F1 Champ Juan Manuel Fangio Kidnapped in Cuba 59 Years Ago Today

The Argentine racing star was caught between the rebels' uprising and a dictator's bid for normalcy. 

On the evening of February 23, 1958, a gunman walked into Havana's luxurious Hotel Lincoln and walked out with five-time Formula One champion Juan Manuel Fangio. 

For the next 20 hours, Fangio was held captive in a nearby apartment complex, where rebels fed him a nice dinner of steak and potatoes and gave him a radio so he could listen to the second annual Cuban Grand Prix as it took place without him.

The race was Cuban President Fulgencio Batista's attempt to keep up appearances as his country headed into the home stretch of an uprising that would lead to revolution. Less than a year later, rebels led by Fidel Castro would topple Batista's government, ending Cuba's sparkling tourist economy.

As Fangio listened to race coverage on his borrowed radio, tragedy struck on the course—which had been laid out on the streets of Havana—when Cuban driver Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his Ferrari and mowed down a crowd of spectators. Seven were killed and more than 40 more injured. A broken oil line in a car driven by Argentina’s Roberto Mieres, not sabotage by the rebels as had been suspected, turned out to have caused an oil slick that sent Cifuentes off course.

Fangio won his first Formula One world championship in 1951, and won again in 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1957. Fangio called the kidnapping "just one more adventure" in what was a glorious racing career.