A couple of days before the start of last Saturday's 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance at Sebring, Florida, the boys around a hotel bar were discussing Stirling Moss, the superb English racing driver who had just been signed to handle one of the brand new "bird-cage" Maseratis.
"With Stirling in that new Maser," one of them was saying, "he'll lose the field before the fun begins."
"Yeah," said a skeptic, "if he doesn't lose the Maser's gear box."
For the first eight hours of this longest of all American automobile races, the endurance contest between Stirling Moss and his gear box, to say nothing of the rest of his car, provided a delicious suspense. As most of the 15,000 or so dedicated racing connoisseurs knew, around the twists and turns of a road racing track there is no faster driver in business today than Stirling Moss. But when he is pushing a car to its utmost—as only he can—it is problematical whether his car can survive the pounding of a long grind.
April 4, 1960
At around six o'clock in the evening, just as it was turning dusk on this ideally warm and sunny day, the predictable happened. Moss drove his white, sway-backed Maserati No. 23 to the pits for the last time. One of the gears in the transmission box was broken beyond repair. At that moment, Moss and Dan Gurney, the young Californian who had been sharing the driving with him, had a good 10-minute lead over the closest of the three Porsches that were trailing them. They had covered more than 700 miles at an average speed of 87.5 miles per hour. Had they continued at that pace to the end, they would have broken by several hundred miles the all-time Sebring record for distance traveled in 12 hours.
It is no reflection on Olivier Gendebien and Hans Hermann, the eventual Sebring winners, that once Moss and Gurney's No. 23 had left the race, the remaining four hours run mostly in darkness were a distinct anticlimax. Three tremendously durable Porsches took over the first three positions, and there was never any doubt that one of them would eventually pull into the victory lane a couple of minutes after the checkered flag was lowered at 10 p.m. The other two Porsches finished second and ninth.
That is not to say that the Porsche victory was anything but popular. As it became inevitable, the regulars around the track were all smiles at the thought that this doughty little plugger of a car was at last to have its innings after so many years as a Sebring also-ran. It was the good old David-and-Goliath situation, for the Porsche's 1.5-liter engine is only half the size of the larger Maseratis and Ferraris which have dominated past races.
While victory was a novelty for the Porsche, it was anything but for its chauffeurs. Last year Gendebien in a Ferrari shared the winning ride with Gurney and those other Californians, Phil Hill and Chuck Daigh. The year before he was one of the drivers in the second-place Ferrari. A tall, brown-haired and personable Belgian with a reputation as one of the surest and most versatile of the European drivers, Gendebien was able to take the customary pandemonium of the victory lane with an understanding smile—waving the gold cup, kissing the beauty queen, donning the wreath of kumquats and swigging the California champagne with modest good humor. Later he told the press that his was no great feat since the Porsche is so much easier to drive than the bigger, heavier cars.
"We had just a little trouble, it is true," Gendebien said in his attractively halting English. "The clutch regulation was not so perfect. But we were driving the car so carefully, and my partner Hans Hermann was so smooth that whenever I got in the car it was as if I had not left it at all."
Hermann stood by all the while, looking delighted. If not so famous a driver as Gendebien, he, too, is experienced, having been on the Mercedes team in the days of Juan Fangio. At 32, he is four years junior to Gendebien, but it was not this so much as the language barrier that kept this native of Stuttgart smilingly quiet throughout the celebration.
Still and all, it was really Moss's day in the minds of the spectators. For Moss is one of those rare individuals who is always bigger than his surroundings. When Moss is on a race track, your attention is on him. You think about the others only in terms of how they are doing against Moss, for the driver doesn't exist today who can carry Moss's crash helmet.
Once he steps out of the cockpit of his car, however, Stirling Moss is not the prepossessing man you may have imagined him to be. Short and slight of build, he has a sharp, swarthy face and narrow cat-like eyes that seem to scan the world with tolerant disinterest. Yet he has a well-practiced professional courtesy towards the outside world, much like the movie stars used to have in the days when people went to the movies.
In an accent with strong cockney traces, Moss will, if asked, recite his accomplishments (which are extraordinary) almost as if he were playing a record. He travels, as celebrities are wont to do, inside a wall of friends and hangers-on, one of whom is his father, who once drove at Indianapolis.
