Life in the Fast Lane: The Rise and Untimely Death of Mexico's Greatest Driver
Pedro Rodriguez was born to go fast. Indeed, his early life involved two things that all great race drivers understand; change and competition. To succeed in auto racing, a driver must adapt to change. Track conditions, weather, tire conditions, traffic, and more, are ever-evolving during a race. Great drivers make their cars go fast no matter how the conditions change. Conditions for Mexico were changing too. Rodríguez’s success brought international attention to Mexican racing at a time when Mexico was attempting to expand its international influence. Pedro Rodríguez was undoubtedly great. In fact, many say he was the greatest. Mexican business leader Carlos Slim-Domit put it this way, “…when we think about Motorsports in Mexico, we have the Rodriguez brothers as our reference…." Pedro's life would be cut tragically short, however, when he died doing what he loved most, driving a race car.
Pedro Rodriguez was born to Don Pedro and Doña Conchita Rodriguez de la Vega in 1940. Two years later, little brother Rodrigo was born. The family had a comfortable life in the Nueva Anzures borough of Mexico City. Don Pedro was a driver for Mexican Presidential candidate Lázaro Cárdenas-del Río. He later became a successful railroad broker. The brothers were competitors early in life. Don Pedro encouraged competition, signing the boys up for boxing lessons and encouraging them to race on their bicycles. Young Pedro preferred speed to anything else. He loved horses and cars, often riding his horse at high speed and yearning for the day he was old enough to experience the same feeling in an automobile. Little Ricardo copied Pedro in everything he did, as many younger siblings will.
By 9, Pedro had won his class in a national bicycle racing series. In 1952, he began racing motorcycles. His natural ability began to emerge around this time. At first, he could not compete with the other riders' more powerful motorcycles. However, when Don Pedro sprang for the faster Adler motorcycle, Pedro immediately became competitive and experienced victory for the first time. In 1953, Pedro would win the first five races he entered.
Pedro and Ricardo each had tremendously successful racing careers on motorcycles, but cars were what they really wanted to drive. Don Pedro worked the licensing systems to try and get his teenage sons an opportunity to drive. He owned a Porsche 350 and wanted young Pedro to drive it in the 1954 Carrera Panamericana. Being an international race, however, the sanctioning body (the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or "FIA") would not allow it. However, Don Pedro's success in business and his passion for motorsports put him at the forefront of Mexican car culture. At one point, Mexican President Adolfo Lopez-Mateos asked his friend Don Pedro to acquire a Ferrari for use around Mexico City.
Things were changing for Mexico and the Rodriguez family. Boys will be boys, and the teenage Pedro and Ricardo were experiencing the tensions of adolescence. After a big altercation, Don Pedro decided young Pedro needed discipline more than racing trophies and sent him to Western Military Academy in Illinois. Ricardo could not race during the school year, which he felt was a waste of time and talent. Nevertheless, Don Pedro and Doña Conchita insisted on the boys' education. For Don Pedro, fortunes were increasing. His fellow car enthusiast Adolfo López-Mateos was on his way to the Mexican presidency. This raised Don Pedro's profile significantly. Incidentally, Don Pedro delivered López-Mateos’s Ferrari to his door on his birthday in 1956. It was also time to move his teenage sons into cars. Don Pedro bought young Pedro a 1957 corvette, although Ricardo took the liberty of driving it while his brother was away at school. In early 1957, Ricardo became the first of the two brothers to enter an auto race, competing in an Opel at a touring race near Mexico City, where he would finish second.
A the end of the 1957 school year, Ricardo had enjoyed tremendous success in his new career, though his young age was causing some consternation among the racing regulators. Ricardo accompanied Don Pedro to Illinois to pick up Pedro from school. The three attended that year's Indianapolis 500, with both boys pledging to drive in the race someday. Upon returning to Mexico, it became clear to Pedro that Ricardo had a tremendous lead in their shared dream to become race car drivers. Pedro refused to return to Western Military Academy and insisted that Don Pedro allow him to begin his racing career. Don Pedro gave in, and young Pedro got his start.
As Pedro and Ricardo grew up, the auto racing culture was blossoming in Mexico. In 1950, the Mexican section of the Pan-American highway was inaugurated, and the Carerra Panamericana (Pan-American Road Race) was held in celebration. The Mexican government often used large national celebrations to solidify and celebrate its rule and to advertise progress to the world. No doubt this race inspired the Rodriguez brothers in their quest for glory. As the Pan-American highway would connect the Americas, so would the Carrera Panamericana connect Mexico to the world. Sport offers a unique opportunity for both international unity and national pride. Like President López-Mateos’s love of Ferraris, cars and racing carry international appeal. The Carrera Panamericana focused world eyes on Mexico while at the same time giving the Mexican people pride of place as its international status as a modern nation would grow during the period later referred to as the "Mexican Miracle." Like many young men who catch the racing bug, this period would propel the Rodriguez brothers to greatness.
Ricardo would make his U.S. debut in Riverside, California, in 1958. He drove a Porsche to victory in one of his races, to the amazement of the American spectators. Ricardo teamed with Pedro at LeMans in 1959 but did not finish the race. In 1960, however, Ricardo finished second in his class at LeMans and became the youngest driver to have a podium finish in the storied race. By 1962, Ricardo had started three Formula 1 races, the peak of motorsports. He did not win, but in 1961 became the youngest driver to ever qualify for the front row on the starting grid when he qualified a Ferrari second at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix.
