The Bahamas Speed Week on the Windsor Course in Nassau is an invitation to blazing speed. Laid out on the asphalt runways of a World War II airfield, the course is three-and-a-half miles of long straightaways on which speeds up to 145 mph can be reached, and fast turns, the slowest of which can be taken at 50 mph. It is a course, said Sherwood Johnston, the chunky Connecticut driver, that is easy to get scared on.
Johnston was to underscore his point on Friday in the first of the Bahamas Speed Week's two major races, the 105-mile dash for the Governor's Trophy. The eyes of Nassau were on a lead-footed threesome which promised exciting action: Phil Hill, the slender, sandy-haired Californian whose duels with Johnston at Elkhart Lake and Hagerstown spiced the U.S. sports car season; the Marquis de Portago, a sleepy-eyed, long-haired Spaniard, the winner of last year's Governor's Trophy whose choice of No. 13 as a racing number in a sport notorious for its superstitions is an indication of the dash with which he drives, and Johnston himself. Britain's famed Stirling Moss was also entered, but he was overmatched in an Austin-Healey against faster cars.
A Le Mans style start sent the 56 contestants on their way under cloudy skies. The track was wet with recent rains. Johnston, driving Briggs Cunningham's blue-and-white D-Jaguar, spurted ahead on the first lap, trailed closely by Hill's white 3-liter Ferrari Monza. For five laps the race looked like a renewal of the Johnston-Hill duels; but then de Portago's red-and-yellow Ferrari Monza started closing in. The much-used 4.5-liter Ferrari that Hill drove to second place in last year's Pan-American road race, now gallantly driven by 50-year-old Louis Brero, a California lumberman, briefly disputed the issue; then de Portago after 12 laps was second, close behind Johnston. On the 15th, exactly halfway through the race, de Portago came too close. Barreling along at 125 mph with daylight scarcely visible between them, the cars were halfway down the 3,000-foot homestretch between the spectators and the pits when Johnston kicked the brake pedal to get set for the sweeping left hand turn which ends the straight. De Portago's shovel-nosed Ferrari bumped the D-Jag directly from behind. Johnston skidded under the finish wire and sickeningly near the crowd before he regained control. De Portago spun completely around and coolly resumed the chase just before a cluster of slower cars came up to clog the stretch. Miraculously no other collision occurred.
Within three laps the duel was on again. His front end battered, his left headlight stove in, de Portago went ahead on the 18th lap with Johnston's D-Jag hard on the Spaniard's tail and Hill close behind. Johnston made one all-out bid to pass, then fell behind with a damaged axle stabilizer. Hill, too, tried once again, but the reckless Spaniard flashed under the wire a scant second ahead of him. Johnston saved third place from Brero, who finished nursing an ailing engine.
Of the scrape with Johnston, de Portago said: "I tried to slip-stream him; I wanted to ride the partial vacuum behind his car to save power and then take him on the curve. But he hit the brakes before I expected it. If you cannot avoid hitting a car it is best to do it exactly from behind."
"That Portago," said Phil Hill, "he drives like a demon."
A diversion from the bitter competition among the top drivers was Saturday's short race for Bahamians. Sir Sydney Oakes, head of the Bahamas Automobile Club, trailed his pretty blonde wife's Austin-Healey in the early going and finally passed her, placing his Jaguar fourth after Lady Oakes's engine broke down. She came walking back with a smudged nose and a piece of the engine in her hand.
On Sunday, after two days of threatening weather, the skies brightened for the No. 1 event, the Nassau Trophy Race, over 210 miles. Tensed for another wrangle between Hill, Johnston and de Portago, the crowd also had another topflight competitor to watch: Masten Gregory, the bespectacled young Kansas City driver who was last year's Nassau Trophy winner and took the Portuguese Grand Prix during the European season. Gregory arrived late with a 3-liter Maserati, but on Sunday he was ready. Hill, characteristically, grabbed the lead at the Le Mans start, with Johnston following in the D-Jag. De Portago, slow to start as usual, made up time fast. On the ninth lap he passed Johnston. Gregory, coming up, took Johnston too, then lost his chance at the leaders when he bumped a slower car while avoiding a collision with a third machine. He was out of it at the halfway point. Hill, driving confidently and very fast in the new 3.5 Ferrari, built up a half-minute lead over de Portago. The Spaniard asked for everything his car could give, but it was not enough. Hill won easily by 25 seconds, a full half mile, and came in after an insurance lap with Johnston, out with a splashing oil leak, riding belly down on the covered cockpit beside him. His time for the 60 laps was a sensational 98.207 mph. "I wish I had had that car," said de Portago.
Negotiations are under way to make Windsor Field Nassau's commercial airport by next year, supplanting the currently used Oakes Airport. But the word is that even so, a third Bahamas speed week would be possible at Windsor. An event which attracts 15 Ferraris and four D-Jaguars among a first-rate entry of nearly 100 cars, as this year's did, deserves to go on. It is to be hoped that it can.
HIS FRONT END BATTERED BY HIS NEAR CRASH, DE PORTAGO PREPARES TO LAP SMALLER CAR WITH JOHNSTON (NO. 25) CLOSE BEHIND HIM
GRINNING MARQUIS, jubilant after victory, showed few traces of his close brush with disaster. "I hit my brakes," he said after race, "closed my eyes, and prayed."
SOBER CALIFORNIAN Phil Hill, veteran of eight years on the U.S. racing circuit, paid tribute to his 3.5 Ferrari Monza: "It's really a hot car. It could be unbeatable."