The history of cars can veer into some very weird territory. For instance, it was 59 years ago today that Cuban communist rebels associated with Fidel Castro kidnapped one of the greatest Formula One racers of all time to try and stop a race.
Most of us don’t remember a time when the Castros didn’t rule Cuba. Before the Communist rebels seized power, Cuba was governed by a US-backed dictator – President Fulgencio Batista. A year before rebels would finally oust Batista, he hosted the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix on February 23. Fighting between the Batista regime and communist rebels was intense at this time, but Batista pushed for the race to stay on schedule to maintain the image of Cuba as a playground for the rich.
The race itself was a disaster. A driver was killed in a crash during pre-race rounds. The race started an hour and a half late, and then Grand Prix drivers only made it six laps before a Ferrari ran off course, killing seven spectators. One person who wasn’t on the track was the previous year’s reigning champ and one of the top Formula One drivers of all time. Where was the Argentine driver Juan Manuel Fangio?
The night before the race, armed men associated with Castro’s 26th of July movement abducted Fangio from his hotel room. The Communist rebels hoped that by kidnapping the biggest name in racing they could draw international attention to their movement. Fangio spent 29 hours as a captive. During his time with the rebels, they allowed him to listen to the race on the radio and then watch the aftermath of the crash on television. Fangio developed a case of Stockholm Syndrome and decided that, although he didn’t care about politics, the guys with the guns and communist literature weren’t so bad after all. The men eventually dropped Fangio off at the Argentine embassy and he remained lifelong friends with his former captors.
While the kidnapping didn’t derail the 1958 Grand Prix, the rebels’ plan did work in a way. To the Cuban people, Batista’s failure to track down the kidnappers was a sign his grip on power was slipping. There would not be a 1959 Grand Prix. By that year, Batista was gone, and a new socialist government was in control of the island. Fangio went on to set multiple records in Formula One racing, and remains to this day the driver with the highest percentage of wins in the sport.