Fangio name is legendary in the racing world


January 22, 2006|By JASON STEIN

His peers, who revered him, labeled the man "the maestro." His fans, who adored him, called him "bandy legs" for his small stature and peculiar walk. Historians, who are still amazed by him, simply refer to Juan-Manuel Fangio as one of the best to ever drive a race car.


In racing circles, the word still translates into success.

He wasn't born into the best family. He didn't have the most money. And he might not have had the most skill. But, unquestionably, he had the most success.

He was born in Balcarce, Argentina. He died in Balcarce, Argentina. For most of the 84 years in between, Fangio's name ruled the open-wheeled Grand Prix racing world. He is still crowned by many as the best racing driver there has ever been.

With a high-pitched voice, clear-blue eyes and a shy demeanor, Fangio was the face of early Formula One - the top-flight series of open-wheel racing - during its rise in popularity in the 1950s. He won five World Championships, setting a standard that was unmatched for decades.


He had character. He had passion. He always had the top position.

"You must always strive to be the best," he once told a reporter. "But you must never believe that you are."

The son of Italian immigrants who settled in a small Argentina town south of Buenos Aires, Fangio began racing in 1934 after completing military service and opening his own garage in Balcarce. But the racing was hardly ordinary. The local events were long-distance endurance races - sometimes 10,000 kilometers (6,300 miles) and two weeks long - held on dirt roads over South America. No mechanics were allowed and the conditions were less than ideal. His first race, at 18, was in a Ford taxi that disintegrated during the event.

"It built my spirit," he once said.

Character he didn't lack.

Fangio's early efforts as a driver were far from successful. But he worked persistently, supporting himself as a mechanic. Just before the Second World War, he entered a Chevrolet in the Gran Premio International del Norte, a race from Buenos Aires to Peru and back, a distance of 6,000 miles. He won and he and his Chevrolet became famous overnight.

Following national championships in 1940 and 1941, Fangio was sponsored by his government and sent to Europe to continue his career. In 1949, at age 37, he found success on the European driving circuit and eventually earned a ride with car maker Alfa Romeo. Fangio ended the following season in second place, but positioned himself for a run at the championship in 1951 when he won the first of five incredible titles, but not before some serious setbacks.

While driving at Monza, Italy in 1952, Fangio crashed and suffered a broken neck. He had arrived at the race course after driving through the night from Paris, France.

Fatigue led to a rare mistake and he sent his Maserati into a bank of earth, somersaulting into the air. He spent the next few hours hovering near death and eventually recovered but missed the rest of the season.

A year later he returned to the track and fought his way to a second-place finish in the standings.

Other world titles would follow, but Fangio's personality became just as much his calling card on the circuit as his titles.

He was a rarity in a sport desperate for colorful characters.

He always made it his policy to gain the loyalty of his mechanics and gave each mechanic 10 percent of the winnings.

He often found success driving inferior equipment.

"With most drivers, you figure 25 percent driver, 75 percent car," said veteran racer Phil Hill. "With the old man, you know it's 40 percent driver, 60 percent car, so he's already got us beat with that something extra that's inside him."

Respect among his peers was unmatched.

In 1958, driving his last race in the French Grand Prix, he finished fourth and retired. His Maserati was not competitive that day and was about to be lapped by the race leader Mike Hawthorn. As a mark of respect for Fangio, Hawthorn braked and allowed Fangio to cross the line ahead of him. Getting out of the car after the race Fangio said to his mechanic simply: "It is finished."

And so was Fangio.

With a record 31 podium finishes against just 51starts, a feat that will probably never be matched, Fangio walked away from the sport that had given him so much. With a late start in his driving career, his time behind the wheel had passed.

He continued as a consultant for various teams, but on July 17, 1995, the day after the British Grand Prix, he died.

Flags across Europe flew at half-mast. The sport had lost one of its greatest.

Maestro was gone. Bandy legs had moved on.

But the man known simply as Fangio would never be forgotten.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at:

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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