Nitro Narcos: The Racing Career of Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar is a name associated with Colombian criminality, unprecedented violence, the cocaine trade and the Medellin Cartel. The latest on-screen rendition that maps his existence as a feared drug lord and political egotist is the Netflix series Narcos. But Escobar’s name wasn’t printed in Colombian media for the first time on charges of drug trafficking or sly political endeavours, but in a race report.

Post-war mass car production created geo-specific affordable vehicles that became synonymous within their respective home nations. Germany had the VW Beetle, Italy the Fiat 500. For Colombia, it was the Renault R4, or “Renaulito”, which remains a Colombian sigil of motoring pride today. This 24-bhp model would initiate Escobar’s career in motor racing, but would also later feature in his contradiction of illegal activities, campaigns of horrific violence and charitable yet manipulative gestures to the poorest people of Colombia.

This 24-bhp model would initiate Escobar’s career in motor racing, but would also later feature in his contradiction of illegal activities, campaigns of horrific violence and charitable yet manipulative gestures to the poorest people of Colombia.

Escobar entered the 1979 Copa Renault 4 Championship, this series would be the UK’s equivalent of the Clio Cup today. The cars were supposed to be equal-spec, but Escobar’s was allegedly much quicker on the straights, not that anybody would question him about it.

He was second in the championship after six races, and by this time, he had already been arrested a few times, although nobody in the motoring press suggested his real occupation to their audiences. In 1974, he was arrested for the first time whilst driving a green Renault R4, such was his love for the car.

A competitor from the 1979 Copa Renault 4 Championship retrospectively commented that,

“Escobar’s team would show up to races with two support trucks. He was the only one with that kind of operation,  he would arrive in a helicopter. But after the race he would offer everyone lavish meals with champagne and unbelievable women. I wonder if anyone really believed he did not sell drugs”

Don Pablo was an enthusiastic but average driver, it didn’t help that his pre-race routine involved smoking a fatty to “focus his mind”. We can’t all possess the natural ability of Max Verstappen to get away with this.

Escobar’s underlying criminality would seep through into his motorsport activities beyond bankrolling himself. On one occasion half-way through the 1979 season, he organised for police to hold up one of his competitors on their way to the circuit in order to prevent them from racing.

The police were in his back pocket, as was most of Colombia given that the revenues generated through cocaine trafficking were higher than the national GDP. As Escobar’s empire grew, his ambitions in affiliating his cash with Motorsport did too. Ricardo Londono was the best Colombian race driver at domestic level throughout the seventies and was financially supported by Escobar on the International motorsport scene.

The pair were close, and Escobar would challenge Londono to hill climbs in Colombia and put wagers on being able to finish within 15-seconds of any time Londono registered. They would often thrash Porsche 911RSR’s around Bogota and Medellin, but these meetings would also provide cover for loftier plans too.

Londono secured a test session with the Ensign Formula One team in 1981 that took place on the Wednesday before the Brazilian Grand Prix at the Jacarepagua circuit. His pace justified a race start, he was four seconds adrift of the great Carlos Reutemenn, but quicker than the likes of the established Nelson Piquet and Rene Arnoux, who were in cars that should have had the pace to be quicker than Londono in the Ensign.

But once the paper trail was traced, linking Londono to dirty Medellin Cartel money, Bernie Ecclestone and other powers that resided over F1 revoked his application for a Superlicense, but at the time cited the reason behind the rejection as a collision with Keke Rosberg in the test session. They were clearly afraid of calling Pablo Escobar’s driver out and allowing the Cartel connection to fall into the public domain.

Londono would go on to compete in America and a handful of F2 races. He lived until 2009, when he was assassinated with two bodyguards in an incident believed to be linked to a dispute between opposing drug barons.

This attempt at aligning his finances with F1 would serve as a broader metaphor for Pablo Escobar’s ultimate struggle to transport his physical cash into legal tenor. Escobar would continue to collect lavish vehicles alongside a fleet of Renault R4’s, the remnants of his collection are piles of rust today.

Escobar was a monster elevated by a false projection that everything he did was for the benefit of Colombia, the fact that he had the racing bug doesn’t make him any warmer, and the attempt to fund Ricardo Londono into Formula One was likely a move equal in parts to serve a love for Motorsport and fill an insuppressible ego.