The tumultuous events surrounding Havana's sports car race last week made front-page headlines around the world: seven spectators killed and 31 others injured by a runaway car; World Champion Driver Juan Manuel Fangio kidnaped by Castro's rebels; suspicions of sabotage in the unusually heavy oil slick on the course.
Crackling news, indeed—news that tended to obscure the real lesson of Havana for friends of sport: that the race should never have been scheduled at all, that these were deaths and injuries senselessly incurred.
Perhaps the Cuban driver, Armando Garcia Cifuentes, whose Ferrari was the immediate instrument of the disaster, was in fact so inexperienced that he should not have been permitted to race. On a reasonably safe course, however, a driver's error almost never endangers spectators. The heaviest blame for Havana's toll lies not with Cifuentes, but with the Cuban authorities who ignored two recent and unmistakable warnings.
First, there were the deaths of 13 drivers and spectators in Italy's Mille Miglia last May, then the gruesome accidents in the sports car race at Caracas in November.
March 10, 1958
The Mille Miglia was run over open roads and through city streets—a classic instance of potential danger to an essentially uncontrollable crowd. Spectators were luckily spared in the race through the streets of Caracas, but the veteran British driver Peter Collins reported, "I have never seen such a succession of accidents."
The immense gathering at Havana for its own race through the streets numbered more than 150,000. Most of them were without a shred of protection should a racing car get loose.
The Ferrari of Cifuentes did get loose, skidding off Calzada Avenue at 100 mph and into the throng massed in Fourth of July Park, just 10 minutes after the start, leaving empty shoes of the dead and maimed in stark indictment of heedless and irresponsible men.
The vast majority of auto races today are run over closed courses at which spectators are assured substantial safety. The sport can ill afford the black eye given racing in general by these disasters.
Havana reaffirms something racing should have learned long ago: racing through public streets or before unprotected audiences anywhere cannot be justified.