The weather at daybreak perfectly set the stage for the critical hours of last Saturday's world championship 12-hour sports car race at Sebring, Fla. Fog hid the sun and gave the air a clammy chill. By 10 a.m., starting time for the race, the fog had thinned, but the gloomy dankness remained. The customary buoyant mood of the racing people had already been depressed by a week of heavy rain, which cut practice time drastically, and by the fatal accident in the night practice on the previous evening of a 30-year-old Detroit automobile salesman and weekend driver, E. P. Lawrence, whose three-liter Maserati had flipped and burned.
More tension resulted from a dispute between the powerful Ferrari team and the Sebring management. At one point Team Manager Romolo Tavoni threatened to withdraw the cars, insisting that he had orders from home to use Ferrari's contract fuel (Shell) and that he had been given prior assurance that the team would be excused from the traditional Sebring requirement that only one kind of gas be used (Amoco, which promotes and contributes heavily to the Sebring operation). Race Director Alec Ulmann insisted that Amoco be used. Finally the chief U.S. representative for Ferrari, Luigi Chinetti, served as peacemaker and persuaded Tavoni to relent. Had the cars actually been withdrawn, the race, as the figurative saying goes, would have run out of gas.
Disappointing news came from the Connecticut sportsman, Briggs Cunningham, that he hadn't been able to work the bugs out of an experimental water-cooled braking system (S.I., March 16) in time for the race and that he had refitted conventional disk brakes on the English Lister-Jaguar concerned.
However, it takes more than bad weather and a disappointment or two to keep deep-dyed followers of road racing away from Sebring. The spectators who turned out last week had no reason to regret the trip, because the race held in store phenomenal driving and much suspense.
March 30, 1959
Britain's Roy Salvadori was first away in the Le Mans-style start, and behind him onto the 5.2-mile course came a noisy swarm of 64 sports cars—wasp-sized 750 cc. DBs from France buzzing along as aggressively as the maximum-displacement three-liter racers at the other end of the engine scale. Salvadori's green Aston Martin led at the end of the first lap but soon retired because of mechanical difficulties. As expected, the factory Ferraris swiftly poked their sleek red snouts to the front—those driven by France's Jean Behra and California's Dan Gurney at once and, within 15 laps, that of Belgium's Olivier Gendebien, which had made a poor start. In the pits the wonderfully gifted Californian, Phil Hill, awaited his driving shift in the No. 8 car driven by Gendebien, his co-driver in victory last year in the biggest sports car race of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Two of the three Lister-Jaguars, the Ferraris' most formidable opposition among the big cars, rolled along in the first flight, Britain's Ivor Bueb leading New Jersey's Walt Hansgen, and in the pits the great British driver, Stirling Moss, waited to relieve Bueb. No chance for Moss to worry the opponents by making one of his customary sprints at the start of a long distance race. But he would be more effective in reserve.
SECURITY IN HIS SIXTH
Behra did the sprinting for Ferrari, stretching his lead over Gendebien to two minutes by the time he gave his seat to Co-driver Cliff Allison after 40 laps, but some work on the car's starter motor took a costly five and a half minutes.
Hill relieved Gendebien and, with traffic sorted out after the first round of pit stops, held a comfortable lead over California's Chuck Daigh, Gurney's co-driver, and a big margin over Allison. Driving with great security in his sixth race at Sebring, Hill took just over 20 laps to attain a full lap lead on Daigh's second-place Ferrari. Moss passed Allison but could not reasonably hope to catch the flying Hill from so far behind. As the sun shone brightly now, only to deceive, so did Hill's Ferrari dominate the race at midday. When it had done 78 laps, Hill heard "a helluva noise" at the rear and the car was retired with a damaged pinion bearing.
