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MEXICO SENDS A BOY TO SEBRING

March 26, 1962
March 26, 1962

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March 26, 1962

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MEXICO SENDS A BOY TO SEBRING

Although he is only 20 years old, Ricardo Rodriguez has an icy passion for racing and a startling self-confidence: he thinks he can do a man's job at Sebring and in the Grand Prix season

By Kenneth Rudeen

Ricardo Rodriguez of Mexico, the life-loving driver who grins from this week's cover, may have personality failings, but false modesty is not one of them. Young Rodriguez will be among the topflight international stars on display this Saturday at Sebring, down among the Florida orange groves, in this country's foremost sports car race. He views his prospects in that 12-hour world-championship-caliber event with composure. "With the favor of God," he says, for he is as devout as he is daring, "Ricardo Rodriguez will be the winner this time."

This is an article from the March 26, 1962 issue Original Layout

Because Ricardo is always saying things like that, and because he has yet to win a road race of the first rank there are those who believe that he has a swelled head. The fact is that he may very well do what he says. What's more, he may conceivably go on this year to win the highest honor in racing, the Grand Prix championship of the world, although admittedly the odds are heavily against him. His rivals include such gifted and determined artists as America's Phil Hill, the present champion, and that British master driver, Stirling Moss, not to mention a dozen lesser well-seasoned drivers.

But Ricardo is a rookie to make the veterans sweat. He already has put in five years of mettlesome international sports car racing. Last year, co-driving a private Ferrari with his older but less talented brother, Pedro, he stayed ahead of the official factory Ferraris at Sebring for five hours. In the great Le Mans 24-hour race, egged on by Papa Rodriguez, the brothers bedeviled the leading factory Ferrari for hours on end. But it was at Monza in September that Ricardo made the big time. He drove in his first Formula I Grand Prix race—a race that sealed Hill's championship and cost Count Wolfgang von Trips his life.

This year Ricardo is to be a fullfledged member of the Ferrari team—easily the most powerful in road racing—joining Hill himself and probably the Italian newcomer, Giancarlo Baghetti, surprise winner of last year's French Grand Prix. There is a faint possibility that Moss will switch from British Lotuses to Ferraris for the Grand Prix season. If he does, Ricardo's championship prospects would be sharply diminished, but his day as a Grand Prix star clearly is coming.

Ricardo says as much himself in his expressive, if imperfect, English: "For me is much easy the Formula I car. It is like Formula Junior but, how you say, crazy. Much nervous. Much horsepower. Always, Stirling Moss is fastest, but I see at Monza that other experienced pilotos are not fast to me. Phil Hill is a great driver, but once at Monza I even go ahead of Hill."

Unfortunately, at Monza as in other races, Ricardo's ride was cut short by mechanical failure. He has yet to prove to his many critics that he has the sensitivity and self-discipline not to be excessively hard on his racing cars. He has, however, convinced some expert observers. Says Lorenzo Pilogallo, motoring writer for Milan's Corriere della Sera: "Rodriguez was an impetuous and scornful driver who often overstressed the vital parts of his cars. Now he seems to have changed. He has the makings of a world champion. He is on the way to becoming a future Moss."

A nearly perfect style

Adds Count Giovanni Lurani, editor of Auto Italiana: "Ricardo combines the reflexes of youth with the experience of more mature drivers. His style has not been fully molded, but already it is close to perfection. At Monza he showed how a first-class driver can easily switch from sports cars to single-seaters."

These glowing opinions coincide closely with those of Ricardo's patron, Luigi Chinetti, the chief Ferrari distributor in the U.S. and sponsor of the North American Racing Team, which is a sort of junior varsity to the works stable. But Chinetti wishes that Ricardo's well-wishers would soft-pedal the praise a bit. Three times winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours and the survivor of a heavy smash-up at Spa in Belgium, Chinetti knows something of racing's hazards as well as its glories. He is acutely worried for Ricardo; he cannot get out of his mind the sad case of Guy Moll, a French Algerian youth of similar talent and dash who was killed in 1934—his first big season—after a series of dazzling victories. The memory is especially poignant for Chinetti, because it was he—then with Italy's Alfa Romeo firm in Paris—who had sold Moll an Alfa the previous year.

"Everything came easily to Guy Moll, as it does to Ricardo," Chinetti recalls. "He had none of the little accidents from which other drivers learn. His first accident was a big one—and his last. The first day I saw Ricardo race, a sixth sense told me that he might become a great driver. If Ricardo is careful, he will go very far, but he still has much to learn."

Chinetti's worry is understandable; on the other hand, it may be argued that it is something of a miracle that Ricardo's self-esteem is not greater than it is. Humility and a cool, reasoned approach to racing are scarcely to be expected in a 20-year-old who, self-taught in his perilous art on the open highways of Mexico, has been steadily encouraged by a father as ambitious for his success as any backstage mother for a child actor.

The public image of Ricardo has inevitably been tinged with the Sunday-supplement assumption that he moves in a wonderfully glamorous world, awash with complaisant film starlets, where his valorous reputation and Latin good looks are irresistible. His father, Pedro Sr., is usually identified as a "millionaire industrialist" and the Rodriguez residence as a palatial mansion.

The facts are somewhat different, as this reporter learned on a recent visit to Mexico City, but the Rodriguezes are nonetheless a remarkable family. It had been the writer's impression, from previous exposure to Ricardo, that he was a genuinely likable and comparatively unspoiled young man blessed with perfect manners and a fine natural poise. This view was confirmed in Mexico City when we met in front of Pedro's auto showroom.

