30Nov P A N A M E R I C A N A
Words by Michael Taylor (@wordsbymt)
The thought today of suggesting fourteen countries bind together to build a 30,000km highway to link two continents together is just ridiculous.
It’s hard enough today to reach consensus with two countries, especially those not bound by an economic union.
To suggest that same road skate across frozen tundra and frozen seas, down over deserts, through jungles and up over high-mountain plateaus is simply ludicrous. And to suggest it all happen at the tail end of the biggest financial depression the world had ever seen would simply be laughable.
Yet it happened, all of it. And the Pan-American Highway (or the Vía Panamericana, if you’re on its southern end) is still there, from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska down to either Quellon in Chile or Ushuaia in Argentina, depending on whose argument you prefer. It links the southern end of South America, close to the nearest continental point to Antarctica, with the Arctic expanses of Canada and Alaska.
It’s an adventure in driving like no other in the world and all it takes is patience and a lot of fuel and time.
As with all roads, there’s a record. The fastest recorded time has been 24 days and a Mexican cyclist even whipped over it in 117 days, but most people take a year or even two years to take it all in.
The idea stretches right back to 1889 and the basic route was penciled in before 1925. It was old before it was new.
Nothing specific was done in Canada or the United States. After all, their roads were already built.
But the Latin American states saw it as an opportunity to link themselves with the richer countries to the north and took to it with enthusiasm.
And then, eventually, the US followed suit in 1966 by designating the entire Interstate highway system as part of the Pan-American Highway, so it could now be stretched out as long as 48,000km, with diversions to any city in the US.
The first to finish their section of the Panamericana Highway was Mexico and they celebrated with a road race the likes of which the world has never quite seen since, nor fully recovered from.
The Carrera Panamericana ran for five years, grew quickly from being a race for five-seat cars to being an all-out sports car race. Its average speed boomed from just over 140km/h in its first year to more than 220km/h just five years later. Deaths rose along with the speed and it killed 27 people.
The first Carrera Panamericana ran from just below the Texan border at Ciudad Juarez to just north of the Guatemalan border and climbed from 100 metres above sea level to 3195 metres high.
Known as the deadliest race in the world – in an era of astonishingly deadly races like the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio – the five-day event was won by Hershel McGriff’s Oldsmobile.
In a mark of how much fame the race already delivered, the organisers bent the rules in 1951 so the already-famous Ferrari could join in with Piero Taruffi and Alberto Ascari. The two Formula One drivers duly went one and two in a pair of 212 Vignales.
It was Mercedes-Benz’s turn in 1952, with Karl Kling using pace notes to blow the Ferraris away in his 300 SL.
Even five-time F1 World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio got his name on the trophy in 1953 to win for Lancia, while Ferrari’s Umberto Maglioli won the last race in 1954. But the roads are still there and very little has changed, though everything has.
When a fleet of SLS Mercedes-AMGs re-covered the race route a decade ago they had to be accompanied by hard-driving Policia Federals in Dodge Chargers to ward off both drug warlords and any of the army roadblocks that became too enthusiastic about negotiating their “considerations” to proceed. And it was a serious business, with heavy .50 calibre machine guns dug in behind sand-bagged positions in road embankments and every soldier wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying both pistols and submachine guns.
The roads were still superb, though. Empty, heavily cambered, smooth and dancing along dangerous drops, the best of the highway began in the city of Oaxaca and blasted up to where the condors soar. But there’s much more to the Panamericana than Mexico and its deadly race.
There’s Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
Between them, the Panamericana nations gave the world 35 Formula One drivers, five World Champions (even if all of them are Fangio) and 47 Grand Prix wins. Argentina’s Carlos Reutemann came closest to making it six World Champions, finishing second in 1981. He also holds the distinction of scoring points in the F1 championship and the World Rally Championship.
One of the genuine beauties of the Panamericana is that everybody speaks Spanish south of the US border and very few places along the route are tourist traps.
The Pan-American Highway, as it’s known in English, is just the main vein of Central and South America and veering off onto its capillaries takes people to the really interesting, authentically local adventures.