In a way, Briggs Cunningham is the Sir Thomas Lipton of American motor sports. Six times he has launched an assault in the world's foremost sports car race—the Le Mans 24 Hours—and six times he has been repulsed. Like the British tea lord who five different times saw his majestic Shamrock yachts defeated by this country's America's Cup defenders, he has spent a fortune in the quest and taken his lumps with unfailing good sportsmanship.
Ironically, Cunningham has already shared in the prize coveted by Sir Thomas. He was at the helm of Columbia when she humiliated Britain's Sceptre in the 1958 America's Cup races off Newport. But for a good many years Cunningham has been more auto racing man than yachtsman, and this Saturday, at the age of 53 and after an absence of four years, he once again will pull a crash helmet down over his curly gray-streaked brown hair, ease into the bucket seat of a Corvette and roar out onto the road course at Le Mans, a provincial capital in western France. His goal: to become the first American in the race's 37-year history to win in a U.S. car.
This time, if there is to be an ail-American triumph, it will have to be a cut below the over-all victory. Cunningham has entered three Chevrolet Corvettes, and their mission is to win in the grand-touring category. Conceivably, a Corvette could take the over-all trophy, but for that to happen there would have to be a general collapse among the all-out racing sports cars. As Jaguar distributor for the northeastern states, Cunningham will have a fourth entry, a new 3-liter E-type Jaguar featuring independent rear suspension. It was built expressly for Cunningham and will be driven this weekend by the American team of Walt Hansgen and Dan Gurney.
Cunningham himself will co-drive one of the Corvettes with his partner, Jim Kimberly. Assigned to the other Corvettes is a quartet of seasoned eastern drivers: John Fitch, Dick Thompson, Fred Windridge and Bob Grossman.
Needless to say, the Cunningham expedition has stirred considerable interest among European as well as U.S. followers. To the French, Cunningham is a Yankee who can do no wrong. They remember with affection his squarish Cadillac-engined entry of 1950, called Le Monstre (which finished 11th), his rakish Cunningham C-5R of 1953 (which placed third, Cunningham & Co.'s best finish at Le Mans) and all the other made-in-America models, mostly Chrysler-engined, of the 1950-55 Cunningham assaults. In all, he is said to have spent $1 million trying to win.
Now he is back, bringing with him his extensive racing experience and absolute integrity. His long suit is fastidious preparation. "I have never seen anyone quite so meticulous as Briggs," says Olin Stephens, designer and member of the afterguard of Columbia. "Personally, I use a broad brush. Briggs leaves practically nothing to chance, and practically nothing to anyone else."
As Cunningham prepared for Le Mans this hankering for perfection impelled him to stage nothing less than a 24-hour Le Mans-length trial with one of his Corvettes. He had already run three Corvettes in the 12-hour Sebring race in March and had not been overjoyed by the results. One car, with Fitch doing the driving, broke a wheel hub and flipped end over end. The others developed ailments and finished well out of the money.
Considering these disquieting memories, Cunningham was remarkably even-tempered at the trial. It was run off on the twisty 2.85-mile Bridgehampton racecourse on the sandy eastern reaches of Long Island. The supporting cast included Alfred Momo, Cunningham's longtime racing associate and chief engine tuner; his familiar blue-coveralled mechanics; Fitch, Grossman and another driver, Phil Forno; silver-haired Zora Arkus-Duntov, principal designer of the Corvette; two other Chevrolet engineers; and Bill Frick, another tuner.
The test began in balmy weather at 9:41 one morning. This kind of thing can be unimaginably tedious for a nonparticipant, but for Cunningham it was totally absorbing. Aside from a short, unsuccessful nap, he sat down only when it was his turn to test-drive. The rest of the time he listened and watched intently for the slightest hint of trouble. He took the first trick, stayed out for 2½ hours and completed 72 laps, the fastest in 2 minutes 4 seconds. The course record Is 1:51. Obviously, the Corvette was moving smartly.
When Fitch took over the car Cunningham stood restlessly at track-side and reminisced about Le Mans. "Going round and round and round, doing the same thing at the same time in the same way, is a hard thing to do," he said. "After a while you begin to doze a little, and then the car does something to jerk you awake for and you think, 'Oh, my God, here we go.' Then you concentrate again.
"When the fog drops in at Le Mans you find that you begin to count between the corners. 'One and two and—left. One and two and—right.' You'd be surprised how sharp you can get when it's really tough. The fog hangs down pretty low, but not low enough for you to see over it. On the straights you can look up at the line of trees along the road and steer by them."
As Fitch drove on and on, Cunningham began to worry about the engine: "Hope he doesn't run out of gas and burn a piston."
An uneasy nightfall
He didn't, but troubles soon cropped up, and they were serious ones. Toward evening, with Duntov driving, a pushrod collapsed. This caused a major delay for repairs. Just before dark, with Grossman driving, a wheel broke and the car bumped to a halt. As at Sebring, the car had been fitted with knock-off hubcaps despite the fact that Chevy engineers had warned against the arrangement.
After the wheel was replaced the Corvette ran trouble-free. The 283-cubic-inch fuel-injection engine, new for the trial, became freer and more powerful as the hours passed.
Deep in the night Fitch encountered real Le Mans weather, a rainstorm, and Cunningham caught the tail of it on a driving shift through a gray, dismal dawn.
Obviously he had enjoyed the lonely ride. "For me the fun is not in the racing but in the driving. Racing is the only way I've found to use the performance these cars have."
The test, having been extended past 24 hours to compensate partly for time lost on repairs, ended at 11. The Corvette had gone 551 laps and 1,570 miles. Verdict: a shrug of the Cunningham shoulders.
Whatever else it might mean, a shrug by Cunningham is not a sign of complacency. With Le Mans just around the corner and his three Corvettes tuned and inspected, primed and polished, he undoubtedly has thought of a dozen things that could go wrong. It would be more than fitting if this time, after so many years of frustration, everything went just right.