Strange But True: The Skill of an Old Pro

Juan Manuel Fangio was one of auto racing’s greatest drivers. The record book shows that he won the World Champion Driver title in 1951, then again in 1954, 1955, 1956, and 1957. It was not merely because he drove such outstanding cars as a Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, and Lancia Ferrari, but more because he was incredibly skilled behind the wheel. And Fangio was smarter than his rivals. He planned a race down to the last detail. In the 1957 Nurburgring race, he needed all his skill to win because of an inept pit crew.

Fangio was 46 years old then, driving a Maserati. His toughest opponents, he realized, would be 27-year-old Peter Collins and 28-year-old Mike Hawthorn, both driving Ferraris. They had the youth and stamina to withstand the rugged 14.2-mile course with its 174 curves, steep drops, and bumpy paving. A driver had to go around the track 22 times to finish. But Fangio was confident because he had a plan.

He knew his Maserati was lighter than the Ferraris. Fangio planned to carry only half a tank of fuel while the other cars carried a full tank. Fangio would save time because his lighter car would go faster. On the other hand, Collins and Hawthorn wouldn’t have to stop for fuel but Fangio would. However, if he had enough of a lead, Fangio could get away quickly after his pit stop without losing too much time. By then the Ferraris’ tires might not be in good shape. So Fangio instructed his pit crew to be ready with two rear tires for quick changing.

As was expected, the first three laps saw the three favorites grouped together. On the fourth lap Fangio edged ahead. His lighter car was simply too fast for the others, and his experience enabled him to cut split-seconds from the stopwatch. By the time the race was half over and Fangio went into the pit, he had a 28-second lead over Hawthorn.

Fangio got out of the car and the mechanics went to work. But it was taking too long–much too long. “Hurry up!” Fangio called impatiently.

The seconds ticked by…40…45…50…At last Fangio was back in the car and racing, but it had taken 53 seconds! He was a full 50 seconds behind both Collins and Hawthorn because his pit crew seemed all thumbs.

Now Fangio seemed hopelessly behind, but he began to use all the tricks he had learned over long years of racing. He took chances. Where some curves should have been taken at 94 or at most 95.8 miles an hour, Fangio roared into them at 95.6–just short of the maximum, but also slightly faster than his rivals. Each tenth of a second saw him gain ground.

By the sixteenth lap he was 33 seconds behind; by the eighteenth he was 26 seconds behind. And still Fangio kept coming. By the start of the twenty-first lap Hawthorn had a lead of only 2 seconds, with 2 laps to go. Then came a curve. With his wheels cutting into the grass at the edge of the pavement, Fangio shot past Hawthorn, and then he drove with magnificent control over the final lap, taking the checkered flag and winning by 3.6 seconds.

Perhaps Fangio realized he was getting too old to continue racing. Or maybe the clumsiness of his pit crew was more than he could bear That German Grand Prix race at Nurburgring was the last one for the great Juan Manuel Fangio. He retired afterward.

The next year the winner of the World Champion Driver title was the man he had defeated in his last race, Mike Hawthorn.

From The Giant Book of More Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.


  1. ooo vintage racing..thank you very much 🙂
    took a double take at the 174 turns..but thats coz i forgot they still had the sudschleife back then
    anyhoo…my current favourite old pro is raikonnen…hes no fangio..but hes most entertainingly deadpan
    (edit) eh..apparently they didnt also have the sudschleife back then…oh well whatever nvm

    • Turns out the reason why the pit stop was such a shitshow was because one of the tire changers let a nut roll under the car and didn’t notice it, so they spent a bunch of time looking for the damned thing. 
      Also, I think there’s an editing error in the SBT story, because he says the “Ferrari’s tires might not be in good shape.”  I think it was supposed to say that the Maserati’s tires were the issue, because in addition to the half tank of gas, Fangio decided to go with softer tires for better grip and I don’t think the other drivers took a pit stop at all.

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