Mercedes Revisits La Panamericana

Gary Anderson
Gary Anderson and Mercedes-Benz Cars
Mercedes-Benz re-established its presence in motorsports with its win on the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. In March of this year, those memories were stirred to life when a dozen SLS AMGs joined the SLs

Mercedes-Benz re-established its presence in motorsports with its win on the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. In March of this year, those memories were stirred to life when a dozen SLS AMGs joined the SLs in Oaxaca to rerun that fabled route. We were joined by John Fitch and Hans Herrmann who drove that historic race for Mercedes, as well as by the actual cars that won the race and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in that same year.

In Racing with Mercedes, John Fitch described the route from Oaxaca to Puebla, which we drove in the new SLS AMGs:

“In Oaxaca, at 6:30 am the second day, we lined up for the two legs, first to Puebla, 250 miles of breathtaking mountain roads, then 81 miles, including the most dangerous pass at 9,800 feet above sea level, to Mexico City. These roads were truly dangerous, climbing and descending at severe angles, sometimes wheeling and reversing like a monstrous roller coaster, flanked by gaping gulches and sheer cliffs, overhanging rock-strewn riverbeds, often a thousand feet below. It was in these mountains that three competitors had been killed in the previous year’s race.”

Fitch further remembers that road along Mexico Route 190:

We were topping a hill in the fast undulating section of the valley taken at 120 to 130 miles per hour when we came upon the scene of a disaster, a steep plunge into a hidden gorge, followed by a quick switchback to the right that led onto a bridge. Running straight off the road at the end of the right turn were black tire marks, indicating that someone had locked their wheels. Under heavy braking we slid straight towards the opposite side of the road, regaining traction at the last moment in a cloud of dust and flying gravel, then without brakes into a right turn. We heard later that several cars had left the road at this turn.

During our short time in Mexico, we drove from Puebla to Oaxaca along those very same roads in the SLS AMGs, with Federal Police practicing their high-speed highway driving by each escorting one or two of the new Gullwings. Consequently, we were able to drive the route at the same speeds as the original road-racing drivers had maintained, but for us, there was almost no drama, no slides in clouds of dust, and certainly no black wheel marks off the side of the road.

Instead, with the SLS engine control knob set for “Sport Plus” and the stability control pushed to “Sport,” the handling was uncanny. The car followed the road as if the route notes were in its DNA. Downshifts came with an automatic blip of the throttle, the suspension was sure-footed through corners, and abrupt braking when the escort car ahead slowed for livestock in the road was sharp and sure. We could manage breathtaking speeds on the few straight sections, and the abrupt, often decreasing-radius and off-camber turns could be taken at speeds that equaled those of the full race cars from Fitch’s and Herrmann’s days.

The next day a few of us were driven at speed on the mountain route above Oaxaca, in the co-driver’s seat in the 300SL that had won Le Mans in 1952. The driver of this extraordinarily rare car, which had won an award for its presentation at Amelia Island only two weeks earlier, was not shy in putting it through its paces. With two feet working three pedals, a hand on the high, almost truck-like floor shift, and the steering wheel sawing through the corners to counter oversteer, he was working continuously. He would accelerate as much as each straight section allowed, then brake hard for each corner, his toe on the brake and his heel blipping the throttle, and downshift one or even two gears before accelerating through the corner and then upshifting to full speed, only to repeat the process a few hundred meters later.

We could only marvel at the incredible skill and fortitude it required for the Mercedes drivers to win in 1952. Herrmann, reminiscing with Fitch over dinner at the Camino Real Oaxaca hotel, described what the cars were like. “With only small shutters in the perspex sidescreens to provide ventilation and with no soundproofing, the coupe was very hot and very noisy. The rear suspension, taken from the big sedans because Mercedes couldn’t afford to engineer a special racing suspension, had universal joints only at the differential, so it had to be fastened down to the chassis if we were to be able to corner at all. It was rough as hell.” Hot, noisy, and rough as hell, and these drivers sustained competitive speeds over 3,000 miles in five days to win that race for Mercedes-Benz.

This race put Mercedes-Benz back on the map in North America in 1952, and had it not been for the skill, will, and nerve of drivers like Fitch and Herrmann, it’s possible that the company might not still exist nearly 60 years later to produce the SLS AMG.

Visiting the Route of the 1952 Carrera Panamericana

Oaxaca was an evening stopover on the 1952 race, with the next day’s stage taking drivers 400 miles northwest through the mountains to Mexico City. Today it is a lovely city with the town center hardly changed in the intervening 58 years, but offering all the modern conveniences of air service, hotels, and hospitality that tourists have come to expect. We stayed at the exquisite and peaceful Camino Real Oaxaca hotel, one block from the central plaza, within the original walls and flowered courtyards of a Catholic convent built in 1596 (visit www.camino-real-oaxaca.com). There is much for travelers to see and do in Oaxaca (visit oaxaca-travel.com). Though you could fly there, a drive on the modern toll roads from Mexico City gives a taste of the Carrera. The modern re-creation of the race passes through Oaxaca in October (visit www.panamrace.com).

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