KEEPING THE SPIRIT ALIVE SINCE 1999

Alfonso de Portago was, until the arrival of the Alonso boy, the most successful Spanish driver in Formula 1.

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01-Jun-20/historicracing.com/

This is Don Alfonso Antonio Vicente Blas Angel Francisco Borija Cabez de Vaca y Leighton, Carvajal y Are, XVII Marqués de Portago, Marqués de Moratalla, XIII Conde de La Mejorada, Conde de Pernia, Duke of Alagon, Grande de Espana, known more usually as Alfonso de Portago or Fon to his friends.

 

Born in London, the son of a Spanish aristocrat, Antonio Cabeza de Vaca, and an Irish ex-nurse, he was basically a very wealthy playboy. When his father died from a heart attack during a game of polo in 1941, his mother Olga was widowed for the second time. Her first husband having shot himself after discovering he was terminally ill, leaving her a vast fortune.

 

 

Alfonso thus came from one of the oldest Spanish families who's ancestors included Martin Alhaja. Alhaja aided a Christian army attacking the Moors in the 13th century by leaving a cow's head to point out a secret mountain pass for their use. the family were thus granted the surname Cabeza de Vaca which means, for our non-Spanish readers, Cow's Head. his ancestors also included the explorer and anthropologist, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. In 1527 he had been part of an ill fated expedition to America. He was one of just four survivors, out of the 300 who landed near Tampa Bay, who, over the next eight years, travelled across the continent eventually reaching Mexico City in 1537.

 

But that is another story. Our tale is about 'Fon', an extravagant aristocrat, lover of the adventure, all-round sportsman and one of the most colourful characters ever to take to the tracks. An accomplished horseman, he won the title of French Amateur Champion Jockey on three occasions, rode in the Grand National at Aintree twice and was a fine show jumper. He was also a fine fencer, an excellent swimmer, a polo player and, in winter sports, he participated in the bobsleigh event in the 1956 Winter Olympics held in Cortina d'Ampezzo.Photo credit FarabolaPhoto credit FarabolaWith Alfonso driving and accompanied by three Spanish friends (the Marquis of Marino, Gonzalo Taboada and Luis Munoz) they finished in 9th in the four man event and in the two man Portago and Munoz only missed out on a medal by just fourteen hundredths of a second, beaten only by Switzerland, Italy and the USA. (I believe this was the first and last Spanish entry in the bobsleigh event at a Winter Olympiad.) He did win a bronze medal in the two man bobsleigh event at the 1957 FIBT World Championships in St. Moritz. He obtained his pilots licence at 17 but then had it revoked because of dangerous flying after taking and winning a bet that he could not fly under the span of a bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway in Palm Beach.

 

In 1949 he married an American former showgirl by the name of Carroll McDaniel with whom he had two children. At the time of the birth of his son in 1954 he was having an affair with Dorian Leigh, an early supermodel who made Revlon's 1950s Fire and Ice cosmetics line famous. It was about this time that he he first became involved in motor racing. In 1953 he had been living at the Plaza in New York with his mother.de Portago and Luigi Chinetti on the 1953 Carrera Panamerica. Photo credit Arzamendia.de Portago and Luigi Chinetti on the 1953 Carrera Panamerica. Photo credit Arzamendia. There he became friends with one of the employees, a man by the name of Edmund Nelson. Nelson, a 42 year old native of South Dakota and an Air Force veteran, told Alfonso about a car show in town. There he met Luigi Chinetti the Ferrari importer. Chinetti asked him if he would like to be his co-driver in the Carrera Panamericana in November. He duly took part though they retired with engine problems.

 

As Ed McDonough pointed out in his fine biography about de Portago, Fon actually started competing in 1953 racing Midgets in France and in 1954 Harry Schell persuaded him to buy a brand new Ferrari 250MM so they could racing together. They entered the Ferrari 250 MM Vignale (0390MM) in the Buenos Aires 1000 Km race and finished second though 'Fon' only spent a limited time behind the wheel. They then raced it again at Sebring though this time they retired with rear axle failure. By now Alfonso was well and truly bitten by the racing bug and bought a Maserati A6GCS to race in Europe. He entered Le Mans, partnered by Carlo Tomasi, but retired after 116 laps with oil pressure problems. At the end of June he won the 2 litre class in a minor race, the Circuit de Metz, and in July took on the Reims 12 Hour race but retired. He then bough an Osca MT4 which he raced in the Rhineland Cup at the Nürburgring (crashing out) and in the Tour de France with his old chum Edmund Nelson.

