60 years ago Juan Fangio was kidnapped by Fidel Castro’s rebels

60 years ago Juan Fangio was kidnapped by Fidel Castro’s rebelsHAVANA, Feb. 22th HAVANA in February 1958 had attracted some of the best motor racing talent in the world. Among them was current world champion and winner of the 1957 Cuban Grand Prix, Argentine racer Juan Fangio.

Fangio was staying at the grand old Hotel Lincoln in Havana and had arranged to meet at the hotel bar, a group of friends who were all part of the race.

As they chatted in the foyer a man in a leather jacket approached and menaced them with an automatic pistol. “Don’t move or I will kill you all,” he told them. Once it had been established that this was no hoax, the gunman summoned accomplices who escorted Fangio to a black car parked outside.

60 years ago Juan Fangio was kidnapped by Fidel Castro’s rebels

Legendary racing car driver Juan Manuel Fangio,  Fulgencio Batista, ruler of Cuba.

Sixty years ago today the champion driver became a pawn in a power play between rebels and Cuba’s dictatorial president Fulgencio Batista. It was one of the strangest incidents in the history of motor racing.                       

Through much of the 1950s, Cuba had been a glamorous tourist destination, attracting the powerful, rich and famous. This was mostly thanks to the corrupt regime of Batista, who had ruled the nation since his coup ousted the government of Gerardo Machado in 1933.

At first Batista installed puppet leaders but emerged from the shadows to take the role of president in 1940. He stepped down briefly in 1944 but ran for president again in 1952 and staged another coup when it looked like he might not win the election.

But when a small group of revolutionaries led by a former lawyer turned rebel named Fidel Castro, tried to topple Batista on July 26, 1953, they were either captured or fled. Batista used the failed revolt as an excuse to tighten controls over his people.60 years ago Juan Fangio was kidnapped by Fidel Castro’s rebels

Cuba soon became a haven for organised crime as Batista grew rich from the kickbacks he received from gangsters for setting up casinos and brothels in Cuba.

Batista released Castro in 1955, the rebel left the country but returned in 1956, setting up bases in the mountains to wage a guerrilla war against Batista. Eager to show that things were normal in Cuba, and to continue to draw the tourists, Batista organised major events to be held in Havana, including the 1957 Grand Prix.

The race, a first ever for Cuba, was run along the scenic harbourside esplanade known as the Malecon, was won by Fangio in a tense showdown with Spaniard Alfonso de Portago. By all accounts it was a huge success, drawing Hollywood stars and the world’s media to this exotic setting.

Batista was determined to repeat that success in 1958 when the race was staged again. But Castro, keen to raise awareness of the Cubans’ struggle against Batista, kidnapped the star of the race.

The task of slipping through Batista’s security and capturing Fangio was given to Oscar Lucero Moya, who had been running covert operations in Havana. On February 23, 1958, he successfully cornered Fangio as he chatted with his friend and fellow competitor Alejandro de Tomaso and several others in the foyer of the Hotel Lincoln.

Moya apologised to Fangio for the kidnapping and assured him that he would not be hurt. He was hustled to a waiting car and taken to a secret location, before being moved. Fangio wrote a note telling people he was alive and the rebels then informed the world’s media about what they had done.

60 years ago Juan Fangio was kidnapped by Fidel Castro’s rebelsCarroll Shelby, the legendary race driver and Shelby Cobra sports car designer, sits in his Ferrari ahead of a time trial for the Cuban Grand Prix in 1958. Picture: AP

When news broke of the kidnapping, a severely embarrassed Batista vowed to find the snatched race driver and punish the perpetrators, but failed to do so.

The decision was made to go ahead with the race on February 25, but the start was delayed 90 minutes in the hope that Fangio’s captors might release him or Batista’s men might finally track him down.

In the absence of Fangio, his racing team made the decision to allow Maurice Trintignant to drive Fangio’s Maserati. The race was stopped after Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his car and ploughed into spectators, killing seven people. British driver Stirling Moss, who had dominated the race up to that point, was declared the winner.60 years ago Juan Fangio was kidnapped by Fidel Castro’s rebels

Close to midnight after the race, Fangio was dropped off near the Argentine embassy. But the kidnappers got away.

While the media had little sympathy for rebels who would grab an innocent celebrity for their political purposes, Fangio was kinder to his captors. He said: “It was just one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.”

Fangio retired from racing later that year and became a Mercedes Benz salesman, visiting Cuba in 1981 to sell trucks to their army.

The Cuban Grand Prix was cancelled in 1959 after Castro ousted Batista in January of that year, but a “Freedom Grand Prix” was held before a much smaller crowd in 1960 and was won again by Moss.