Fangio, Juan Manuel

views updated Jun 11 2018

Juan Manuel Fangio


Argentine race car driver

Race car enthusiasts around the globe consider Juan Manuel Fangio to be the all-time grand master of the racing world. From 1957 until 2002, Fangio sat alone atop Formula One racing's pedestal as the only driver with five world championships. In 2002, Germany's Michael Schumacher tied that record, and while he was likened to Fangio, even Schumacher said no comparison could be drawn.

Undoubtedly, Fangio competed in a different eraan era where a driver's finesse mattered more than the car. Fangio didn't have access to a carefully calculated super machine like today's racers. Instead, Fangio raced primitive machines that moved along about as gracefully as garbage trucks. There were no safety standardsdrivers wore polo shirts instead of flameproof overalls, and they weren't secured inside a crash cage. Fangio saw 30 fellow racers die during his ten years in Europe. In Fangio's day, survival was as notable as performance. But Fangio didn't just survive; he won. Over his career, Fangio's technical artistry brought him 78 wins in the 147 races he finished. He also had 24 grand prix victories in 51 starts. Fangio was held in such deep regard that the people in his home-town of Balcarce, Argentina, pooled their money to buy him a car. Later, his races were broadcast throughout the country. For Argentineans, Fangio was a hero whose feats earned their nation international respect.

Developed Childhood Interest in Cars

Juan Manuel Fangio (FAHN-jee-oh) was born June 24, 1911, in Balcarce, Argentina, a town about 220 miles south of Buenos Aires. Fangio was the fourth of six children born to Loreto and Herminia Fangio, both of Italian descent.

As a child, Fangio excelled at boxing and soccer. Because he was bowlegged, Fangio's teammates called him "el chueco" or "bandy legs." The moniker was used affectionately throughout his racing career. By age ten, Fangio was so fascinated with cars that he spent his free time at a local garage volunteering to fetch tools for the mechanics.

At the age of 11, Fangio started up a car on his own for the first time and considered taking it for a spin. He described the moment in a book titled Fangio, noting "with my foot on the accelerator, I could call as much as forty horsepower into play. Had I dared I could have driven off and made two tons of metal answer my will."

By 13, Fangio had dropped out of school and was an assistant mechanic at Miguel Viggiano's Studebaker shop. In this way, Fangio learned racing from the inside outhe made friends with the internal combustion engine, learned what made it tick. At the shop, one of Fangio's duties was to deliver customers' cars from Buenos Aires to Balcarce. Driving Argentina's dirt roads, which were particularly treacherous in the rain, Fangio perfected his driving skills. Thus, the teenage Fangio was already learning the intricacy of driving in slippery conditions, a skill he would later become famous for.

Pieced Together Own Race Car

At 16, Fangio took part in his first race, riding as a mechanic in a Plymouth driven by one of Viggiano's customers. Fangio didn't get to the racetrack the following year because he was sick with persistent pneumonia and spent much of the year in bed. He left Balcarce in 1932 to serve his mandatory military duty.

When Fangio returned, he and his brother, Toto, opened their own garage. During the day, Fangio repaired other people's cars. At night, he worked on his own. Finally, in 1936, Fangio made his racing debut driving a modified taxi, basically a six-cylinder Ford engine fastened to a rusty chassis. Fangio's first races took place on Argentina's infamous dirt-road tracks.

"My mother disapproved of my racing at first, but not my father, though he did not encourage me," Fangio recalled in the book about him.

There's no doubt why Fangio's vocation scared his mother. Argentina's primitive dirt tracks-known as killing fieldsoffered crowds a spine-tingling spectacle at the cost of many lives. The main problem was the dust, so heavy at times the drivers couldn't see.

Excelled in Long-Distance Races

Fangio loved competing in South America's infamous long-distance races. These grueling events were some of the wildest and most dangerous races of all time. Drivers spent days on the course, hoping to avoid Andes Mountain drop-offs and herds of cattle. Fangio first made a name for himself by placing seventh in the 1938 Gran Premio Argentino de Carreteras, a grueling 4,590-mile race.

After this race, the proud people of Balcarce pooled their money to buy Fangio a better car: a six-cylinder Chevy coupe. In 1940, Fangio drove the car to his first noteworthy victory, winning the Gran Premio Internacional del Norte. Fangio spent 109 hours completing the 6,000-mile road race from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Lima, Peru, and back.

The race lasted nearly two weeks and tested drivers more than their cars, as passing through the Andes Mountains caused many to suffer from altitude sickness. At those altitudes, changing a flat tire could be a life or death situation. As Fangio noted in the book about him: "In the mountains of Peru it is also difficult for the man, for the driver. We ate garlic tablets and chewed coco leaves," because of the high altitude. "You get very tired easily in the thin atmosphere and if you are not careful you get agitated, and you lose your breath."

Fangio drove his way to the Argentine National Championship in both 1940 and 1941. Just as Fangio came into his own, racing ceased in 1942 because World War II caused a fuel shortage.

When racing resumed in 1947, Fangio was ready. In 1948, he made his first trip to Europe to compete, then returned home for the 6,000-mile Gran Premio de la America del Sur. The course was basically a one-lap of South America. Fatigued and plowing through considerable fog, Fangio crashed, killing his faithful friend and co-driver Daniel Urrutia. It was the first of many times Fangio would narrowly escape death, but the experience was not enough to make him quit.


