As all probers and seekers of status know, sports cars are In. Owning them, or having the eardrums numbed by exposure to their exhaust noise at a race, automatically lifts one a cut above the Joneses. Among the sports cars most securely In are Italy's Ferraris. Whether they are the all-out racing models or the less violent touring versions, they are perennially swift, and they are always handsome and expensive.
Last Saturday, an object lesson in the pursuit and capture of In-ness was given by Ferrari in this country's foremost sports car race, the 12-hour endurance run at Sebring in the Florida midlands. Through a hot, cloudless day and into the moonlit evening hours the Ferrari exhaust shriek—a baleful sound like no other in racing—rose above the baritone and bass rumble of the competing cars. And at the end, a scoop-nosed red Ferrari co-driven by California's Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien of Belgium stood at the head of one of the most distinguished sports car packs ever to race in this country. As a begrimed Hill and a chipper, spruced-up Gendebien drank celebratory champagne from the trophy cup the scorers totted up the Ferrari day's work: a new record of 1,092 miles run at a speed of 91.306 mph for Hill and Gendebien; a sweep of the first four places and seven of the first 10; victory in the touring class by the New York journalist Denise McCluggage.
It was a Ferrari fiesta and a clear warning that the Maranello firm intends this to be a Ferrari year in international racing. The archrival Italian Maseratis were not able to keep up and eventually all, except one car in a smaller-engined class, retired with mechanical disorders. Moreover, Ferrari turned up with perhaps the fastest sports racing car the world has seen. A new, rear-engined machine, it was easily superior to all other cars during the practice rounds and led the 12-hour race for more than two hours before succumbing to a break in its steering system.
This Sebring saw. It was also impressed by what it heard. For one thing, the Ferrari team drivers spoke warmly of a new rear-engined car, which will be ready for the Grand Prix season—one expected to be more powerful than those from England and Germany and capable of restoring Ferrari to the first rank, after two years of British leadership.
April 3, 1961
(For readers who haven't explored the maze of road racing categories, a few words of explanation: Grand Prix cars are open-wheeled single-seaters conforming to a set of international rules. Their drivers compete for the world driving championship, and there is a world title for the builders, too. Sports cars, on the other hand, must have fenders, headlights, full windshields and other touring-car appurtenances. Some, like the Hill-Gendebien Ferrari, are meant only for racing. Others are built primarily for the highway but are also raced, as at Sebring, against purely racing cars. These are called Grand Touring cars—the Chevrolet Corvette is one.)
Sebring was buzzing over the news that Phil Hill would, if all went well, drive a Ferrari in the Indianapolis
"500." He and Australia's Jack Brabham, the world champion driver, would give the old Brickyard its first serious foreign-car competition in years. Brabham, for whom two cars are being built by the English Grand Prix campaigner John Cooper, has already astounded the inbred "500" circle with a performance in a standard, small-engined Grand Prix car that would certainly place him high in the Indianapolis qualifying field (SI, Oct. 31).
Sebring, finally, was chattering about the probability that this would be the last year in world championship competition for sports racing cars—those of the stripped-down and sauced-up kind driven by Hill and Gendebien. The FIA, governing body of auto racing, has been attempting to transfer the championship series to Grand Touring cars, and the betting is that it will finally do so in the fall. In practice, the new class of cars could become nearly as special as today's racing sports cars but would at least have glass windshields and hard-tops and look like cars you might buy in the showroom.
Mostly, to be sure, Sebring was concerned with its own unique 12-hour race. There are those who say the true Sebring buff is a masochist. They point out that the 5.2-mile racecourse is flat and ugly, that its long straights followed by abrupt turns torture brakes and transmissions beyond reason, that the pits are primitive, the grounds a dust bath in dry weather and a bog in wet, the access roads pitifully inadequate, the typical racing lineup an odd mixture of big and little cars and of professional and amateur club drivers. But nowhere else in the U.S. can followers see the world's best sports cars, driven by the finest drivers, for 12 long and, to them, delicious hours. In short, Sebring may be miserable for those who go there, but it is In.
Those who arrived early saw the cars practice, too, and what they saw included some sports cars as bizarre as any ever built. Last year brought the "bird cage" Maserati and its intricate, weird frame of small-diameter tubing. Now came the rear-engined bird cage, with a frontal area that, except for a sheet of Plexiglas extending back from the nose approximately to the driver's chin, is as open as a bathtub. Britain's Graham Hill, who practiced in one of two entered, didn't mind the exposure but thought the car handled untidily, "as if the front wheels had no relation to the rear wheels."
Considerably prettier than the Maseratis but ungainly-looking beside the sleek older models was the rear-engined Ferrari assigned to Californian Richie Ginther and Germany's Count Wolfgang von Trips. Ginther, a slight, freckled test-and-team driver for the Ferrari works, was openly in love with it. He had reason to be. The big snout and ugly hump at the back were the result of wind tunnel testing to reduce drag (said to be Ferrari's first wind tunnel experiments). The V-6 engine—really a detuned, or gentled, 1960 Grand Prix engine of 2.5 liters piston displacement—oozed power and, said Ginther, the car handled more sweetly than anything he had ever driven. "If you do something wrong," he said, "it doesn't turn around and bite you." Ginther quickly bit off practice laps in three minutes 14 seconds, a solid three seconds faster than the record Sebring lap made in last year's race by Britain's Stirling Moss, the fastest man in road racing.
Students of Sebring form, heeding Olivier Gendebien's wise counsel that the secret of Sebring "is not to be in the mood to lead the race, but to pamper the car and finish," confidently picked Gendebien himself and Partner Phil Hill to win. As endurance drivers they are unsurpassed, rapid enough to be in the first flight anywhere, polished enough to nurse a car gently for hours on end. Each had won at Sebring twice before; each had triumphed in a twice-as-long marathon at Le Mans.
At 10 a.m. Saturday the 65 starters slithered away, wheels spinning and tails wagging, in the usual Los Angeles traffic jam. Moss, who can be atrociously unlucky, was left at the starting line unable to get his Maserati moving. By the time his dead battery was replaced he was hopelessly behind. Up front the customary opening sprint was under way as Maseratis and Ferraris mixed it willingly, but after an hour the wispy Ginther, almost hidden in the rear-engined Ferrari's big cockpit, drew away, demonstrating his machine's great potential. Dueling for second place were Hill and the gifted Mexican Rodriguez brothers, Pedro, 21, and Ricardo, 19. Watching from the pits with parental affection—and some parental anxiety—were Papa (a wealthy businessman) and Mama Rodriguez.
When Ginther's machine had to be retired after three hours while Von Trips was at the wheel, the Rodriguez car took command. Amazingly, the bouncy brothers held on for no less than six hours. But then their generator failed. Replacing it cost them the race, and they finished third.
As twilight deepened, the Hill-Gendebien Ferrari, which earlier had lost time and let the Rodriguezes slip away during badly managed refueling stops, made the Sebring track seem a pleasant but earsplitting stretch of superhighway. At the finish it was two laps—more than 10 miles—ahead of the next racers in the Ferrari procession, Ginther and Von Trips, who had taken over a front-engined car from Giancarlo Baghetti and Willie Mairesse. A little German Porsche gallantly placed fifth—another was first in the handicap classification. A big American Corvette earned a quite satisfactory 12th place.
But the day belonged to Ferrari. Answering a question about the midday heat, Phil Hill said later that it was "brutal." Well, the Ferrari heat's on, and brutal may be too mild a word this year for those who have to race against it.