Studebakers and the secret to winning a premier vintage road race

The assembly of vintage racecars captivated filmmaker Jeremy Heslup when he arrived in Veracruz, Mexico. He was there filming a documentary on the 2013 Carrera Panamericana road race. A sports car enthusiast, Heslup was immediately smitten by the race-prepped Alfa Romeos, Datsuns and Lancias. Being new to the Carrera, however, he was puzzled by the respect accorded to one particular group of racecars: the Studebakers. Sitting next to lithe European sports cars, these Champions and Commanders looked like stodgy, hulking monuments to 1950s American excess – certainly, assumed Heslup, no match for their nimble opposition.

But then their engines fired up, the race began and Heslup was quickly forced to rethink his opinion of the Studebakers.

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Beginning in the 1940s, the designs that sprang from the Raymond Loewy Associates offices shaped the U.S.’s visual landscape. And many of these designs remain in use, as fresh and relevant as ever, to this day. It is hardly an exaggeration to say, as a New York Times Book Review critic once noted, that the Loewy team changed the shape of the modern world.

The Loewy studio's design triumphs were as disparate as they were beautiful, counting among their successes Coca-Cola vending machines, iconic logos for Shell, Exxon and Lucky Strike, Air Force One’s livery and the NASA Skylab.

This legendary design group, however, never penned a racecar.

Or so they thought.

In the early 1950s, Loewy came across a design for a car that his team member, Robert Bourke, had been fiddling with for some time, a sketch that would become the 1953-54 Studebaker Champion Regal Starliner and Studebaker Commander. Touted as “The New American Car with the European Look,” these Champions had low-slung noses and sleek bodywork making them far more aerodynamic than their predecessors, a trait that, unbeknownst to Loewy and Bourke, would one day make these cars worthy of their names

At about the same time that Bourke was penning the Champion, a now-legendary race was beginning in Mexico. Commissioned by the Mexican government in 1950 to celebrate the Panamerican Highway’s opening, La Carrera Panamericana took its place alongside similarly dangerous road races like Italy’s Mille Miglia and Sicily’s Targa Florio. Between 1950 and 1954, factory teams from Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Lancia – as well as iconic drivers such as Phil Hill, Eugenio Castellotti, and Juan Manuel Fangio – descended upon Mexico for this border-to-border race.

During this short timeframe, 27 people died as a result of the Carrera. Combined with the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster, the Mexican government cancelled the race (the Mille Miglia was ended in 1957 for similar reasons, while the Targa Florio survived until 1977).

In 1988, a Mexican enthusiasts’ group revived the Carrera as a 2000-mile vintage race that, while safer than its original form, remains a high-speed affair in which crashes, injuries and even fatalities, serve to focus participants’ minds. The race is a grueling, cross-country dash requiring both expert driving and physical endurance just to finish.

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Victory, of course, requires not only skill but also the right car. And more often than not over the past three decades, the Carrera’s “right car” has been a Studebaker. When Heslup first covered the race in 2013 (which led to his documentary, The Last Great Road Race), the winning car was a Studebaker (as it had been 19 times before that). In 2014, when he returned to document the event, a Studebaker won it all again. Ditto for 2015, when Studebakers took all three spots on the podium.

“When I first did the Carrera in 2013, I didn’t really like the Studebakers,” recalled Heslup recently from his home in Los Angeles. “But after seeing just how freaking fast and loud they are – I mean, these things are capable of 200 miles per hour – and realizing how visceral it must be to race one through Mexico at full speed, I now want a Studebaker more than any car in the Carrera.”

Even veteran Carrera drivers like American Taz Harvey eventually come around. After tasting success in a Datsun 510 and 240Z – and realizing that these small cars were simply too underpowered to win overall – Harvey is now preparing his own Studebaker for the 2016 race.

“There’s an old saying about there being no replacement for displacement,” says Harvey, “and this really comes into play when you start getting up to 7,000-8,000 feet….so being super-competitive, we decided that if we’re going to win this thing overall someday, we need to start looking for a Studebaker.”

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So how did Studebakers, never intended to race, dominate road racing in Mexico?

The Carrera’s premier Competition Class is restricted to cars manufactured in 1954 or before. As veteran driver and car-builder Mats Hammarlund points out, the Champions’ and Commanders’ original shape offers some built-in downforce unmatched by their era’s counterparts. Peek beneath their shells though, and you’ll quickly notice that these Studebakers have largely ceased being anything that Loewy’s designers would recognize.

The Carrera permits significant modifications to its fastest class, Turismo Mayor (grand touring), provided they retain their original wheelbase and meet basic safety requirements. Once in Hammarlund’s hands, then, these cars undergo a transformation converting them into purpose-built race cars. The Studebaker’s original inline-six is removed and replaced with a Chevrolet-based, Hammarlund-built race engine capable of wringing 600 horsepower from its 366 cubic inches.

“These engines are quite special,” notes Hammarlund, “since they have to run on regular pump gas and work really well for seven straight days of racing; transit through traffic without overheating; and run smoothly through lots of different altitudes.”

The car’s internal structure is a scratch-built Hammarlund chassis. They also completely redesign the suspension and steering systems. With his background in European racing, Hammarlund’s builds are likely to incorporate more rally technology, whereas his American and Mexican counterparts lean toward a NASCAR influence.

Whatever the build philosophy, these cars have become the ones to beat in Mexico. Indeed, Hammarlund-built Studebakers have won the Carrera outright four times in the past six years, while also claiming a pair of second-place finishes and one third-place finish.

Raymond Loewy and Robert Bourke would indubitably be proud, if a bit surprised.

Videos

A glimpse of the 2014 Carrera Panamericana:

Trailer for Heslup’s Last Great Road Race: