Into the bustling, rain-soaked railroad junction town of Cumberland, Md. (pop. 37,000) there descended last weekend an automotive avalanche unparalleled in the postwar history of American sports car racing. Lashed on every kind of trailer from the luxurious to the comical or driven under their own power, 284 sports cars attended by 272 nominated drivers and their crews from 21 states poured in through the narrow streets of the town for the annual Cumberland classic.
Cumberland's citizens were decked out, if not for the occasion, in a manner that gave striking emphasis to the big day. It was the city's 200th anniversary and the population was dressed in historic costumes—feminine shoppers in bustles, crinolines and poke bonnets; police directing traffic in bobby helmets, pipestem trousers and bushy black mustaches. One store was even selling calico at 6½¢ a yard, as it did 100 years ago. Against this backdrop the cavalcade of sports cars was a startling anachronism: 76 MGs, 53 Jaguars, 34 Austin-Healeys, 26 Porsches, 6 Oscas, 14 Siatas, 9 Triumphs, 5 Morgans, 4 Allards, 7 Ferraris, 5 Maseratis, 3 Mercedes-Benzes and a host of "one-offs" and specials.
Their rendezvous was Cumberland's municipal airport, 748 feet above sea level, 100 feet above the streets—a fabulous project bulldozed out of a minor Appalachian peak at a cost of $3 million. The course was laid out on 1.6 miles of runway and taxi strip in concrete and macadam, hay-baled to provide two right-angle corners, two hairpins and four deceptive curves that called for an average of 11 gearshifts per lap. Present were most of the "name" drivers in the sponsoring Sports Car Club of America: Walt Hansgen, Briggs Cunningham, Bill Spear, Sherwood Johnston, Bill Lloyd, Doc Wyllie, John Gordon Benett, 1954 Amateur Champion Jim Kimberly, the Porsche factory's Herbert Linge from Germany as well as a record intake of 102 novices, driving everything from an MG to a Maserati.
Friday and Saturday it rained. The rich red clay of Cumberland became a soggy mass that stuck in gobs to the sneakers and tires of the patiently waiting crews and cars lined up for technical inspection in an orderly half-mile serpent. But the time was well spent. The Road Racing Drivers Club—an organization dedicated to the welfare of an ever-growing sport—held a briefing session at which President Bill Lloyd told the novices: "Never drive on nerve—always on skill."
May 22, 1955
On race day the weather was perfect. Not a wisp of cloud marred the warm blue canopy overhead and over 40,000 eager kibitzers perched like ants on the slopes of adjoining hills.
Eleven races were scheduled for this busy day, the season's first big card in the East, that taxed officials to the point of exhaustion. For sheer fury of driving it was the opener that took the plum when 35 junior drivers in MGs jousted it out with unbelievable determination. Sliding through' the turns, they wound their game little engines to bursting point on every yard of this 30-minute battle which finally went to Leech Cracraft in a TF MG at 54.2 mph. Somehow, Runner-up Robert Ryder kept a pipe between his teeth throughout the whole affair.
The highlights were the 15-minute ladies' race (11:20 a.m., 12 starters) and the main event of one hour (4:15 p.m., 23 starters). Favored among the pretty wives battling for class honors were Suzan Dietrich in a green supercharged TC MG and Peggy Wyllie, wife of the race chairman, piloting her husband's C-type Jag. Suzan, driving the race of her life, ran away from the field to win by an easy eight seconds at 63.4 mph. Peggy spoiled her chances by spinning out twice but got past Evelyn Mull's gray Jaguar coupe to take second over all. So hot was the pace that the leaders soon lapped most of the field.
The 10th race was marred by what might have been a disaster when Don McKnought lost control of his Porsche and broadslid into the timing stand. Five people were injured. One of them was Peggy Wyllie.
The main event was a true battle of giants: Lloyd, Cunningham and Spear in those phenomenal new 3000S Maseratis (1,850 pounds, 270 hp, 160 mph); George Tilps's enormously potent four-cylinder Monza Ferrari driven by Hansgen; Johnston's ex-Cunningham 4.5 Ferrari and the untractable 4.9 model of Kimberly.
A THRILLING DUEL
Bill Lloyd's red Maserati streaked into the lead at once from pole position, followed by Johnston, Hansgen, Spear and Kimberly. But the pace was too fierce for the leader. Johnston's superior speed took him past Lloyd on lap three, while Spear's Maserati squeezed by two laps later, having taken Hansgen's white Ferrari. From then to the checkered flag the order of the three front men—Johnston, Spear and Lloyd—never changed, although their relative distance certainly did. Spear, hounding Johnston every inch of the way, tried a thousand tricks to best him but simply hadn't enough speed. Lap after lap this pair ran nose to tail in a thrilling duel, gradually pulling away from Lloyd until, on lap 32, about one minute eight seconds separated them from the rest of the field. Hansgen lost a connecting rod on lap seven, letting Kimberly into fourth place, but the latter seemed unhappy and never really going. Cunningham's Maserati bested him in a private duel and on the 20th time around both Cunningham and Kimberly were lapped by the two leaders. Kimberly finally quit on the 25th lap, apparently with plug trouble. Johnston's blue and white machine went on to snatch a narrow victory from Spear at 67.9 mph. The winner's style was impeccable; he never made the mistake Spear hoped for, and his hard-earned triumph was well deserved.