 

He then bought an ex-works 750 Ferrari Monza Scaglietti (0428M) and on his return to America he took part in the Carrera Panamericana again before shipping the 750 Monza to the Bahamas for the Speed Week at Nassau. There he won the Bahamas Cup and finished second in the Nassau Trophy.

 

He started 1955 driving the Monza at Sebring with Umberto Maglioli but retired with engine problems. He was then contacted by Ferrari and offered an F1 car and he duly purchased a Ferrari 375 GP (7). He entered the non-championship VII Gran Premio del Valentino retiring after 34 laps with oil pressure problems. At the Grand Prix de Pau he finished 8th before driving Rosier's Ferrari 375 to 4th in the Coupe de Paris at Montlhéry. Back in the 375 he failed to finish the Grand Prix de Bordeaux. Then at the International Trophy at Silverstone on May 7th he comprehensively wrote the car off along with his left leg. He recovered and in September drove a Ferrari 625 (54-1) in the International Gold Cup at Oulton Park but spun out.

 

In November he headed down to South America and raced the 750 Monza in the Venezuela Grand Prix finishing second before travelling to the Bahamas and winning the Governor's Trophy and the Nassau Ferrari Race as well as finishing second in the Nassau Trophy and 4th in the two litre Nassau Production Race in a Ferrari 250 GT.

 

Having handed his own car over to Phil Hill, Fon took over Eugenio Castellotti's Lancia Ferrari D50 which he ended up pushing across the finish line in 10th. Photo credit Ferrari.Having handed his own car over to Phil Hill, Fon took over Eugenio Castellotti's Lancia Ferrari D50 which he ended up pushing across the finish line in 10th. Photo credit Ferrari.He then got a call from the Ferrari factory with an invitation to join the works team. Thus in 1956 after just two years of racing he was a works driver for Scuderia Ferrari. All in all it was a pretty good season in sports cars with wins at the Circuito do Porto, the Tour de France Auto and the Coupes du Salon as well as a number of other podium finishes. These included a third in the 1000 km Nürburgring with Graham Hill and Gendebien and a second in the Swedish Grand Prix with Hawthorn, Hamilton and Collins. He also had good results at the Bahamas Speed Week. In F1 he retired in France, Germany and Italy but was shared second in the British Grand Prix after having to hand his car over to Phil Hill.

 

 Attacking the Karussel at the Nürburgring. Photo credit Oldtimer MarktAttacking the Karussel at the Nürburgring. Photo credit Oldtimer Markt

 

That last kiss.  Photo credit International News.That last kiss. Photo credit International News.1957 got off to a good start with a 5th in the Argentine Grand Prix sharing his car with Gonzales and finishing 3rd in the 1000 km Buenos Aires with Phil Hill and Castellotti. He drove a Ferrari 857S to a fine third in the Cuban Grand Prix after loosing time due a long pit stop. He finished 7th at Sebring and in April he won the Coupes de Vitesse at Montlhéry driving a works Ferrari 250 GT. With everything going so well, the conclusion was forgone.

 

On the Mille Miglia, well into the race, His Excellence embarked on an sudden, unscheduled and definitely unauthorised, diversion into the Italian countryside brought about when one of his back tires exploded at 150 mph just outside Mantua. The resulting reduction in the planet’s population did not go down at all well with the local authorities.Amongst those that unexpectedly found themselves on a boating adventure across the Styx, were the good Marqués himself, his co-driver and ten formerly content Italian spectators. All sporting surprised expressions.

 

The Italian government were persuaded that driving racing cars, for 12 hours at a time, along 1000 miles of questionable public roads, no longer sat well with their plans for enhanced public health. And so it came to pass that the Mille Miglia found itself placed firmly in the cardboard box marked “Stupidly Dangerous Motor Races”.

 

 

At the time Alfonso was in the process of getting a divorce from Carroll so he could legitimize his invalid Mexican marriage to Dorian Leigh with whom he had a son born on September 27th, 1955. However, de Portago was also dating Tyrone Power's ex-wife the actress Linda Christian. Linda had flown to Italy for the start of the race and photographers caught their kiss during his pit stop shortly before his crash. His divorce was to become final the day after his crash thus Carroll never signed the divorce document.


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