For a dozen years the citrus-ringed central Florida town of Sebring has been the focus of a kind of Marshall Plan in reverse. Europe has sent its fanciest cars and fastest drivers to the prestige-rich 12-hour race at Sebring to educate the Americans in road racing. By now the U.S. has a strong corps of native drivers, but at building its own road racing cars it has been pitifully backward.
Last week's Sebring 12 hours, however, proved that Europe's missionary work had brought real results. Never mind that Italian Ferraris and German Porsches screeched away with Sebring's top prizes; they always have. The lesson of Sebring 1963 was that the U.S., although still underdeveloped, might show teacher some speed one of these days.
Consider the evidence:
1) The home-built Chevrolet-engined Chaparral of Texan Jim Hall actually sprinted ahead of the Ferraris at one point—on merit, not by a fluke—and led the entire 65-car Sebring field for two dazzling laps before, lamentably, the water hose worked loose and the car retired. Two laps is not much, but never before had an American car led so potent a field.
2) The Ford-engined Cobras of ex-Texan Carroll Shelby, now of California, hissed along so venomously that two of them, while healthy, outsped all the equivalent Ferrari rivals.
3) A theoretically outclassed Corvette Sting Ray, after nine hours of cut and thrust, popped up in fifth place among the Ferraris. Then, sadly, as if shaken by its audacity, the Corvette flipped its lid—blew a cylinder-head gasket.
By all means, let old Enzo Ferrari justly collect his bravos. He swept positions one through six, and that's not bad even for Ferrari, whose championships in sports car racing are past counting.
Outright winners John Surtees of Britain and Ludovico Scarfiotti of Italy were masterful, the fourth-place car and Grand Touring winner, driven by Americans Roger Penske and Augie Pabst, was "perfect" as Roger termed it.
Let no due credit be denied Porsche, which took Sebring's other major prize—the GT trophy for middleweight cars—on the impeccable maneuvering of the U.S.'s Bob Holbert and Don Wester.
But, after years of famine, Americans can unashamedly relish their own Sebring cars—and now look forward to classic victories by home-built machinery.
Of the possible contenders on view at Sebring, the Cobra must be ranked No. 1. Wealthy though he is, Jim Hall has limited technical resources. General Motors could make the Corvette a racing terror internationally; indeed, GM built a number of superlight, startlingly swift Corvette Sting Rays expressly for Sebring—but then suppressed them. GM executive opinion is hardening against overt factory racing and, regrettably, the mightiest of Detroit's big three must be counted out for the time being.
That leaves the Cobra. It is not, of course, ail-American. It is essentially the familiar English AC sports car powered by a Ford engine. Shelby made the AC deal last year to escape what he considered impossible American chassis prices while selecting a Ford V-8 engine for its reasonable price and power potential. With the engine he also got Ford's surprised enthusiasm. Unspeakably tired of hearing the name Corvette—and without a sports car of its own—Ford suddenly had a means of combating GM's successful two-seater.
Needless to say, Ford backing could make the difference between a modest Cobra effort and a significant one. If the company is generous—and the signs point that way—the racing Cobra should become ever more American, sophisticated and powerful. There is already talk of a double overhead camshaft Ford engine for the hottest version of the 1964 Cobra. Shelby, who has never been bashful, says: "I think we may give Mr. Ferrari a shaking-up next season. I am confident that we can."
But that is for the future. Saturday, Shelby's chubby snakes put on a mighty good show. He entered four—each with a 289-cubic-inch, 350-hp Ford engine—while Ford's performance specialist, John Holman, entered one slightly less fierce. Shelby's top drivers were none other than Phil Hill, the 1961 world champion, and Dan Gurney, Hill's equally famous fellow Californian. Their opposition included five GT Ferraris, four fast and happy-sounding E Jaguars with light aluminum engine blocks and coachwork and seven normal Corvettes.
A few minutes after the explosive Le-Mans start, the usual contingent of bizarrely dressed spectators—who often gape at one another as keenly as they do at the racing cars—were delighted to see Phil Hill complete the first lap of Sebring's car-torturing 5.2-mile course in first place. A wonderful moment, but a deceptive one. Sebring can be as tantalizingly deceitful as a knuckler thrown by Hoyt Wilhelm. Hill, who had proved in practice that he could outspeed GT Ferraris but not the faster "prototypes," had just gotten off to an exceptional start. The Penske-Pabst car was the fastest GT Ferrari, but never did it overtake Hill until brake trouble after two hours cost him an hour's repairs. It did not catch Gurney until the race's fifth hour, when his steering failed. Shelby doggedly repaired each car and, finally, had the pleasure of seeing both finish the full 12 hours, Hill's car in a very respectable 11th place.
Potential? The Cobra has gobs. Deception? The popular leaders most of the day in the four-liter prototype Ferrari were Britain's mustached Graham Hill, the new world champion, and Mexico's Pedro Rodriguez, carrying on in racing though his talented brother Ricardo was recently killed. At times they looked easy winners. But Surtees and Co-driver Scarfiotti had, in their three-liter prototype Ferrari, the faster car.
They had early problems—minor failures—and made up for them. Hill and Rodriguez had their problems, too, but late. Slowly, inexorably, Surtees closed in, seizing the lead briefly at midday and permanently with but two hours to go. The car ultimately completed 209 laps, just one short of the 1961 Ferrari record. Surtees had gagged all day on fumes from an exhaust leak. He finally collapsed—but not until he had taken the checkered flag, posed for photographers and talked on radio.
"It was," he said just before he blacked out, "a very nice race indeed." It was, and, if America needed one, a dandy final seminar before the U.S. went its own way in road racing.