In 1962, Ricardo was scheduled to race for Lotus in the Mexican Grand Prix. While testing his car, he entered a 180-degree corner too fast and hit the guardrail head-on. Strangely, he was not wearing his safety harness, and as he was ejected from the car, the windshield nearly severed him in two. At the time, Ricardo was regarded as the more naturally talented driver over Pedro. His death shook the Mexican people but hit Pedro particularly hard. Shortly after Ricardo's funeral, Pedro announced his retirement from racing. He could not go on.
In 1963, Ferrari wanted Pedro to run a race at Daytona, Florida. Pedro went to great lengths to limit the publicity surrounding his return. He was curious to know how he would respond when he got back in the car and how Ricardo's memory might affect his driving. Pedro answered any remaining questions when he won the race in the Ferrari. Pedro was not the natural talent that his brother had been. Legendary Formula 1 mechanic Jo Ramirez writes, “More often than not Pedro used to spend more time off the circuit than on it, and whenever there was a crash it was Pedro at the wheel.” Nevertheless, Pedro was capable of tremendous feats of driving. One example was the 1971 World Manufacturer's Championship. Driving the iconic Porsche 917, Pedro lost three entire laps in the pits but emerged and not only made up the laps but won the race! In that particular race, Pedro drove 157 of the 170 laps.
In 1964, Pedro scored his first Formula 1 point, finishing 6th in the Mexican Grand Prix. His prospects in Formula 1 seemed bright. A yearbook for 1964 complimented Pedro's talents. "He has all the necessary qualities…youthful, fearless without being reckless, and technical sympathy with his machine. Young Pedro Rodriguez could be a promising investment." Pedro would drive more Formula 1 races for Ferrari and Lotus in the ensuing three years but without much success. Mexican auto racing was also facing tough times as the presidency of López-Mateos gave way to that of Gustavo Díaz-Ordaz at the end of 1964. López-Mateos was a racing fan. He had promoted auto racing in Mexico for its own sake and to give Mexico more international connection during the "Global Sixties." Días-Ordaz, however, cared more for soccer or the Olympics. As a result, Pedro Rodriguez sought the international opportunities Formula 1 provided. Pedro also traveled to compete in many other racing series. In 1965, he competed in NASCAR's 600-mile race in Charlotte. NASCAR president Bill France had recommended Pedro to one of NASCAR's premier teams, Holman-Moody. Despite having little oval-track experience, Pedro brought his Ford home in fifth place.
The first Formula 1 race for the 1967 season took place in South Africa. Pedro had been hired for just that race by the Cooper team, with the proviso that if he performed well, the team might hire him for the rest of the season. Pedro qualified in the fourth starting position. During the race, he lost fourth gear, resulting in his having to race the car using only third and fifth. A series of retirements in front of him and his pushing the car to its absolute limit allowed Pedro to win the race for his first Formula 1 victory. When he crossed the finish line, his tires were completely bald.
Often in motor racing, the elusive first victory leads to further success. Pedro would win the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix and a non-championship race at Oulton Park in England. He would finish "in the points" at four other races in 1970. He would also finish second in Holland in 1971. During this era in motorsports, the top drivers often competed in multiple racing series. For example, Mario Andretti had season championships in Indy Car, Formula 1, and even USAC dirt track racing, in addition to winning NASCAR’s Daytona 500. Similarly, Pedro would continue competing at LeMans, winning in 1968 with co-driver Lucien Bianchi in the legendary Ford GT40. Pedro would win ten times with Ferrari in sportscars and eight times with Porsche.
In 1971, Pedro planned to enter an Interseries race at the famed Norisring in Germany. The 200-mile race was not important for Pedro's career, but he had been offered a Ferrari to drive. He started on the first row and took the lead almost immediately. By the fifth lap, he was catching the last-place cars. However, on lap 12, as he entered an "S" curve, his car spun out of control, bounced off a concrete wall, and came to rest in a guardrail. The car burst into flames. Pedro was revived three times on his way to the hospital but could not be revived a fourth.
Pedro Rodriguez died in what may have been his best year ever. Thousands of people crowded the airport when his body returned to Mexico. The mayor of Mexico City sat with the Rodriguez family at his funeral. Mexico's most successful race driver was laid to rest in the Spanish Cemetery. Legendary racing engineer John Wyer put it best, "For me, Pedro was the greatest driver of his time…I mean the greatest. He is irreplicable.”
Pedro Rodriguez and Ricardo, for a time, brought motorsports to the fore in Mexican society. At a time when Mexico sought to build its international connections and place itself more prominently in the international conversations during the "Global Sixties," the success of the Rodriguez brothers helped elevate Mexico's standing in one of the most popular international sporting communities. Pedro would also inspire generations to come. Current Formula 1 driver Sergio "Checo" Perez drives for the famed Red Bull Racing Formula 1 team. Celebrating victory in the 2022 Monaco Grand Prix, Perez said, "It's a massive day for me and my country…I was running today Pedro Rodriguez's helmet and I'm sure up there he's super proud of what we have achieved together in the sport."
Mexican motor racing suffered after Pedro's death. The Mexican Grand Prix was canceled due to dangerously rowdy crowds in 1970. Most Mexican drivers built their careers outside Mexico. Though it would take years, racing did eventually come back to Mexico. The Mexican Grand Prix finally returned in 1986—at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, named for Mexico's racing brothers. The race now occupies a prominent place on the Formula 1 race schedule and forever enshrined Pedro Rodriguez’s legacy as Mexico’s greatest driver.