The Hansgen Lister-Jaguar had dropped out of contention with a broken De Dion tube, leaving the task of besting the Ferraris squarely with Moss. He seemed perfectly capable of it. Driving the streamlined new car with body designed by British Aerodynamicist Frank Costin, Moss chipped steadily at the lead of Chuck Daigh's Ferrari. When Daigh pitted to hand the car to Gendebien—free along with Hill to substitute in other team cars—Moss went ahead. But suddenly Moss, too, was out. He is said to have shrugged off a signal to go into the pits in order to turn just one more lap. At any rate, the fastest road-racing driver in the world stalled on the course. By riding to and from the pit, instead of walking, and then accepting a push by another Jag to get his car to the pit, Moss invited disqualification, and his mount was black-flagged off when he resumed the race.
As a crackle of thunder and a flash of lightning from a nearby electrical storm heralded Moss's departure, the Ferrari manager, Tavoni, glowered at the sky and at the amazing Porsche Spyders which zipped smartly past his command post. With Moss out, Behra held the lead, having relieved Allison; but a miscue could allow the 1.6-liter Porsche of Germany's Wolfgang von Trips and Sweden's Joakim Bonnier to slip ahead. This silver dart had already passed the other contending Ferrari, according to Tavoni's chart; two 1.5-liter Porsches were well-placed for a long run at the Ferraris—one driven by Germany's Edgar Barth and the Connecticut veteran John Fitch, the other by the U.S. Porsche experts, Bob Holbert and Don Sesslar.
Tavoni worried mostly about the rain that began to fall lightly and then more and more heavily. The team had no special rain tires. Pre-race practice in the rain, with conventional tires, had been dismally poor. Nearly half the race remained to be run, it would be getting dark soon, and rain would not only slick the road part of the course but collect in dangerous puddles on the concrete airport runway stretches.
As it rained, these expected hazards quickly became real. Now began probably the most nerve-jangling and exhausting session of road racing ever recorded in this country and one with few equals in the world. No matter how extravagantly the drivers may embroider the tale for their grandchildren one day, they will hardly be able to convey the desperateness of their predicament. It is certainly arguable that to keep driving courted disaster. It is always said that road racing men never quit because of rain. And they didn't this day.
Phil Hill, a superb driver on wet pavement, took the Gurney-Daigh-Gendebien Ferrari—lucky No. 7—gained second place and set out after the leading Ferrari driven by Allison. Less experienced than Hill, Allison found his steering so unpredictable that he came to the pits thinking something had gone wrong with the car. He was shocked to discover nothing had. And Hill thereby assumed the lead.
With nightfall, and only headlights for illumination, half-lit roostertails of water followed the racers as they ploughed through the puddles. A Stanguellini skidded and wrapped around a bridge pillar, leaving the driver unhurt. Lance Reventlow, builder of the Scarab sports cars, got no steering response as he approached one corner, and he went off the road at high speed in the privately entered three-liter Ferrari of Georgia's E. D. Martin. He stayed in the race and ultimately the car placed sixth.
The rain stopped after two and a half hours and a rainbow appeared, but the course remained treacherous until near the end when the cars had dried a path. Having persevered for 41 laps, Phil Hill was finally relieved by Gendebien after the car's 163rd lap of the day. Hill stood speechless for a moment when asked to compare the conditions with those at Le Mans last year, where it had rained so long and hard.
"It's monstrous," he said finally. "I've never seen anything like it before, at Le Mans or anywhere else."
POINTERS WITH PRIDE
Despite the hazards no serious injury was reported, and Hill by his skill and bravery gave Gendebien a margin of more than one lap to play out to the finish. When the race ended at 10 p.m. Gendebien still had the lap over the second-place Ferrari, driven by Behra at the end, and four laps over the third place Von Trips-Bonnier Porsche. If Italy could point with pride to five Ferraris among the first 10 finishers, and Germany to six Porsches among the first 11, France won no small honor in the victory on Index of Performance (handicap) by the tiny DB of Paul Armagnac and Gerard Laureau.
In the tense moment at the finish, with 48 cars still racing, everyone strained to see the winning Ferrari completing its last round—the 188th for a total distance of 977.6 miles, at an average speed of 80.257 mph—Phil Hill jumped with joy and, seeing the gallant red car, flashed a team placard saying "Bravo" for Gendebien to see. Hill deserved three cheers and a sis-boom-bah himself.