It was February 23, 1958. Juan Manuel Fangio, one of the world’s biggest racing stars, was kidnapped by two gunmen, from the 26th of July Movement, at the Lincoln Hotel in Havana, Cuba. By kidnapping one of the biggest racing stars, they would bring attention to themselves and their cause: to overthrow the dictatorship of Cuba’s then-president Fulgencio Batista, by the orders of the group leader Fidel Castro. Fangio was held captive for only a short time, 29 hours to be exact, but his kidnapping helped make the point Castro’s group was aiming for. Since Batista could not control Castro’s group from kidnapping a major figure in sports, it showed his power was decreasing and that he was not strong enough to keep a man of Fangio’s stature safe. The kidnapping incident of Juan Manuel Fangio proved that his influence was strong enough to be used as a political force.

A British Pathé broadcast talking about the Juan Manuel Fangio kidnapping in Cuba.

Fangio was born the fourth of six children on 24th June 1911, in Buenos Aires, Argentina of Italian heritage. His father Loreto, came from the Southern region of Abruzzo, Italy, and his mother, Herminia, from Tornareccio in Northern Italy. After attending grade school for a few years, he dropped out at age thirteen and began working as an assistant mechanic. In 1932, at the age of 21, he enlisted in mandatory military service for the Argentine Army. While enlisted, his driving skills for the army intrigued a commanding officer, and Fangio was made an official driver to him. Although Juan Fangio was later known for his racing, his first love was football; he was so gifted that he was given the chance to join the Argentine football club Mar del Plata. His love for cars and racing were later realized by his teammates themselves, to the point that he was encouraged by them to start his own car garage and build his own cars.

Fangio was eventually discharged from the military, and with his newly built garage, he focused on his interest in cars and racing. He began hosting local racing events and raced in some himself. Unlike the pristine and well-kept racing tracks of Europe and the US, the roads raced by Fangio and his fellow racers were long dirt roads located across South America. One race, the Gran Premio del Norte, was so long that it extended from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Lima, Peru and measured 10,000 kilometers (roughly around 6,000 miles). Fangio went on to win that race among others, eventually catching the eye of the Argentine Automobile Club, receiving a sponsorship from them and the Argentine government to further his racing career.

Juan Manuel Fangio standing next to an old car used for racing
A photograph of Juan Manuel Fangio in c. 1940s.

Between the years 1942 and 1946, Fangio became an inactive racer as a result of the Second World War. In 1946 he returned to driving and competed in local Argentine races. Fangio started to gain more recognition in 1950s. The fact that he was considered an “older” racer during this time period, the commentators and spectators were impressed by his ability to avoid many accidents on the track. During that time, the drivers did not have much protective gear or equipment, yet he was still able to minimize injuries while racing. When he entered the world of Formula One racing, it allowed him to showcase his talent even more. Spectators of Formula One events watched as Fangio entertained them as he raced lap after lap. As he drove, he had perfect stamina, patience with a steady pace and was able to maneuver the well-kept vehicles. According to some reviewers, Fangio displayed courage never seen before in a Formula One race. Also, unlike modern racers with electronic displays and computers, Fangio and the racers with him did not have such luxuries; he completely relied on remembering and focusing on routes. Due to his “mature” age, if he thought he’d have a better chance with driving a new car, he would leave his current team to start with a new one, which he did frequently.

In 1950, he was recruited by the Alfa Romeo team to participate in the first annual World Championship of Drivers. Even though there was still a shortage of racing supplies due to World War II, he and his team still prevailed. Over the next couple Championships, he continued to win his fair share of races, and his winning streak proved to be unstoppable. Unfortunately, during the 1952 World Championship, after suffering great fatigue, he lost control during a lap in Monza, Italy and crashed. He was thrown from the car and suffered multiple injuries including a broken neck, and he spent the rest of the year recovering from those injuries.  Over the next few years, Fangio had partnerships with different high-end racing vehicles such as Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, and Ferrari. Even though he was aging, he kept racing and winning substantial amounts of races over his rivals.

Juan Manuel Fangio racing against another racer in a Mercedes race car
A photograph of Juan Manuel Fangio driving a Mercedes in the 1954 Italian Grand Prix.

On the 23rd February 1958, while waiting to compete in the One Cuban Grand Prix, he was kidnapped by two gunmen at the Lincoln Hotel in Havana. They were sent by 26th of July Movement leader Fidel Castro to bring. Their motivation for the crime was to bring attention to themselves and their cause: to overthrow the dictatorship of Cuba’s president Fulgencio Batista. The group knew that Juan Fangio was staying at the hotel, and they knew that a man of his stature could be used as a pawn to get their point across. If they were to succeed with their plan, it would make the people of Cuba distrust their President Batista and embarrass the country because he could not identify the attackers. Fangio was eventually freed a day later, after twenty-nine hours of captivity. The plan did not work in its entirety at the time, but it did leave some Cubans distrusting Batista and his government, and they felt he was losing his power to another establishment. After his release, all love was not lost because Juan Fangio and his captors remained good friends.

Juan Manuel Fangio looking over a Formula 1 Car in Argentina
Juan Manuel Fangio at the 1957 Argentine Grand Prix.

After driving many high and self-made cars, winning multiple awards, participating in races around the world, and gaining so much gratitude and respect from the racing world, Juan Fangio finally retired in 1958. During his retirement, he sold Mercedes-Benz cars and often performed driving laps for prospective customers. Although he was officially retired, he was still revered by many colleagues and racers that came after him. He was invited to make special appearances for certain racing events such as the Winston 500, Indianapolis 500, and the Australian Grand Prix, where he was not a driver, but a flagman and award presenter. In 1990, Fangio was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Five years later, on the 17th July 1995, Juan Manuel Fangio passed away from pneumonia and kidney failure.

Decades after his death, Fangio is still being hailed as one of the best sportsmen in history and one of the best drivers of all time, by the past and present in the racing world and beyond.

an elderly Juan Manuel Fangio holding a trophy
A 70-year-old Juan Manuel Fangio.

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