WALTZ: Held Hostage In Cuba

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HARRISBURG, N.C. — Sixty-two years ago this month, one of the most unusual events in auto-racing history took place when the battle for the World Driving Championship visited the island nation of Cuba.

The amazing story was reported in the pages of National Speed Sport News and here’s a look into the archives at how things reportedly unfolded.

Men identified as “rebel gunmen” kidnapped five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio on the eve of the 1958 Grand Prix of Cuba.

Fangio told the United Press he was abducted from the lobby of Havana’s Lincoln Hotel on Sunday evening, Feb. 23, and was shuttled among three luxury apartments in suburban Vedado during the nearly 27 hours he spent in custody of the kidnappers.

“My captors were apologetic and respectful,” Fangio reported. “They kept saying, ‘We are sorry to do this but it is Juan Manuel Fangio necessary to our cause.’

“They gave me a room to myself, although I suppose there was a guard outside and I slept from midnight until about eight. They served me coffee in bed when I awoke and later on brought in a complete breakfast.

“The facilities were as good as my suite at the hotel.”

It was later learned the kidnappers were members of the 26th of July Movement and followers of Fidel Castro, who was attempting to overthrow the Cuban government and its U.S.-backed president, Fulgencio Batista. The kidnappers wanted to embarrass government officials by preventing Fangio from defending his title in the Grand Prix of Cuba, an event that focused worldwide attention on the nation.

“They offered me a portable radio to listen to the grand prix, but I turned it down,” Fangio said. “However, when they told me there had been an accident, I went into another room to watch it on TV. It was terrible.”

The race, run on a street circuit in Havana, came to a tragic halt just five laps after it started when the yellow-and-black Ferrari driven by Armando Garcia Cifuentes hit oil on the track, jumped the curb and crashed into the crowd.

“There is a terrible slick on the course,” American Phil Hill said moments after the red flag was waved. “I saw Cifuentes go off. It seemed only an instant and bodies were being mowed down.”

The Feb. 26 issue of NSSN reported that four people were killed and 28 injured in the horrific crash. Authorities originally charged that Cuban rebels had spread the oil, but the Cuban Sports Commission eventually announced its technicians had ruled out sabotage.

British star Stirling Moss was declared the race winner with American Masten Gregory second.

After being released to the Argentine ambassador, Fangio refused to help identify his captors but relayed their explanation that the kidnapping was a political statement.

The World Driving Championship did not return to Cuba in 1959, but made one final visit in 1960 with Moss once again visiting victory lane.

– Thanks to Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, and their love for racing midgets and sprint cars on dirt tracks, NASCAR is slowly rebuilding its connection with the sport’s grassroots fans.

However, maintaining that connection comes at a price as everyone was reminded when both Bell and Larson walked away from vicious crashes while racing midgets in New Zealand during late December.

There is a definite risk-vs.-reward factor and the debate has raged for years as to whether NASCAR’s top stars should be racing outside the premier stock car series. Often overlooked in these discussions are the fans, who love it when Bell dominates a midget race and cheer wildly when Larson wins a sprint car feature. For most fans, it’s a thrill to simply be in the stands and watch these guys compete on the grassroots level.

We would certainly hate to see those opportunities come to abrupt end.

– Bold predictions: Donny Schatz will win 25 races en route to his 11th World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series championship and Denny Hamlin will be the NASCAR Cup Series champion.