Mechanic for 'The Maestro'

Local residents remember Ana Delfosse as the former longtime manager of the 76 gas station south of Ashland. But few may know that in the 1950s, she was a racer and "the famous woman mechanic" for one of Grand Prix's greatest racers of all time — Juan "The Maestro" Fangio.

Delfosse was part of the five-time world championship winner's team in 1953, when Formula One Racing held its first sanctioned race outside Europe at the Autodrome near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fangio was driving a Mercedes-Benz at the time. Delfosse was 22.

"I was the only woman allowed in the Mercedes-Benz garage," recalls Delfosse, now 81. "The social setting in Argentina at the time about women was we were supposed to be good wives and mothers "… not pursue any outrageous careers at all."

Her obsession with racing started when she was 16, living on her family's sheep ranch outside Balcarce, Argentina, where Fangio was born.

The short, bowlegged man with the high-pitched voice tested his early 1940s Chevrolet racing coupes on a strip of highway that stretched past the ranch, Delfosse says.

"He would just drive by like lightning," says Delfosse. "It did something to me."

She ventured into town, to Fangio's General Motors dealership, to take a closer look.

"At night, they would work on the race cars," she says. "I thought it was so exciting, but it was not proper for a woman to go to the garage."

Delfosse kept going back anyway, always doing her best to stay unnoticed among the crowd, until one day in 1947 she was singled out.

"You, come over here!" demanded Fangio's brother and head mechanic, Ruben "Toto" Fangio.

"I look around, and say 'Who, me?'" she recalls. "I got to work on the car for a few minutes and everyone just looked at me and said, 'What is she doing there?'"

She says Toto, who was yelling for his assistant mechanic, needed a quick hand with the car and pointed to her out of the blue.

Delfosse says she then made up her mind. "I was either going to be a race car driver or a race car mechanic," she says.

She asked to join the team that night, for no pay, and the Fangios agreed to train her as an apprentice mechanic.

Juan Fangio didn't win the 1953 race, when Delfosse was part of his pit crew, but he did claim the championship in 1951, 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1957. Delfosse worked as a mechanic and public relations person for Fangio for eight years in Argentina, prompting Argentine Goles Magazine to call Delfosse "the famous woman mechanic."

Delfosse met her husband, Curt, while working in Fangio's garage in Buenos Aires. Curt was having a problem with a race car he was building, and Fangio referred him to his mechanic — her, she says.

The couple wed in 1955. They opened an automotive garage in Buenos Aires, specializing in Porsche-based, custom-built race cars, and that's when Delfosse started racing.

In the late 1950s, the couple completed a 3,000-mile road race over the Andes, a renowned international competition involving more than 350 cars, she says.

They competed in the Andes race again, in 1961, but Ana wrecked her Fiat out of the lead on Day 3, at about 12,000 feet. It was her first race car.

"It was a smaller car with a souped-up engine," she recalls. "It was just a trail up there, so rough that my back wheel broke and disintegrated. "… I lost control and the car rolled several times."

She'd already completed about half of the race well ahead of the pace, she says.

"Native Indians, who lived in small huts, came and helped us put the car back on the road," she says. "And we drove it away."

The couple used a rope to yank the brake pedal, which was sticking to the floor the rest of the day after the crash, she says.

"It was a big race and very, very challenging," she says. "Everybody was so scared of those roads."

The couple moved to San Diego that year, established Delfosse Racing, and became one of the first automotive shops in the United States to begin importing German-made Bilstein car shocks.

They were a hit among automobile enthusiasts and allowed Curt Delfosse to continue designing race cars.

The couple retired from the racing industry and moved to the Applegate Valley in 1977. Ten years later, they moved to Ashland to open the gas station now branded as a 76 at the south Interstate 5 interchange.

"Racing was too expensive," she says. "I love it, but it's a very demanding way of life."

Delfosse hasn't driven a race car since 1963 — a few test laps in a Formula Four car her husband designed, she says.

While managing the service station in Ashland, the couple garnered some fame for their then-unique and effective German-made tire chains they imported. After her husband died in 1998 at age 86, Delfosse continued to operate the station until last year.

Now, Delfosse drives a van and a sports utility vehicle.

"I really enjoyed all my experiences with cars," she says, noting she competed in about 20 professional races. "When I had a good day, it was like something else took me over "… I was on a different plane."

She still watches Formula One racing closely, she says, and enjoys the occasional drive up Greensprings Highway in her friend's new Porsche.

"After all these years, Porsche is still my favorite," she says.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

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