Of all my father's auto racing friends, none made a bigger impression on me growing up than Dr. Vicente Alvarez. To the world, his contribution to racing was enormous as a photographer, journalist, historian and collector. For me personally, it is the memory of his warmth, grace and generous personality that abides. To hear more about this remarkable human being, read on.
Vicente Alvarez was born in Buenos Aries, Argentina in 1919. He trained as a physician and surgeon and eventually was in charge of the Kaiser Industries medical program for all of Argentina. Early on, however, he made a commitment to auto racing and journalism. At first, he wrote about sports car racing for local magazines and then for Road and Track, Speed Age, Automundo and others. He was a excellent writer in both Spanish and English. Starting in the 1930's, he adopted the newly introduced Leica 35mm camera at a time when most were still using 4x5 press cameras. He was a brilliant photographer and continued to make photographs into the early 1990's.
Coming to America
Vicente began corresponding with my father in the 1940's. He began making annual trips to the US in 1955 to cover the Indianapolis 500 and other events like the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. He often stayed with us when he was in the area. His flashing smile and deep resonant voice brought excitement to my life as a 13-year old race fan with each visit as he told stories of racing around the world
Vicente Alvarez's story on the upcoming Indianapolis 500 was featured on the cover of the May 25, 1965 issue of Automundo magazine along with the Grand Prix of Monaco. Vicente was fluent in both English and Spanish. His stories appeared in publications in South America, the US and in Europe.
Juan Manuel Fangio at Indy
In his visit in 1958, Dr. Alvarez told us that his favorite grand prix driver, Juan Manuel Fangio, a five-time Formula One champion, was planning to enter the the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. Fangio had been ridiculed by publisher Floyd Clymer as a "false champion" because he had never competed in the "500". Clymer offered Fangio $500 if he could pass the rookie test and up to $5,000 if he completed the race. Fangio became the brickyard's oldest rookie at age 47 and did it faster than another newcomer that year - A.J. Foyt. Ultimately, Fangio withdrew when it became clear that the cars he was offered were not going to be competitive. It was Alvarez that got the exclusive interview with Fangio afterward.
At right is Juan Manuel Fangio getting advice at trackside from Indy champion Johnny Parsons. He is at the wheel of the #77 Datyton Steel Foundry Spl. He was also offered a ride in one of the V-8 Novi's. He withdrew when he could not get either car up to an acceptable speed. Fangio made many friends at the speedway but never returned as he retired at the end of that season.
The Miller Saga
Vicente Alvarez was a racing historian as well as a journalist. In 1959, he published a series of articles on the legendary race car and engine builder, Harry Miller. "The Miller Saga" ran in five consecutive issues of the British magazine Autosport during the month of May leading up to the 500 mile race. Alvarez provided a detailed account of the rise of the Millers to dominance at Indy and US racing in general in the 1920's and 1930's and beyond as Fred Offenhauser continued his legacy into the 1950's. In the article, Alvarez acknowledged the assistance of speedway publicity director Al Bloemker, Indy winner Peter De Paolo, Charles Lyte and a number of others with who he worked closely. Alvarez's network of friends and colleagues now stretched across America.
A True Race Fan
After my father died in 1961, I began photographing races and writing for the National Speed Sport News. Mr. Chris Economaki was kind enough to help me get a press pass to qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 in 1963. One of the first to greet me in the pits at Indy was Dr. Alvarez.
This was the scene at Indy in 1967 as we waited for the drizzle to stop so qualifying could commence. I spent my time talking to famous writer and photographer Jack Fox and with Vicente, soaking up information about the cars and drivers.
Five years later, in 1968, I saw him again at the annual "Little 500" in Anderson, Indiana. Far from the Formula I circuit or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Vicente was delighted to be on the track with IMCA sprint cars. Alvarez is shown here in front of Ray Wright's #98 roadster.
Tragedy at Indianapolis
As usual, Dr. Alvarez came from Argentina to Indianapolis in May 1971; but this visit would nearly take is life. A temporary set of bleachers had been erected for photographers at the end of pit road. Local car dealer Eldon Palmer lost control of the Dodge Challenger pace car and crashed into the stand. Alvarez was seriously injured and was rushed to Methodist Hospital. After an operation to remove a blood clot in his brain, Vicente lay in a coma for nine days. It took years for him to recover and his career as a surgeon was over. For the rest of his life he suffered from some memory loss. Although he certainly could have sued the speedway and everyone involved, that was not his way.
By 1973 he was back at the speedway making photographs and being with his many friends.Here he poses with mechanic George Bignotti and Gorgon Johncock. Johncock had just won the 1973 Indy 500 that was marred by the death of driver Swede Savage and a member of Johncock's pit crew.
In addition to the thousands of photographs he took himself, Vicente Alvarez along with Bruce Craig acquired photo collections of other early racing photographers such as Ted Wilson. This invaluable archive was where author Jack Fox turned to illustrate his famous book, "The Mighty Midgets". Vicente's personal collection is now apparently represented by The Klemensaki Collection.
I don't know too much about Dr. Alvarez in his later years. I saw him once or twice in the 1970's, still telling wonderful stories and smoking his ever-present Pall Mall cigarettes. His caring and affection for his friends never diminished. I recently found a letter he wrote to my mother in 1982. In it he tells her that he will never return to the U.S. and laments the loss of his mental faculties. A life-long bachelor, he also told my mother of his deep affection for our close family friend and my god mother, Angie Allegrina. He never told Angie how he felt and asked my mother to keep his secret since the time was long past when he might have acted on those feelings. I believe Vicente died in Buenos Aires about 1996. He led a rich, long and full life. I treasure his memory.