The Carrera Panamericana killed 27 drivers and spectators, making it one of the most deadly races in motorsports history. Rugged terrain, lax safety regulations, and speeds well over 100 miles per hour contributed to the high death toll.
"Vintage Carrera Panamericana from the early 50s, Auto Racing", Courtesy of Gonzo Economist Channel on Youtube.
In 1950, the first year the race was held, more than a dozen participants retired due to accidents during the race's nine legs. The Quintanilla brothers of Mexico City crashed their Mercury just south of Parral on the second day of the five day race and suffered injuries. Though they did not finish, both brothers survived the crash.
Other drivers were not so fortunate. During the first 50 miles of the race, Guatemalan driver Enrique Hachmeister lost control of his Lincoln at 115 mph, missed a turn, and flipped over. Hachmeister was one of two drivers killed during the 1950 race. Two spectators were also killed, including a four-year-old boy.
Over the next four years the race was held, only about a third of entrants would actually finish the race. Driver Bobby Unser remembers the crash that killed wealthy businessman Carlos Panini in 1951. Panini - who was not the registered driver, had no drivers' license, and was sick at the time - refused to let Unser's faster Jaguar pass. After several attempts, Panini bumped fifteen-year-old Unser's fender, almost sending him off a sheer cliff. Panini's Alfa Romeo slammed into a wall and exploded, killing its driver instantly. According to Unser, it was "like an egg hitting a sidewalk."
All told, the race claimed the lives of dozens of competitors, including Lancia driver Felice Bonetto. Crashes were deadly not just for drivers, but also for spectators. In 1953, the deadliest year of the race, a crowd of people flocked to the scene of an accident in which a car had run off the road and down the embankment. Moments later, another car lost control when the brakes jammed, plowing into the crowd and killing six people.
Hitting spectators was not the only danger drivers had to face. In 1952, race winners Karl Kling and Hans Klenk hit a vulture in their Mercedes-Benz W194 at 120 mph. Roosting next to the road, the birds took flight as the car came roaring around the right-hand bend. One of the birds hit the car, breaking through the windshield. Klenk, who had removed his helmet and forgotten to put it back on, was briefly knocked unconscious.
Klenk, bleeding badly from the bird impact and the shattered glass, instructed Kling to keep going. Even though the hole in the windshield created so much air pressure that the rear window popped out, Kling maintained his speed until the next tire change, 43 miles later. The next morning, all three Mercedes-entered cars were equipped with "buzzard bars" covering the windshield.
Striking birds during the race was not altogether uncommon. Oldsmobile driver Ak Miller, laughing at the Mercedes team's reaction, remarked, "Hell, everybody hits buzzards! They were just too slow on takeoff to get out the way when we came by at 140 mph!"
Safety concerns contributed, at least in part, to the cancellation of the race. Due to design innovations, race car speeds had been increasing significantly, but safety measures had not yet caught up to the increased danger. Following the 1955 Le Mans disaster, which killed over 80 people, the Mexican government announced that the Carrera Panamericana was at its end.