When Moss's car fails him before a race is over—as it so frequently does because few cars can stand the kind of punishment his brinksmanship driving gives them—he never seems downcast. He is, literally, a corporation whose major asset is the unassailable fact that Stirling Moss, of Stirling Moss, Ltd., is the world's fastest driver. The corporation endorses motoring products and produces books and weekly articles under the Stirling Moss by-line and earns its namesake a yearly income well into six figures. The paltry winner's share of a race like Sebring means little to a man who just for showing up demands and usually gets far more than the winner's purse. Generally, $2,500 would be his minimum for a race, and the fee might easily go as high as $10,000 for a major event.
Without Stirling Moss this year's Sebring race might easily have been a serious artistic bust. For days in advance, the news was concerned more with who wasn't going to be in the race than who was. Not for years had Sebring known such a dearth of the who's who of racing as well as the what's what of cars. The story of the race began to take shape like the plot of a Cameron Hawley novel, perhaps titled, Big Business Enters the Race.
It all began when word drifted out of Europe that the Ferrari and Porsche works teams would not participate in this year's race because of a gasoline problem. Both, as is customary with European manufacturers, had contracts to use one gasoline exclusively—in this case, Shell. Sebring, as is the custom with some U.S. race tracks, had a contract which barred all but Amoco gasoline from the track. (Amoco puts up $15,000 prize money at Sebring—$3,000 to the winning car and the rest to class winners and also-rans—plus about another $5,000 in incidentals.) In both instances money is the important consideration. In exchange for same, corporations are able to exclude competitors from the scene. Later they can boast in ads: "So-and-so wins again with Shell," or "The first five cars to finish used Amoco"—but never a mention that so did the last five cars.
C'EST LA DIFFÉRENCE
There is a difference of opinion as to just what happened last year when Sebring also had its exclusive contract with Amoco, and Ferrari, equally tied to Shell, entered its works team. There is an equal difference of opinion as to what happened this year. One fact seems clear. All parties were honoring the letters of their contracts. Enzo Ferrari, the tough and temperamental man who builds Ferrari cars, was adamant. Alec Ulmann, the impresario of Sebring who took over the race from its founders in the early 1950s and brought it to its present stature, could not be moved. This meant the withdrawal of the top contract drivers working for the Ferrari and Porsche teams. It deprived Sebring of Phil Hill, Tony Brooks and Cliff Allison of England, Wolfgang von Trips of Germany and Jack Brabham of Australia, currently the world driver champion.
The absence of an all-star cast undoubtedly had a marked effect on Sebring's gate last Saturday. Those with an experienced eye for such statistics figured that attendance was anywhere from seven to 10 thousand under last year, when the weather was rainy and unpleasant (Sebring never gives out official figures). In terms of the $5 a head admission charge, that would represent a loss of $35,000 or better in gate receipts to Promoter Ulmann. It would look as if the great gas controversy may have brought Ulmann a substantial financial bath.
BUT THE RACE WAS GOOD
Prerace money madness aside, the 1960 event itself was anything but a flop. Two of the three new birdcage Maseratis—so named because of the webbing of aluminum piping that supports the front end of the chassis—put on a magnificent performance through at least two-thirds of the race. Ten American-owned Ferraris, operating with the blessing if not the actual support of the factory, performed admirably, and seven of them were in the first 10 positions following the two leading Porsches.
A serious accident regrettably marred the race, but because it occurred at an out-of-the-way corner of the track, most of the crowd was oblivious of the tragedy. Driver Jimmy Hughes of Napa, Calif. flipped his green Lotus at Sebring's hairpin turn, killing himself and George Thompson, a 23-year-old photographer for the Tampa Tribune who had stationed himself at the spot to get action pictures.
By 10 o'clock on Saturday night, 41 of the original 65 cars were still running in one fashion or another, a tremendous tribute to both man and machine. Richie Ginther, in his new 3-liter Ferrari, set a new track lap record at an average speed of 94.479 miles per hour, then Moss toppled him with a 94.996 lap. The big gold Amoco trophy and $3,000 in prize money were in the hands of the winners. It was time then for the automobile industry people, the socialites, the hard-core fans and the bearded beatniks and their long-tressed ladies to climb back into their sports cars and planes and trains and head back to the thousand and one places they had deserted, as is their annual custom, for a weekend of racing at Sebring.