Fast Times in Cuba: Racing Culture Returns

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 21, 2016

Everybody loves Cuba’s old American cars, and Car Talk has been celebrating them since we sent a rag-tag delegation down to Havana. Now that Cuba’s opening up again, will some of the cars end up coming back to America? For a whole bunch of reasons it seems unlikely, but it’s fun to kick the tires down there.

That mean racing machine is Piti's '56 Ford Victoria. (Havana Motor Club)The film director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt (who made Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel in 2012) found a slightly different subject in the Cuban car culture. Havana Motor Club, his just-completed (with $59,000 from Kickstarter) documentary, is about how racing came back to Cuba.

The 1958 Cuban Grand Prix was held with dictator Fulgencio Batista still in power, but hanging by his nails. It was a prestigious international event, featuring two of the world’s great drivers, Carroll Shelby and Juan Manuel Fangio. In a can-you-believe-this moment, the Argentina-born Fangio was kidnapped from his hotel by the Castro rebels so he couldn’t compete. The race was held anyway (and Fangio was eventually released, unharmed) but the event was marred badly by an accident that killed 10 people and injured 40.

The ill-fated 1958 Cuban Grand Prix was marred by an accident that killed 10. Fidel Castro, on coming to power, declared racing “dangerous and elitist,” and banned it indefinitely after one more event in 1960. That was it for 50 years. But Cuba is full of motorheads, and without official sanction they raced their hopped-up pre-1960 Fords, Chevys and DeSotos in the street.

But then, an opening! The Cuban Motor Federation declares that a race event will be sanctioned. “We can no longer ignore the will of the people for something as important as motor racing,” says Quico Dobarganes, secretary general of the federation. “It will be the first time, officially, that car racing has a formal place as a national sport.”

Jote with the boat-motor-powered Black Widow. (Havana Motor Club)Perlmutt had his subject—counting down to the race with the shoestring teams—Armando “Piti” Munnet Rodriguez (fighting cancer) and his ’56 Ford Victoria; Renaldo “Rey” Lopez Garcia and his father in their ’55 Chevy Belair; Carlos Alvarez Sanchez, who drives a Chevy, too, but also a GM V-8-powered Porsche 944 that belongs to an expatriate from Miami; and Jote, whose stripped-down Black Widow (a 1951 Ford) is powered by an engine rescued from an escape-bound motor boat sunk by the Cuban Coast Guard. Jote wants to get out of Cuba, too, and is even willing to put his racing dreams on hold to finance building a raft.

Rey with the competitive '55 Chevy racer he shares with his father. (Havana Motor Club)If this sounds like high drama, it is. Piti, Rey and Carlos are fierce competitors who want to legally duke it out on the track. But the Pope visits Cuba at just the wrong time in 2012, and all the portable barricades are commandeered. The race is called off—just as it’s about to start. The frustration is palpable.

The race grid is ready, but will the competition actually happen? (Havana Motor Club)“It will stay underground, and we will laugh at the police because they can’t catch us,” one racer says. They hold an illegal event on the Artemesia race site, shooing cows out of the way. The Porsche scores a victory, but then the police swoop in and everyone scatters. “The more they ban and prohibit it, the more popular it gets on the streets,” Perlmutt told me. “It’s a macho thing.”

Perlmutt had no ending for his film, so he had no choice but to wait for months and months while a glacial bureaucracy made up its mind about rescheduling the race. In the meantime, Raul Castro presided over a liberalization, and Cubans could buy new cars again—but the freedom is illusory. The film hits the pause button to visit a Peugeot showroom, where economy cars go for $92,000 to $262,000.

Old cars, like this '56 Chevy, are everywhere in Havana. (Havana Motor Club)One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a race between a Lada and a Moskovitch, two Soviet-era clunkers that are frequently seen on the streets of Havana. The Mosko has a thrilling average speed of 36 mph.

I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that one of the biggest obstacles to racing in Cuba is the hysterical enthusiasm of the fans—they won’t stay off the track. And the nervous race officials will do anything to avoid a repetition of the ’58 Grand Prix.

Car culture--and hot Chevy Belairs--are celebrated in Cuba. (Havana Motor Club)Does racing finally return to Cuba? Watch Havana Motor Club and find out. Diana Vreeland, it ain’t, but this doc (shot in lovely, saturated color) has checkered flags, photo finishes, fierce rivalries, and lots of pigs and cows wandering into the frame. I was wondering how that Porsche got into Cuba—apparently by titling it as a Mitsubishi.

Here's the movie trailer, which captures the film's bright painterly qualities:


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