Ask any Formula 1 fan to name the sport’s greatest drivers, and you’re sure to end up with Juan Manuel Fangio’s name on that list – but before the Argentine driver won five World Championships, he almost quit racing altogether.
Fangio grew up as part of a working-class family in Balcarce, Argentina, coming of age in an era where a passion for motorsport had begun to infect South America.
As a teenager, he became an apprentice to a mechanic and quickly learned his way around cars, but he didn’t truly begin to compete himself until 1936.
In those first few years of competition, though, Fangio didn’t appear to be a natural talent behind the wheel.
After opening his own auto repair shop with a handful of friends, Fangio thought he might begin racing to promote the company; after all, he’d been pegged as a competent driver while undergoing his mandatory military service, and at 25 years old, he felt he’d be able to easily become a figure in the racing world.
But it wasn’t that easy. Racing under the name Rivadavia to conceal his identity, Fangio’s first race took place on the five-mile road course at Benito Juarez.
However, almost immediately after the October 24, 1936 race start behind the wheel of a 1929 Ford Model A taxi, Fangio watched a competitor die after clipping a culvert and flying into the air. Fangio kept racing until an engine bearing seized and he was forced to retire with just two laps remaining in the 25-lap event.
Undeterred, Fangio borrowed a different 1930 Model A for his next start on December 13.
However, the day before the race, the car’s ignition system failed. Fangio spent the night repairing the fault but arrived at the track to find that the race had started without him. He attempted to sneak onto the track but was disqualified after just one lap.
The young Juan Manuel Fangio returned home in shame. His family had learned of his recklessness in driving onto a hot race track, and both embarrassment at his own behavior and a growing fear that he was jinxed as a driver began to eat at Fangio.
Then and there, he decided to set his motorsport ambitions to the side, effectively retiring in order to focus on his auto repair business.
And then, of course, the racing bug got to him again. A few months later, Fangio entered a race at the La Chata circuit near his hometown of Balcarce. He borrowed a Buick and seemed ready to try again – only for the car to remain stationary at the start line.
Unfamiliar with the Buick’s more delicate gear lever, Fangio had broken the equipment and was forced to attempt to race by jamming a screwdriver into the lever’s position. He flew through the field, overtaking one car after another.
Then his Buick ran wide and clipped a bridge. With a twisted chassis, Fangio was forced to retire — and decided that it was time for an even longer hiatus from the racing world.
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It was a turning point in a young Fangio’s life; his bold aspirations and fiery temper had seemingly nipped his potential racing career in the bud. Humbled, Fangio spent a full year channeling his attention into his business and was content to live out the rest of his days in the auto repair field.
But Fangio’s friends saw things differently. In March of 1938, he’d been convinced to enter a race at Necochea. He didn’t win that race, but Fangio had performed admirably against a field of more seasoned and professional drivers, and it was enough to encourage him to continue behind the wheel.
In October of that year, Fangio entered the Gran Premio Argentino de Carreteras, a 12-stage, 4,590-mile long-distance race that would test both man and machinery.
After finishing 22nd overall, Fangio was invited to compete in another long-distance race immediately after and finished fifth overall. He had found his racing stride.
Of course, the rest of Fangio’s history is well known to F1 fans. With backing from Argentina’s national automotive club, Fangio headed off to Europe to begin competing against Grand Prix racing’s elite; he so impressed the international contingent that he was invited to join Alfa Romeo when the first Formula 1 World Championship event took place at Silverstone in 1950.
He would go on to become one of the most iconic names in the history of motorsport – but it may not have happened had Fangio given up before the war.