Grand Prix of Cuba

May 1998

I was leafing casually through a recent copy of the Porsche Magazine, Christophorus, (March 1998), when a number of splendid black and white photographs of road racing cars of the 50’s and 60’s caught my attention. Somehow it is appropriate that photographs of cars of that era be black and white; color would be totally superfluous, even distracting. Staring at the photographs I am immersed in the facial expressions of the drivers who betray, in their open face helmets with goggles, their intense concentration and total commitment to their work. Today’s closed-face helmets add a significant safety margin, but, alas, photographer and spectator alike are deprived of contact with the drivers. The cars featured in this story are early Porsches—RS Spyders, RSK’s, 550’s—driven by the likes of Ken Miles, Ricardo Rodriguez and Jo Bonnier.

The featured photographer is Tom Burnside, who traveled the road racing circuits from 1954 to 1968, capturing the essence of sports car racing in those early years after World War II. On page 36, I study Ricardo Rodriguez, caught by Burnside’s lens as Rodriguez leaps over the door into his Porsche 1600 RSK practicing the traditional Le Mans start in 1960 (“Drivers, on your mark!”). Rodriguez is wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt, goggles dangling around his neck, driving gloves without fingers (like today’s bicycling gloves), and—not to be missed above his penny loafers—his pants legs gathered up around his ankles under small belts, to keep his pant cuffs from interfering with the furious pedal work that lies ahead. I know Mexicans are very proud of their motherland, so Rodriguez uses electrical tape to write MEXICO in block letters on the faring behind his head restraint.

Then I glance over at page 37 and I can’t believe my eyes—a photograph of road racing cars in the 1960 Havana Grand Prix! It is obvious in the photograph that the race is being run on the wide-open spaces of a runway, and then I shudder as goose bumps course up and down my spine. I WAS THERE! It’s the first time I’ve seen a photograph of that event, which took place on the Columbia Military Airport in suburban Havana in early 1960.

I was born in Havana, and it so happened that we had our home on 21st Avenue, between 82nd and 84th streets. The military airport, which was the venue for this race, was at the south end of 84th street. Often times I would run up to the fence to see bombers, propeller fighters, venerable DC3’s and assorted aircraft warming their radial piston engines at the eastern end of the runway (visible as the far end in Burnside’s photograph). My favorite airplane was the Lockheed Super G Constellation, an early 50’s transatlantic carrier with its unmistakable triple vertical stabilizer, and four piston engines of 9,000 combined horsepower. Its crew would carefully warm one engine at a time, and I would wait patiently, staring through the cyclone fence at the monster about 200 yards away. The pilot would hold the brakes, rev up all that horsepower until the window glass on our houses shook, and then release the brakes, beginning the takeoff roll, headed to parts unknown. Like some annoying song that sticks in your head, the roar of those engines is still in my ears.

Back to the photographs. My father was at the track with me, and he claims that he helped keep lap times for one of the teams. I think it was for a team of privateers with a Mercedes sponsored by the Cuban cigarette makers, Trinidad y Hermanos (the MB factory teams had abandoned racing after Pierre LeVegh’s crash at Le Mans in ’55). I do remember that Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss were participants, and other stars of that era, like Masten Gregory.

As I stare at the photograph I recall the ripping sounds of small bore engines, straining at their redlines, the musical sequence of heel & toe downshifting and the pungent smells of racing oil, brake dust and racing fuels (which occupy a special place in my sense of smell, right next to cordite from antiaircraft shells and exploding bombs, but more on this later). I remember the spectator stands were provisional, made of wood, housing the makeshift pit area in front. Crowd control was evidently not terribly tight, what with next-to-nonexistent racing car restraints like a hay bale every twenty feet or so. But such was the innocence of that era: my Dad let me amble about at will, evidencing all confidence that I would be all right.

Oh, how I wish I could give you more details of how the race went. Neither my father nor I had the foresight to hang on to a race program. But how was I to know, at age 11, of the magnitude of the event before me? Here were gathered the world’s best (although I don’t think Juan Manuel Fangio, my idol, was there), dueling at 180 mph in their golf shirts and penny loafers, darting about on skinny Dunlops sans driver restraints.

As I look at the photograph, Tom Burnside suddenly becomes my hero, the only person who can bring back details of a memory that I’ve carefully nurtured since that early age. I become infatuated with the photograph—I must locate him. I decide to try for an email address, but fail to find one, so I get a phone number for him, and ever so cautiously ring him up. He answers. I can’t believe he answers his own phone! I introduce myself, and I tell him about the photograph and that I was there, thinking he’ll say, “Yeah, so what, I know many people who were there, big deal.” But instead he says, “You’re the first person who has contacted me who says he was there!” and, much to my relief, he actually sounds like he’ll take a few minutes to talk.

Burnside remembers that Stirling Moss drove a birdcage Maser (number 7, I remember distinctly). He also knows that a couple of XKSS Jags were entered, and that one of them was just repatriated from Cuba to the US for some astronomical sum. He also tells me about the time in ’57 when he was in Havana for the Gran Premio, staying at the El Presidente hotel where he received a visit at 3:00 am from Castro’s representatives, who take him back to their lair and yadayadah (that’s Burnside’s story to tell). At the airport, the race was run clockwise using the runway that is just visible and then turning in to the right to use some of the service roads. By comparison, other GP’s in Cuba had been run (in ’57 and ’58) on the seaside boulevard called El Malecon (shades of Monaco), but the 1960 race may be the only one in Cuba with a runway as a venue.

I will make it my business to find out more about this race, and post my findings. There is one more personal detail that I recall: as the featured race ended and the crowds were exiting, I remember gathering a few of my friends and stuffing paper wads in the tail pipes of spectator cars parked all around our neighborhood. We then watched with glee as the wads rocketed out of the tail pipes when the engines were turned on.

One year later, on Saturday April 15, 1961, at 6:00 am, the thunder of low flying airplanes shook the house. But accustomed as we were to airplanes overhead, this was different: there was more than one, and their approach to the airport was not supposed to be over our house, and they are coming in TOO LOW! Then all hell breaks loose as these airplanes begin strafing the military airport and Castro’s Czechoslovakian 4-barrelled antiaircraft batteries reply in kind. The ground leaps as bombs hit their targets. I grab my baby sister out of her bed and our family runs screaming into the dining room, sliding under the dining room table, everyone praying loudly for God to spare us and literally feeling every bomb hit through the cold hard, tile floor. I have never before or since been so afraid for my life. We expect a bomb to hit our house any second as the bombers (CIA-supplied B-26’s of the anti-Castro assault force of Alpha 66) make their runs at their targets.

Twenty minutes later the bombers leave, but they have decimated the airport. The ordnance, which had been trucked in to the air base only a week earlier, is now exploding at will. We run to the car, in our sleep wear, not stopping for anything. We drive away to my mother’s cousin in the western suburbs of Miramar.

Two days later, 1,500 men make shore in a crocodile infested swamp known to the rest of the world as: the Bay of Pigs.

Luis A. Martinez
Pittsford, New York
Veloz36@rochester.rr.com
phone: 585-766-9536

Tom Burnside’s photo book, with text by Denise McCluggage, is “American Racing: Road Racing in the ‘50s and ‘60s”. Available from Tom Burnside Motorsport Archive, 48 Solar Park, Pawlet, Vermont, 05761-0158, or email him at: tbside@earthlink.net

Image courtesy of www.vintageposters.com