1911Born in Balcarce, Argentina, on June 24
1932Spends mandatory one year in the military
1936Makes racing debut in Argentina
1942Forced to stop racing due to fuel shortage caused by war
1947Resumes racing because war has ended
1948Crashes car, killing co-driver and friend Daniel Urrutia
1951Wins first of five world championships
1952Breaks neck bone in crash at Monza, Italy
1958Kidnapped by Fidel Castro rebels
1958Retires from racing
1960Separates from 20-year companion, Andreina Espinosa
1995Dies in Buenos Aires on July 17

Became Five-Time World Champion

In 1949, Fangio went back to Europe and strengthened his skills. By 1951, he was the world champion. Just as Fangio was making a name for himself, his career almost ended again. In June 1952, Fangio pulled an all-nighter driving from Paris to Monza, Italy, for a race. He arrived not long before the start and had no time for a practice run. Miscalculating a curve while trying to pass, Fangio crunched his car and broke a neck bone, shutting him out for the rest of the season.

Fangio was back in full form in 1954, winning six grand prix races. Once again, he was the world champion, repeating through 1957.

Throughout the 1950s, Fangio dominated the sport. Clearly, he possessed the greatest innate driving ability of his timeperhaps of all time. Fangio could sustain a four-wheel, controlled slide around a curve without breaking a sweat. Friends used to joke that he had distilled water instead of blood in his veins. Because of his ability, Fangio was courted by many teams and throughout the 1950s drove for Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, and Maserati.

Fangio was 46 when the 1958 season began. From the start, nothing seemed to go right. On February 23, 1958, while Fangio was waiting to race in Havana, Cuba, he was kidnapped by Fidel Castro rebels. The kidnapping was mostly a publicity stunt meant to humiliate the Batista regime then in power. In the end, Fangio was released unharmed. The kidnapping, however, illustrates the notoriety Fangio had achieved.

Fangio also had trouble with his car. Deciding too many things were going wrong, Fangio retired in the middle of the season. He returned home to Balcarce and opened a Mercedes dealership.

Soon after ending his racing career, Fangio also ended his relationship. Throughout his race life, he'd had a companion, Andreina "Bebe" Espinosa, who waited in the pits while he raced. They parted in 1960, after 20 years together. They had no children.

Remains Legend in Own Right

Fangio spent his remaining years as an ambassador for the sport. He also coached young drivers. He died of kidney failure on July 17, 1995, at a Buenos Aires hospital. Fangio is so vividly remembered because he did what no driver had ever done beforehe elevated motor racing to an art form. Much as a painter caresses a paintbrush, Fangio caressed his carsand the outcome was beautiful.

The mystique surrounding Fangio continues today. What make him all the more legendary is the fact that he can't be compared to today's drivers because the equipment and tracks are so incomparable. All that is left is to dream about what the calm, collected Fangio could have done with today's machines.

Awards and Accomplishments

1940Placed first at the Gran Premio Internacional del Norte
1940-41Earned Argentine National Champion title
1941Won both races he entered, including the Argentine One Thousand Miles
1942Won four of five races completed
1947Won three of ten races he completed
1948Won three of seven races completed
1949Won nine of fourteen races completed
1950Won the French, Belgian, and Monaco grand prix, along with the Argentine 500 Miles
1951Won the French, Swiss, and Spanish grand prix
1951,Won World Championship
1952Won six of seven races completed before season cut short in crash at Monza, Italy
1953Won the Italian grand prix
1954Won the Argentinean, Belgian, German, Italian, French, and Swiss grand prix
1955Won the Argentinean, Belgian, Italian, and Dutch grand prix
1956Won the Argentinean, German, and British grand prix, along with the Sebring 12 Hours Race
1957Won the Argentinean, French, German, and Monaco grand prix, along with the Sebring 12 Hours Race
1958Won one race in five starts before quitting
1980sHad a race car museum and racetrack in his hometown named for him


In 1971, more than ten years after he retired from motor racingand when he was into his 60sFangio got behind the wheel again to shootsegments for a feature length film biography titled simply, Fangio.

The film contains original footage of Fangio's racing career, givingthose who never saw the master race a firsthand view of his innate and un-matched driving ability. Clips for some of Fangio's races, however, couldnot be located. To fill in the blanks, re-enactments were filmed with Fangiodriving his original cars at such circuits as Monaco; Italy's Monza; France's Reims; and England's Silverstone.

Fangio, himself, narrates the film, which is directed by Hugh Hudson, who is best known for his 2000 feature film I Dreamed of Africa, starring Kim Basinger.

Still shots from the movie were made into a book, also titled Fangio and published in 1973. In the book, Fangio's narration accompanies the pic-tures, giving the reader a true glimpse of the man behind the wheel as hetells his story in his own words.


Jenkinson, Denis, ed. Fangio. New York: W. W. Norton Inc., 1973.



Jenkinson, Denis, ed. Fangio. New York: W. W. Norton Inc., 1973.


"Fangio: Greatest Driver of Them All." (Glasgow) Herald (July 18, 1995): 30.

"Juan Manuel Fangio." Times (July 18, 1995).

Levine, Leo. "Juan Manuel Fangio 1911-1995." Road & Track (October 1995): 143-46.

McCluggage, Denise. "Juan Manuel Fangio 1911-1995." Autoweek (July 24, 1995): 51.

Siano, Joseph. "Juan Manuel Fangio, 84, Racer Who Captured 5 World Titles." New York Times (July 18, 1995): B6.

Williams, Richard. "Best and Bravest Racer of Them All." (London) Guardian (July 18, 1995): 12.


"Fangio Incomparable, Says Champion." BBC Sport. (November 19, 2002).

"Juan Manuel Fangio Statistic Page." Yardley-McLaren Grand Prix Formula 1 Team. (November 18, 2002).

Sketch by Lisa Frick

Fangio, Juan Manuel

views updated May 21 2018

Fangio, Juan Manuel (1911–95) Argentine racing driver. One of the best drivers of all time, he was Formula One world champion five times (1951, 1954–57), and on his retirement (1958) had won a total of 24 Grands Prix.

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