With the new Porsche Panamera on its namesake: Mexico’s La Carrera Panamericana. I covered one tiny section of what is widely regarded as the most grueling road race on earth.
Is there a better way to celebrate the opening of a new road than with a road race? Especially when the piece of tarmac is as iconic as the Panamerican Highway. In May 1950 the Mexican government commissioned one of the most famous auto racing events in the world. And the most dangerous: La Carrera Mexicana. 27 people died between 1950 and 1955. Only one third of all the cars ever entered, finished.
At the time it was one leg of the world’s sports car championship series. After the Mille Miglia, the Targa Floria and the 24 hours of Le Mans. 3114 kilometers of Mexican highways. From Tuxtla to Juarez. From tropical climate with high and humid temperatures at sea level, to 3000 meter high mountains. From 34 to only a couple of degrees above freezing. All in 72 hours.
An American by the name of Hershel McGriff won the very first La Carrera Panamericana in 1950, in his Oldsmobile 88. He averaged 125 km/h. The following year Piero Taruffi and Alberto Ascari won in their Ferrari 212s. By 1952, the annual event had been placed on the international racing calendar and had captured the attention of some very fast manufactures, including Mercedes-Benz. They sent their successful new 300 SL sports racers to Mexico for their final racing appearance.
And 1952 was also the year Porsche made its first appearance in Mexico, with two race-tuned versions of the 90 hp Super 1500 engines. One was a Coupé, the other one a special limited production 356 American cabriolet with aluminum body. A first hint, that a Speedster would soon be on the cards. It was also the first Porsche ever, equipped with a synchronized gearbox. However Mercedes dominated the race.
In 1953 there was a major rule change, helping Porsche's race effort. The organizers created two classes. One for stock and one for sports cars, based on horsepower. Thus creating a more level playing field.
By now the Porsche company was not even five years old and busy building a race reputation. It had won its class at both Le Mans and the Millie Miglia in 1952. Now there were ten Porsches (out of 15 cars in that class) entered to race in the La Carrera Mexicana. Driven by some of the greatest international drivers in the world. Due to the gruelling conditions, by the end of the second leg of the race only seven cars were left to compete. Six of them Porsches. The only non-Porsche was another German car, a Borgward, which was absolutely dominating the race. The Borgward had such a huge lead over the Porsches, that when his engine began cutting out, the driver just pulled over and leisurely changed his spark plugs. But his problem persisted.
He still wanted to win and pushed too hard. Finally running on only three cylinders, with significantly reduced speed. He arrived third at the finishing line in Juarez and thought he had built up more than enough time to win. But he forgot about the maximum allowable time for the 222-mile leg of the race, which had been set at three hours. He had finished seven seconds over the limit - and was disqualified. Resulting in one of the biggest wins in Porsche's racing history. Imagine if he would have changed his spark plugs eight seconds faster, Borgward might still be around today with a sporty Borgward Carrera. With another great win in 1954 Porsche knew it had finally earned its reputation. A little more than a year later, they launched the 356 A – the first Carrera. Commemorating the brand’s successive triumphs in the Carrera Panamericana. The name stuck, when the 911 was born in 1963.
The golden era of motor sport had ended earlier. After the deadly crash during the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1955, when 83 spectators and one driver were killed. Mexico cancelled the La Carrera immediately.
The race was reinstated 34 years later in 1988. And it is running ever since. Each year in October. Still over those highly abrasive roads, paved with a mixture of volcanic ash, that cuts even perfectly new tyres. In 2016 18 of the 71 cars entered, were Porsches.
And now I am sitting in one. The brand-new Panamera. A four-door sedan, which is still a real sports car. Something I found out a couple of months earlier in the Bavarian Alps, were it was initially launched. I am confident, that on those narrow, windy Mexican country roads the mortality rate in this new Porsche is considerably lower than in its iconic predecessors. Even at high speeds.
The name Panamera derives from the famous race as well, just like Carrera. It rolls easily of the tongue. Let’s quickly check how the competition named their rides. There is Bentley’s Flying Spur, but in a race the last thing you want is anything flying around. What about the Italians? Maserati Quattroporte sounds at first like a very well-packed pizza. Translated it simply means four-door. Imagine the guys from Zuffenhausen would have gone the same way. Porsche Viertürer? With the umlaut it’s even more awkward to pronounce than Porsche-Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK). I am glad they named it the Panamera. And after driving it on its namesake, another item manifested itself onto my personal bucket list. Taking part in the La Carrera Mexicana in a vintage Porsche. Anyone keen?
Porsche Panamera 4s/Turbo
Engine 3.0-l./4.0-l. V6/V8 bi-turbo, paired with the 8-speed auto PDK (Porsche dual-clutch transmission)
Power 324/404kW and 550/770Nm
Top Speed 289/306 km/h
0-100km/h 4.2/3.6 seconds
Price R1 614 000/R2.491 000.