Papa Rodriguez has set up both boys in automobile agencies-Renault for Ricardo, and Hillman for Pedro. Ricardo pulled up in one of his Renaults. He jumped out, grinning amiably. He is a small, compact and muscular lad, with a plump, boyish countenance, and he looked sharp in a gray suit of Italian cut and black Italian shoes. He shook hands with his Yankee visitor and waved to Pedro Jr., who is slightly taller than Ricardo but resembles him closely and is as reserved as his brother is bouncy.

Papa Rodriguez, a short, stout man who wears sunglasses indoors and out, arrived presently in a big, befinned black Chrysler with tan leather seats. After the brothers dutifully gave him a peck on the cheek, the group piled into the Chrysler and drove a few blocks to an ornate restaurant. The doorman sprinted over to take Papa's car; inside, the headwaiter gave Papa a deferential bow, and soon a very late lunch was ordered.

Papa was obviously a man of parts, but about his fortune he was reticent. He had been, he said, the engineer of President Làzaro Càrdenas' private train during the Càrdenas administration in the late 1930s. It had been his good luck after World War II to acquire real estate that turned out to be a very good thing, and now he had extensive holdings in the Federal District and Acapulco. He also represents several foreign business firms in Mexico, in precisely what capacity he would not specify.

Yes, it was true that he was on good terms with President Adolfo López Mateos: "He makes us the honor of being our friend. He wishes the boys to keep on racing, because this is good for our country all over the world. We are proud to see our flag displayed where we race. Sometimes our anthem is played—in places where many people have never heard our anthem before."

That evening a few former schoolmates of Ricardo's pretty, dark-eyed wife, Sarita, dropped in for dinner at the small apartment they occupy near his auto agency.

After a good deal of feminine table talk by the girls, which Ricardo took with patience, he finally squeezed in a word about his racing career.

"I was just 15," he said, "when I went to California in 1957 for my first races outside of Mexico. At first they laughed at me. But when I beat some of the best Americans, they said, 'Oh, the new Nuvolari.' "

One morning later that week, the new Nuvolari and his brother were breakfasting with Papa at the family home in Mexico City's smart Polanco neighborhood. The house is slab-sided and cubical in the Mexican style and partly faced with a thin red brick. A good, solid house, but no palace.

Papa at home

Papa chatted over tostadas (crisp wafers) and coffee. He said that Mama Rodriguez and her youngest, Alejandro, 6, who had been sunning at Acapulco, would be unable to return for a while because a severe storm had made the roads impassable.

When the boys left to go about their business of selling cars, Papa rather proudly remarked that he had been spending about 580,000 a year on his sons' racing, and he left no doubt as to his blazing faith in Ricardo's chances.

"If he has the fortune to be with the team with the best car," said Papa, squinting through his green-tinted glasses, "he can win the world championship in one year. He will be dangerous to the hopes of everyone he races against, and he will be the star of his team, wait and see."

Racing fans will not have long to wait. Of the 65 cars competing at Sebring this Saturday, probably only five other prototype sports cars are in the same league with the Rodriguez brothers' violent red Ferrari. Two of them are also Ferraris of Luigi Chinetti's North American team. The fastest of all should be a brand-new, rear-engined model powered by the first V-8 engine ever to be built by Ferrari and co-driven by the incomparable Moss and Innes Ireland, that inaptly named Scot who lives in Wales. France's Fernand Tavano and America's John Fulp are paired in the other powerful Ferrari prototype.

Sportsman Briggs Cunningham is sending from his stable a new V-12 Type 64 Maserati and a Maserati-engined British Cooper.

Finally, there is another new Maserati, from the Italian "Republic of Venice" stable. The drivers: Sweden's Joakim Bonnier and Britain's Graham Hill.

A change for Hill

With Phil Hill and Belgium's Olivier Gendebien in a Grand Touring Ferrari for a change—Hill has won Sebring in Ferrari prototypes three times, twice co-driving with Gendebien—and other strong GT entries, Ferrari should win the major GT prize from America's persistent but outmatched Chevrolet Corvettes. The U.S. will also be represented by two homebred prototype "Chaparrals" built by the Texan Jim Hall and a Ford Falcon powered by Ford's new lightweight V-8 engine, but these cars seem to have little chance of success in their special category—a new four-liter "world challenge cup" series beginning at Sebring.

There is a good deal of stop-Ferrari talk in the air; most of it is wishful thinking. Having won eight of the 10 sports car world championships so far, the Italian firm appears to be stronger than ever. "Nothing will stop us," cries Ferrarista Ricardo Rodriguez. "Nothing."

PHOTOSHADOWY VISAGE OF AMBITIOUS PAPA RODRIGUEZ LOOMS BEHIND RICARDOPHOTONEW MASERATI provides main opposition at Scoring to favored Ferraris. Shown here under test in Italy by America's Roger Penske, this Type 64 sports racer has rear-mounted V-12 engine, reportedly novel rear suspension and a long, low nose. Two Type 64s are entered in the Florida race.PHOTONEW FERRARI is powered by first V-8 engine (rear-mounted) to come from the all-conquering Italian works, winner of sports, Grand Prix world championships in 1961. Sebring drivers are Stirling Moss and Innes Ireland. Body resembles that of Rodriguez brothers' V-6 Ferrari.