Nowhere in the U.S. does the fierce beauty and intensity of sports car racing pictured on the preceding pages reach a higher pitch than in the 12-hour Grand Prix of Endurance at Sebring, Fla. There, facing a 5.2-mile circuit of road and airport runway, some 60 cars will roar out of the pits at 10 a.m. this Saturday in a Le Mans-type standing start, and through the long, hot day and evening, until 10 o'clock that night, the blare and blast of exhausts, the squeal of tires, the howling of high speeds will keep the nerves and fiber of drivers and spectators alike tuned to the breaking point. For Sebring, more than any other American auto race, is a test of endurance in the true sense—endurance not only of cars but of human beings.
Each race at Sebring has its own special flavor. In the early years, from 1950, it was a testing ground for Americans like James H. Kimberly, now president of the Sports Car Club of America, in their rediscovery of sports car racing and a showcase for the veteran Europeans demonstrating their experience and skill. In 1953 came the first big U.S. triumph to that hard-working American sports car pioneer Briggs Cunningham in a car of his own design. In 1954, the first year of Sebring's entrance into the worldwide competition sponsored by the Fédération Internationale d'Automobile, one of the smallest entrants ran away with the race: a 1,452-cc OSCA, running with watchlike precision and driven with superlative skill by young Stirling Moss and Connecticut's Bill Lloyd. Last year, in one of the most grueling contests ever, 34 of 80 entries were left by the wayside as Mike Hawthorne and Phil Walters worked their way to victory in a D-Jaguar.
This year, the sixth of the annual classic, will be remembered always for at least two things. For the first time four major European factories have officially entered works cars and works teams: Jaguar, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin. For the first time a major American factory is laying its prestige on the line: General Motors, which has three of its hot new Corvettes at Sebring under the sponsorship of Raceway Enterprises. Thus, in a double boost, Sebring has become not only an arena where the greatest of European cars will join battle, but also the place where Detroit, with the most massive automobile production facilities in the world, enters the modern international racing field.
Two conclusions can immediately be drawn from this. First, the speed and competitive fire of this year's race at Sebring will be hotter than ever before. Secondly, as a direct result, the "glorious uncertainty" of racing will be greater than ever. Sebring may look like a big-car contest—Corvette, Jaguar, Ferrari and Aston Martin each has three works cars entered, Maserati two—but it is entirely possible that a small car will win it. Battling it out in a 12-hour grind, the biggest and the best may fail, even with drivers like Ferrari's Juan Manuel Fangio, last year's world champion, and the Marquis de Portago, or Jaguar's Mike Hawthorne, Corvette's John Fitch, Maserati's Piero Taruffi, Aston Martin's Stirling Moss, the second-best driver in the world. As one driver put it: "The fast cars are really going to have to go fast this year"; and in an endurance race speed is a negative as well as a positive factor. The winner at Sebring will be the man who can maintain most consistently, through 12 nerve-racking hours, that precarious balance between maximum speed and minimum strain which will enable him and his car to hold together to the finish line.
In this wide-open field there are, nonetheless, favorites; and, not surprisingly, they are among Europe's Big Four. With their disc brakes (important on a short course with sharp turns like Sebring), Aston Martin and Jaguar are rated likely to fight for first place between them, with Ferrari and Maserati battling it out for second. Mechanically, Jaguar's experimental fuel injection engine could work for a slight edge, but Stirling Moss, Aston Martin's No. 1 driver, with his cool head and calculating mind could cancel this out in a duel with the nervy but temperamental Mike Hawthorne.
There are also great question marks, among the favorites as well as the lesser-known entries. Jaguar's fuel injection is one; new and untried in any race, it could be sensational or a flop. The Corvette is another—though the Corvette team has probably trained harder than any other for the Sebring grind under the tutelage of ex-Mercedes Works Driver Fitch, it is a long jump which Chevrolet is taking from Detroit to international racing, and not even Fitch can foretell what will happen. A question mark, too, is another unique American entry: Bob Sweikert, last year's AAA champion and winner of the Indianapolis 500, who will be driving in a sports car endurance race for the first time in a D-Jaguar.
For the small cars, besides the possibility of overall victory because of attrition among their big brothers, there are three other targets to shoot at. Next to a victory in their class, the most important prize is victory on index of performance. Under the FIA system of scoring, each entrant has a minimum average performance to maintain; the car which exceeds this by the greatest margin can claim a distinction as important as the overall win itself. Here the small-displacement cars not only have an even chance with the big ones but, because of their lower set average, stand a chance of beating them. Finally, there are production class trophies for the best performance by a catalog specification car of which at least 25 must have been built and sold.
These races within a race are every bit as hotly contested as the battle for the overall win, and this year, as in the big car classes, the competition will be more bitter than ever. Lotus, Porsche and OSCA will be chasing not only after Class F wins (1,100-1,500 cc) but also after an index of performance victory. Cooper, with a two-car factory entry, will be something to watch in Class G (750-1,100 cc), and in Class H (350-750 cc) the Deutsch-Bonnets, tiny marvels with their minute engines, may also finish high up on the index of performance list.
Prominent in the pit area, as always, will be the bright red equipage of Jim Kimberly, SCCA president and driver this year of a 4.4 Ferrari. Last year, with this same car, Kimberly had a disappointing season. But with a new engine and the services of his longtime former mechanic Marsh Lewis, the elegant SCAA president, while not calling any winners in this "real hairy race," hopes that his luck will turn.