Cuba is finally letting people buy new cars, though the prices of even economy vehicles are so outrageous that only the elite can afford them. For now, most people are sticking to their pre-revolutionary American iron, which is why ’57 Chevys are a very common sight on the streets of Havana. Under the hood might be the engine from a Russian truck, but hey, it’s still got the fins and chrome (most of the time, anyway).
But did you know that they hold drag races in Cuba? I thought that was counter-revolutionary. Things have been rather quiet since the heady days of the Cuban Grand Prix, when drivers like Carroll Shelby and Juan Manuel Fangio competed. In 1958, things took a bizarre turn when Fidel Castro had the famed Fangio kidnapped to attract publicity for his cause. It wasn’t that bad — the Argentine driver was held in a luxury apartment and fed a huge meal, then given a radio to listen to the race. That's the 1957 starting grid below.
Fangio was probably better out of it, because the 1958 race ended in tragedy when a Ferrari driven by Havana-based Armando Garcia Cifuentes slid on oil and went into the stands, killing seven and injuring 40.
Stirling Moss drove a Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage to victory against Ferraris and Porsches in 1960 (the last year the Grand Prix was held).
Actually, Cuban racing is on again, off again, depending on the authorities’ moods. When the Pope came to Cuba in 2012, the imminent racing day was canceled because they needed every safety barricade in the country. A year went by.
This situation presented a challenge for film director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt. He was in Cuba for another project, and heard about the upcoming race. He stuck around, but the postponements kept coming. Perlmutt gathered a ton of footage, and got so involved he was bringing spare parts through customs, but eventually spent all his money. You can probably guess that the official race is eventually held, because they wouldn’t have a movie otherwise, but let’s leave much of the mystery in place.
The filmmakers completed one essential — the trailer — and you can check out the lively action here.
Perlmutt says his film pits two racers, Rey (’56 Chevy) and Carlos (’58 Thunderbird, among other cars), against each other, and the drama is not only who will win, but whether the race will be held at all. Frustrated Cubans, he said, get their ya-yas out with illegal street racing, which can turn disastrous with all the pedestrians, bicyclists and stray animals using Cuban streets. “The more they ban and prohibit it, the more popular it gets on the streets,” Perlmutt said. “It’s a macho thing, a rebel activity that allows people to gamble.”
Perlmutt’s previous film was "Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel" (2012), and before that he was an editor on "Valentino: The Last Emporer." “Yes, two fashion films, so Havana is my masculine film,” he said.
Assuming he can finish it in the next few months, he’d like to get it on the festival circuit. Appearances in Havana and Miami are a given, of course. It will probably end up on TV and DVD, so watch for it.
“Cubans use their cars as expressions of independence in a country where independence is frowned upon,” Perlmutt said. “The cars let them show who they are as individuals.”
Here's even more racing in Cuba, this one an unofficial race caught by CNN:
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