“Havana Motor Club” is a vastly entertaining documentary about the underground drag racing scene in Cuba that is also about as informative a take on the social and economic reforms being pushed by Raul Castro as you can find anywhere. It opened at the Village East theater in NY today and is by far the best documentary I have seen thus far in 2016. (Also available on Amazon and ITunes.)
In 1959 the triumphant Cuban revolution declared that since automobile racing was decadent, it must be abolished along with prostitution, gambling and other vices associated with the Batista dictatorship. Even before the dictator was toppled, the rebels struck a blow against car racing by kidnapping and holding for ransom Juan Fangio, the Argentinian who was the greatest racer in the world and regarded by some as the greatest ever. When I was at Bard College, I was part of a circle that was heavily into racing and as such worshipped Juan Fangio. I remember the night in 1961 when we showed Juan Fangio racing films in the school gym where we burned Castrol motor oil, a British brand that was favored by professional racers. The distinctly pungent scent of the burning Castrol gave the film showing authenticity.
Fangio was in Cuba to compete in the 1958 Cuban Gran Prix. Because of the kidnapping, another driver substituted for him at the last minute. During the race a Cuban competitor skidded off the track and plowed into a crowd, killing 10 and injuring 40—an event that is seen in “Havana Motor Club”. So Fidel Castro had two reasons to ban auto racing. It was a plaything of the rich as well as dangerous. As for Fangio, he issued a statement after being released: “It was one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.”
The film begins with a look at the racing scene in Cuba when director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt arrived with his crew. There were no Ferraris, but merely the antique cars that dot Havana’s streets today but with an important difference. The engines were souped up in order to compete in illegal drag races on the Cuban back roads. In a drag race, two cars compete against each other with the goal of reaching the finish line first. In the USA drag racing is a highly popular sport in which speeds of over 300 mph can be reached under 5 seconds routinely down a quarter-mile track. In Cuba, it is doubtful that the fastest cars can reach speeds of more than 140 mph. Despite that, watching Cubans race a ‘55 Chevy or a ‘62 Ford can provide ten times more excitement than an American drag race, especially when you understand the challenges that faced them.
Not only was the sport illegal, it was difficult to get parts such as a supercharger that is essential for racing. One of the drivers featured in the film has a friend in Miami who comes to Cuba frequently to help his Porsche compete. It is not explained how a Cuban could have gotten his hands on a Porsche but we can assume that his friend had something to do with it. The film focuses on the competition between the Porsche that is equipped with an oversized Chevy engine and a highly modified 1955 Chevy that belongs to a garage-owner nicknamed “El Tito” and is driven by his son.
The ingenuity some drivers show in procuring parts is awe-inspiring. When a boat that was being used to smuggle people into Florida breaks apart near the beach in Havana, a scuba diver goes beneath to salvage the engine that is then used to soup up a ’51 Ford, one called the “Black Widow”. It is not hard to imagine that once the barriers to such items are lifted, the Cuban economy has the possibility of soaring to new heights. Maybe those possibilities have finally persuaded Jose Madera, the owner of the Black Widow, to finally remain in Cuba after 5 unsuccessful attempts to reach Florida by raft.
One racer, who competes with a ’56 Ford, is a perfect symbol of the Cuban revolution today. He resents the government’s refusal to lift the ban on drag racing but appreciates the benefits that socialism has brought, including the free medical care that allowed him to receive treatment for cancer that not only left him alive but capable of doing what he loved most—racing.
In the course of the film, the government lifts the ban on drag racing as part of the reforms being spearheaded by Raul Castro. Just before a big race is scheduled, it is suspended because the barricades necessary for crowd control (they remember the 1958 disaster) are being used for the Pope’s visit. When racers become discouraged, one remains hopeful. He says that the government will see its way to seeing the benefits of a sporting event that can go against the grain of capitalism that he admits is calling the shots everywhere in the world today. Cuba will take an institution that serves capitalism and show how it can be transformed into benefiting the people.
The film concludes with an official race sanctioned by the government that pits the Porsche against El Tito’s Chevy. I won’t tell you which car wins.
Despite his name, director Bent-Jurgen Perlmutt is a Brooklynite who became interested in Cuba as a college student. He enrolled in a study program there in the spring of 2000 just before the Elian Gonzalez custody battle took place. His take on that confrontation will give you a good understanding of how he was able to see Cuba in such a balanced fashion:
This incident piqued my interest even more in this “axis-of-evil” nation and its contentious relationship with the United States. In order to learn more about Cuba/U.S. relations from a Cuban perspective, I started taking research trips to Cuba on my own. This led me to develop several different film projects over the years, all focusing on how Americans live and survive in a country that (since recently) has been officially off-limits to most of them. HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is the culmination of all my work in Cuba over the years, and I intend it to shed light on the conflicting sides of the changes happening in Cuba today.
With Havana in a kind of timewarp, its streets looking like the year 1958 preserved in amber, there are obvious reasons why many people would enjoy returning to a less complicated time. We learn that as part of the reforms, the Cuban drag racers are now permitted to take tourists around town for a fee. If that’s the kind of capitalism that is overtaking Cuba today, I for one would be amenable to it especially since I was just another 13-year-old in 1958 with a passion for the same kinds of cars.
On a Friday night in the late 1950s after the movie let out in South Fallsburgh in upstate NY, we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Rialto Theater and took in the same kind of illegal drag racing you see in “Havana Motor Club”. The cars would not exactly compete with each other since it was a two-lane road heading out of town but they would line up in front of the traffic light and rev their engines until the light turned green. Watching a ’57 Chevy or Ford tearing up the street was a way to get the testosterone flowing.
My car racing circle at Bard included a student named Paul Gommi who was the typical Bardian of that time, which is to say an atypical American youth. Paul used to compete in a drag races in a class that was designated for modified sports cars like MG’s or Triumphs, popular at the time for people on a budget. Reading the fine print in the regulations, Paul discovered that it would be possible for him to compete with a 1932 Ford Phaeton that he had equipped with a bored and stroked English Ford engine. Over the years he has developed versions of this combination that have earned him accolades. This is a recent example as featured in a Hot Rod Network magazine article:
His latest creation is this original American ’32 Ford DeLuxe V-8 Phaeton (only 974 produced). He set about improving its performance exactly like he would have in 1955, using all pre-’55 parts, materials, machinery, tools, and even methods.
According to Paul, “A hot rod is all about the engine. Modifying the engine is the greatest improvement you can make in performance.” He chose a ’37 Ford 221ci 21-stud Flathead engine. For performance, he took a ’49 S.Co.T. supercharger and adapted the 21 studder by designing and making all the pulleys, drive, and modifying the manifold with the help of his friend Tom Taros.
Paul was an art major whose 12 feet tall paintings of drag racers lined the walls of the dining commons in 1965, done to fulfill the Senior Project required of all Bardians for graduation. Paul told us that he was done with art at that point. It was ready to move on to full-time racing and car-building as a profession.
In 1989 Paul’s drag racing career came to an end as his car spun off the track and resulted in a serious accident that nearly cost his life.
All I can say is that when the film shows officials warning the crowds at Cuba’s first drag racing race to keep a safe distance from the track, they had ample reasons to stick to their guns. Unless the people stood back, the race would be suspended. They surely understood the dangers of a car hurdling toward a crowd at over 100 miles per hour can pose. The top man representing the Cuban government in this emerging new sport is 72 years old and had vivid memories of the 1958 bloodbath. Whatever flaws the Cuban government has, neglect of the safety and health of its citizens is not one of them.