Fangio was taken from his Havana hotel the day before the Cuba Grand Prix, an event intended to showcase the island nation. He was released unharmed several hours after the race. The kidnapping was intended to bring international embarrassment to Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, whose government Castro would overthrow on January 1, 1959.
In addition to Fangio’s kidnapping, the Cuba Grand Prix was marred by tragedy when a Cuban driver named Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his car on an oil-slicked part of the street course and plowed into a crowd on onlookers.
Seven people were killed and dozens more injured. The crash led to immediate speculation that Castro’s followers had sabotaged the course by coating it with oil; however, it was later believed that a broken oil line in a car driven by Argentina’s Roberto Mieres was the cause of the slick spot.
The kidnapping incident occurred at the end of Juan Manuel Fangio’s storied career. Fangio, who was born on June 24, 1911, in Balcarce, Argentina, quit school at the age of 11 to work as a mechanic’s assistant and as a young man raced “souped-up passenger cars on the unpaved roads of South America,” according to his 1995 obituary in The New York Times. After modern Formula One racing began in 1950, Fangio collected his first world championship in 1951.
He repeated this feat in 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1957. Fangio left racing in 1958, stating that the cars had become too fast and dangerous. According to the Times: “That he survived to enjoy his wealth despite racing in an era without seat belts and fire-retardant uniforms was a credit to his skills, the cars he drove and no small measure of luck.”
Fangio died in Buenos Aires at the age of 84 on July 17, 1995. His record of five Formula One world titles stood until 2003, when Germany’s Michael Schumacher won his sixth world championship (Schumacher retired in 2006 with a total of seven world titles).