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Monday March 10, 1958
As the world's No. 1 road-racing driver, Juan Manuel Fangio is an old friend to danger. The 46-year-old Argentine has seen its blurred face in the swirling landscape of a hundred tracks, known its angry snarl whenever his sports car skidded through a tight turn. But one evening last week he stared at danger in a new form: the muzzle of a pistol. Poking the weapon at him in the lobby of Havana's Hotel Lincoln was a tall young man in a leather jacket. "Fangio, you must come with me," he ordered. "I am a member of the 26th of July revolutionary movement." One of Fangio's friends picked up a paperweight and cocked his arm. The pistol moved alertly. "Stay still!" its owner said. "If you move, I'll shoot." Fangio went obediently to a waiting car and was whisked off.
In town to race in the Gran Premio de Cuba, Fangio was himself the prize of no ordinary kidnapers. His captors rushed to tell the world who they were, as they launched a week of revolutionary sabotage right in President Fulgencio Batista's front yard (see HEMISPHERE). No sooner had they hidden the racing ace than they were bragging to the newspapers: If President Batista wanted to hustle up the tourist trade with a big sports-car race next day, he would do it without Argentina's defending champion.
Steak & Fear. Fidel Castro's rebels embarrassed the authorities, but the race went on. Next afternoon the cars were ready, the Malecon that curves along Havana's lovely coastline had been cleared. A crowd of 150,000 lined the broad boulevard. The Cuban National Sports Commission delayed the race for more than an hour while local cops ran down false rumors of Fangio's release. Then France's Maurice Trintignant slid into Fangio's empty seat in a blue Maserati, and the big buckets of power were sent careening around the 3½-mile course.
Fangio, meanwhile, was under guard in a comfortably furnished apartment. He had eaten well (steak and potatoes, chicken and rice), and he had slept "like a blessed one." Faustino Perez, Castro's second in command, had come personally to apologize for the inconvenience. The rebels even supplied a radio so that Fangio might listen to the race. But he preferred not to. "I became a little sentimental," he said. "I did not want to listen because I felt nostalgic." Yet Fangio was also fearful that his life was endangered, not by his abductors but by a clash that might come at any moment between them and the police.
Turn to Trouble. On the Malecón, the danger more familiar to Fangio began to haunt his fellow racers as they whirled into the long (315 miles) grind. Britain's Stirling Moss took the lead in a Ferrari, Missourian Masten Gregory, driving another Ferrari, was second. Fangio's Maserati, in Trintignant's hands, fell far back to 13th place. By the end of five laps, all the drivers saw that almost every turn was slick with spilled oil; they knew that they were in for trouble.
Next time around, Cuba's Armando Garcia Cifuentes, 27, met trouble headon. His bright yellow-and-black Ferrari skidded out of a shallow turn and tore into the crowd. It spewed up at least 40 casualties, including seven dead. In its wake lay empty shoes; spectators had been knocked right out of them. Said Porsche Driver Ulf Noriden, who stopped his car and ran back to help: "I couldn't even see the Ferrari. The bodies were piled all over. I was wading in arms and legs." Panicky survivors swarmed across the Malecón, careless of the still racing cars, and police swung their billies to keep the mob in check. Just 15 minutes after it started, the race was called off. Stirling Moss, who held the lead, was declared winner.
After that, Fangio had no trouble talking his captors into turning him over to the Argentine embassy. "Well," he philosophized, "this is one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it."
Person or Persons. Satisfied that the oil slick was not rebel sabotage, the authorities placed all the blame for the accident on Driver Cifuentes, who was barely alive in a hospital. He was charged with manslaughter. Criminal charges were also filed against the "person or persons unknown" who kidnaped Fangio. No one found it worthwhile to criticize the "person or persons who" permitted the crowd to line the trackside, i.e., the National Sports Commission, headed by Brigadier General Roberto Fernandez Miranda, who is President Batista's brother-in-law.
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