HERITAGE Only the Brave - A Twisting History of the Carrera Panamericana

10 min

Once upon a time in Mexico…

Carrera Panamericana 2020 - Morelia to Guanajuato

Once upon a time in Mexico…

The year is 1950. But the sun glancing off saguaros and chrome, warping the winding tarmac before you? That’s timeless. The only sound is the roar of engines. Welcome to the first ever Carrera Panamericana: five days of gruelling heat, wild conditions, and hairpin turns between the Texas border and the southernmost point of Mexico.

This isn’t just the open road – it’s a new road full of promise, a Panamerican Highway to link north and south. A swathe of barely-touched terrain stretching nearly 2500 miles. Ahead bridges weakened by storms, deadly ravines and overheating engines. Your mission? Not just to win, but to survive, the most dangerous race in the world…

The Carrera Panamericana is born…

Beginning in 1950 as a nine-stage race across the country, the ‘Pan-Am’ was organised by the Mexican government to celebrate the opening of its new highway. With 132 entries of both amateur and professional racers from around the world, nearly every motor sport was represented: from Formula One to rally, stock and Indy cars as well as endurance and drag racers (and, unusually for its time, nine intrepid female drivers). 

The very first winner, Herschel McGriff, drove an Oldsmobile 88 at an average of (appropriately) 88 mph. While less powerful than many of its competitors, the car was lighter and more agile on the steep and twisting course. McGriff’s final miles were still engulfed in a cloud of thick black smoke, however, as the Oldsmobile clattered noisily to the finish line minus an oil tank. Even in this first year the race set its lethal reputation, with four dramatic fatalities including one spectator.

Treacherous Terrain…

From ‘51-’54, the Pan-Am would become one of the most famous races of all time – and the bloodiest. In 1951, the Mexican press declared its daredevilry a ‘crime’; but even this didn’t deter many of the world’s greatest drivers, who flocked from far and wide to take part. Sports and Stock car classes were created, to level the playing field between the cumbersome American sedans and nimble European Sports cars. 

In fact, Mercedes-Benz sent a specially-designed team of drivers, mechanics and 300SLs to compete in 1952; in the now infamous event, Mercedes drivers Kling and Hans Klenk collided with a vulture at 120 mph, shattering their windscreen and knocking the navigator unconscious. But not even avian peril could break their stride. They sped on – covered in blood and broken glass – to the next tire change, 43 miles ahead. 

 

Umberto Maglioli during the Carrera Panamericana

By 1954, the race had become much more professional, and the winning driver Umberto Maglioli averaged a speed of 138 mph in a Ferrari 375 Plus. But after 27 deaths over its tumultuous four-year history, and greater concerns about safety in the wake of the disaster at Le Mans, the Pan-Am was cancelled in 1955. The early fifties had seen incredible technical transformation in racing, with speeds almost doubling as a result; but safety measures had failed to evolve at the same pace. 

Jack Heuer’s Moment of Inspiration…

In 1963, several years after the Pan Am had been put ‘on ice’, Jack Heuer heard about the race from two Mexican drivers during the 12 hours of Sebring. Their tales of adventure, heroics, and daring sparked a fire in Jack’s imagination – which would lead not only to the very first chronograph designed specifically for professional drivers, but to TAG Heuer’s now-famous collection. The TAG Heuer Carrera rapidly became an iconic symbol of sportsmanship and thirst for adventure: the true spirit of the Panamericana race.  

Eager to learn more about the design, complications, and extraordinary history of the collection? Check out our FAQ, ‘Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the TAG Heuer Carrera’ here

The PanAm is Reborn…

In 1988, a group of Mexican and American racing-enthusiasts revived the Pan Am as a pro-rally or ‘stage-rally’, with a route similar to the first course – allowing amateur and pro drivers to experience the thrills and challenges of the original race, if in a slightly less bloodthirsty manner. Almost any car with a classic shell was eligible, and most entries are now 1950s and ’60s American stock cars; but despite their vintage exterior, they usually conceal engines similar to modern NASCAR entries, with purpose-built tuned V8 engines. 

Along with this new engineering, there are now some safety restrictions in place.  A speed limit of 144 mph is enforced, and each navigator is given a route book and maps – including detailed instructions for the entire race. Every turn is rated according to difficulty, and warnings are included about dangerous conditions (though the occasional thrill-seeking armadillo may still wander unwittingly into traffic).  In a rally race, it’s important for drivers to measure their time carefully during each stage, to avoid incurring penalties – without exceeding the speed limit of course! 

 

 

Carrera Panamericana Arrival

But even with these new guidelines, the Panamericana remains a true high-speed race, mountainous and often treacherous, a course unlike any other modern recreation – most of which have changed beyond recognition. What’s more? Since 1991, TAG Heuer has been an official partner of the Panamericana, which is one of the few contemporary races open to the public. Spectators can catch the race from anywhere they like along the course, even on the side of the road! If you attend the race today, you’re free to chat with the drivers, and even get your bare hands on the cars themselves, without paying a penny.

The Carrera Spirit…

So let your imagination wander back in time once more: at last, the finish line in sight, the promise of cool water, soft beds and sweet tequila hovers before you like a mirage. Some drivers were lost, true sportsmen (and women), with an unwavering desire for adventure and for gold, who swore to ‘win or die trying’. Many have scraped through to survival after colliding with wildlife, ravines, or lethal grit, and are limping toward the finish. And as all that fades into the distance behind you, the final metres open ahead in a haze of adrenaline and speed. It’s here that the spirit of the Carrera Panamericana lives and breathes. Born out of five long days of blood, sweat, and tears, yes. But it’s in these final moments,  the last 100m of the 3,507km journey, that winners emerge. In the fragment of a second, when only the brave turn dreams into victory. 

 

Hilaire & Laura Damiron, 2016 Carrera Panamericana winners

Ready to meet the bravest of the brave (not to mention victorious)? We’re sitting down with two Carrera Panamericana Champions, sponsored by TAG Heuer, in the coming weeks to discuss the very gritty details of rally racing, how to keep love alive, and what it’s like to reach for victory on the hallowed Carrera course.  

 

The TAG Heuer Carrera is Jack Heuer's proudest creation, a name inspired by the legendary Carrera Panamericana race

TAG Heuer Carrera Sport Chronograph 44mm, Calibre Heuer 02 Automatic, Ref. CBN2A10.BA0643

In 1962, CEO of TAG Heuer at the time Jack Heuer heard the story of the legendary Carrera Panamericana race. The word “Carrera”, Spanish for “road”, “race”, “career” and “course”, caught his attention, and he knew immediately that it would be a perfect name for a new timepiece.

Discover the redesigned TAG Heuer Carrera models that are powered by the sophisticated in-house Calibre Heuer 02 movement.