojo finds himself amongst the crowds that have gathered along the Malecon to watch the second Cuban Grand Prix. Cuba is in the grip of uprising. Guerrillas of the Ejército Rebelde in the mountains of the East, now broadcasting with their newly founded Radio Rebelde. Urban insurgents of the Movimiento 26 de Julio in the cities, with hit and run actions, seeking to cause what disruption they can to Batista’s regime, which responds with brutal inefficiency while seeking to show the world that business continues in Cuba as usual.

Juan Manuel FangioIt is the afternoon of Monday, 24 February 1958, and many have left their workplaces to witness the excitement. All the more, because the news has spread around the city like wild fire of the events of the previous evening. Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentinean five-times world Formula 1 racing champion, has come to Havana to take part in the race. But while sitting with friends in the Hotel Lincoln, on the corner of Virtudes and Galeano not far from the Malecon, he was approached by a young man with a gun, a member of the 26th of July Movement.

They took him peacefully. Hid him in an insurgent’s house. Treated him well. And guaranteed that the race would not be a disguise concealing the truth from the world of what was happening on the island.

2nd Cuban Grand PrixBut the race has not been cancelled. Albarrojo pushes through the crowd, some say there are 150,000 there, and he can well believe it. All the way along the length of the Malecon and surrounding streets they are squashed as the cars line up for the start of the planned ninety laps of the circuit. Five-hundred kilometres. Thirty-two drivers from twelve countries, amongst them Stirling Moss, for the last three years finishing second in the championship behind Fangio. But now with Fangio enjoying the rebels’ hospitality, Moss takes the lead.

By the US Embassy

By the US Embassy, shortly before the crash

Albarrojo has joined the crowds gathered under the watchful stare of the US Embassy, close to the memorial to the US sailors who died when the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbour in 1898, justifying the intervention of the North Americans in Cuba’s independence war. The Cuban driver, Alberto García Cifuentes, is in car number 54, a yellow and black Ferrari. With every lap around the three-and-a-half mile circuit, spilt oil on the turns is making the course lethal. It is just the sixth lap, and García Cifuentes changes gear on the oil slick on his return down Calzada, to take the tight corner back onto the Malecon. He loses control. His car shoots off the road and ploughs into the crowd. Albarrojo watches with horror as the bodies are thrown into the air, hears the shouts and screams. Panic sets in. People flee across the road ignoring the cars still racing, or run the other way to provide assistance. The police with typical brutal and misplaced abandon swing with their batons to try to control them.

The fatal crash

The fatal crash

The race is abandoned, after less than fifteen minutes. Six lie dead and more than thirty wounded, the Ferrari hidden by their bodies. García Cifuentes, himself lying critically injured in hospital, is charged with manslaughter. But no public, though much private, blame is thrown towards Batista’s brother-in-law, Brigadier General Roberto Fernández Miranda, head of the National Sports Commission, who allowed so many to be standing unprotected so close to the circuit.

Later that night, the rebels release Fangio into the care of his country’s embassy. Less than a year later, the same crowds will be welcoming the arrival in Havana of Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro, at the head of the rebel army celebrating the victory of Cuba’s revolution.


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