The Kidnapping of Fangio
In 1958, a kidnapping incident occurred near the end of Juan Manuel Fangio’s storied racing career. Fangio, a five-time Formula One World Champion, was taken from his Havana hotel by a group of Fidel Castro’s rebels the day before the non-championship Cuban Grand Prix, an event intended to showcase the island nation. He was released unharmed several hours after the race.
The kidnapping was intended to bring international embarrassment to corrupt Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, whose government Castro was set to overthrow on January 1, 1959. Batista had established the Cuban Grand Prix in 1957, intending to add legitimacy to his regime on the world stage. Fangio won the 1957 event, and had set fastest times during practice for the 1958 race.
On 23 February 1958, at 8:45 p.m. the evening before the Grand Prix, Fangio was standing in the crowded lobby with several associates from the Maserati team when a stranger approached holding a Colt .45 pistol. Two other armed gunmen were guarding the lobby doors. According to fellow driver Alessandro de Tomaso’s report to the police after the incident, this is what happened:
“Which one of you is Fangio?” the stranger asked.
“I am,” said the world champion driver. “What do you want?”
“Come with me,” the gunman said. “I’m from the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement. Don’t resist and you won’t be hurt.”
The gunman pushed his pistol into Fangio’s side, and the two began making their way toward the exit. The entire kidnapping took less than one minute to complete. Within minutes of Fangio’s removal, the Hotel Lincoln lobby was filled with police and army personnel. The revolutionaries almost immediately contacted the media, notifying them that they had kidnapped the great race driver in protest against the Cuban government using public funds to promote the race while many Cubans were unemployed and suffering.
The motive was simple: By capturing the biggest name in motorsport the rebels were showing up the government and attracting worldwide publicity to their cause. But despite the shocking news spreading across the globe, President Batista would not be outdone and ordered the race to continue as usual while a crack team of police hunted down the kidnappers. They set up roadblocks at intersections, and guards were assigned to private and commercial airports and to all competing drivers.
Fangio was taken to three separate houses. His captors allowed him to listen to the race via radio, bringing a television for him to witness reports of a disastrous crash after the race concluded. In the third house, Fangio was allowed his own bedroom but became convinced that a guard was standing outside of the bedroom door at all hours. The captors talked about their revolutionary programme which Fangio had not wished to speak about as he did not have an interest in politics. He later expressed sympathy for his captors:
"Well, this is one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it."
In addition to Fangio’s kidnapping, the Cuban Grand Prix was marred by tragedy when a Cuban driver named Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his car on an oil-slicked part of the street course and plowed into a crowd on onlookers. Seven people were killed and dozens more injured. The crash led to immediate speculation that Castro’s followers had sabotaged the course by coating it with oil; however, it was later shown that a broken oil line in a car driven by Argentina’s Roberto Mieres was the cause of the slick spot.
Fangio was released unharmed after 29 hours and he remained a good friend of his captors afterwards.
The captors motives were to force the cancellation of the race in an attempt to embarrass the Batista regime, and indeed it helped. Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries had turned a spotlight on the plight of the Cuban people and exposed Batista to the world. By handing Fangio over unharmed to the Argentine embassy soon after the race, many Cubans became convinced that Batista was losing his power because he had failed to track the rebels down. The Cuban Revolution concluded in January 1959, cancelling the 1959 Cuban Grand Prix.
Fangio received his $5,000 appearance money from the race organizers even though he did not compete.