Because it tests little of a good driver's skill but can kill his car, there are very few, if any, sports car drivers who like the short, flat, multi-cornered course at Sebring, Fla. However, the 12-hour run at Sebring counts for the world championship, and so Sebring knows that every spring the good European drivers, the few good American drivers, and thousands of ardent, shop-talking sports car buffs will come back. On the eve of its sixth race last weekend the town was again lost in a swirl of cars and an even greater swirl of track gossip and prerace dope.
Most of the talk this year was of the great strength of the Jaguars. There were, after all, nine D-Jaguars entered, and with last year's winner, Mike Hawthorn, driving a fuel-injection job in a three-car factory team—well, it looked very good for Jaguar. The three-car Ferrari factory team, the smart gossips insisted, would have to play it all or nothing from the start. The Aston Martins? They had the acceleration and the brakes for such an on-and-off course, and they had Stirling Moss driving one car, but how could such a low-powered Moss match a Hawthorn with fuel injection? As for the Maseratis, it was rumored (erroneously) that they had something entirely new under the hood.
There was, of course, also some laughter that Indianapolis "500" winner Bob Sweikert should be trying his first sports car race in a Jaguar at Sebring. It's a long way from the lead-footed driving of the brickyard to the delicacy of a road course, the race crowd insisted, and Sweikert would not be the first who tried and failed to make the jump. As for Chevrolet's Corvette team—well, for Detroit the jump was even greater, and the Corvettes were taken seriously by no one.
The calm center of prerace confusion at Sebring last week was the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, Grand Prix champion of the world and the only driver with a really good chance of out-driving Mike Hawthorn. Like Sweikert, Fangio often passed unnoticed in the hornet's nest of enthusiasts—but for a different reason. A quiet man of little flourish, he tended to disappear among the more flamboyant English and Italian drivers. But Fangio found time to take Sweikert over the course in prerace practice and give him a few pointers on the light-footed handling of brake and accelerator pedals which Sebring demands. A stock car driver before he ever handled in a Grand Prix car, the world champion knew some of the problems that the Indy champion would have to overcome.
The start of the race was as predicted: Mike Hawthorn in the Jaguar jumped into the lead and ripped through 33 laps in two hours. Stirling Moss hung on 15 to 20 seconds behind, and Fangio's Ferrari lay in third place five seconds behind Moss. Coming in for a pit stop after two and a half hours, Moss was doubtful: "With the power we have," he said, "I don't think we can hang on this way for 12 hours." He was right. In the fourth hour his Aston Martin died on the track.
By mid-race 21 of the 59 starting cars were out of it, among them one factory Jaguar and a factory Maserati. With the default of this Maserati, Sebring came near suffering the first fatality in its six years. Sweeping into a curve, Maserati Driver Carlo Menditeguy hit a hay bale, flipped and was thrown hard, face down, onto the track. As he lay unconscious and bleeding, nine cars ran dangerously close to him before a yellow flag went up.
As the factory cars ran a tight race out front, for the first six hours the D-Jaguar entry driven by its owner, Jack Ensley, and Bob Sweikert was lost in the ruck. This, however, was all according to plan. The torsion bars of the Sweikert-Ensley Jaguar had been adjusted to limit drift on the curves, so that Driver Sweikert, somewhat in Indianapolis style, could lose the front or back of the car a little at the right moment on curves. "We have the car the way we want it," Owner Ensley announced before the race, "and now we'll settle back, run along and watch the rest of them fall apart." After seven hours, as the front runners dropped back or out completely, Sweikert had moved up to sixth. By the time he turned the car over to Ensley for the three final hours of night running, he was fifth—and very happy. "The rest of the Jaguars are wearing their brakes like mad," he gloated. "We could keep running all night and tomorrow. The way to bring this in is to use no brakes and no tires. Just take it easy."
As the Sweikert-Ensley Jaguar moved up, the leader, Hawthorn, nearly lost out. Coming off the last turn on the 120th lap, the fuel-injection Jaguar ran out of gas, and Hawthorn barely made it to the pit. His pit stop took a costly two minutes and 45 seconds. Fangio's Ferrari cleared its pit in less than two minutes, so the lead went over to the Ferrari.
The only other factory Jaguar in contention went out with faulty wiring, so the race was now between the Hawthorn Jaguar and the two remaining Ferraris, while the surprising Sweikert-Ensley Jaguar moved up to fourth. Just before the end of the 10th hour, Hawthorn again took over in the Jaguar from co-driver Desmond Titterington. It was the Ferrari plan for Castellotti to bring the leading Ferrari in so Fangio could take over in the last hour.
But it was not necessary. After five laps, the Hawthorn Jaguar came roaring back up the pit lane. Hawthorn bounded over the pit rail: "The brake pedal. I got through the hairpin turn and the pedal kicked on me." The Jaguar's brakes were gone. The crew groped with the problem for 15 minutes while the two Ferraris rode by four times, then gave it up as a lost cause. "Well, everybody's had it," said Team Manager Lofty England, "we might as well start loading junk in the lorry."
For the last hour the night air was filled with the splatting of backfire as drivers de-accelerated 200 and 300 yards from the curves to save what little brakes they might have. Only 24 cars finished the 12 hours. The Sweikert-Ensley Jaguar came in third, behind the two factory Ferraris; John Fitch's Chevrolet Corvette, after a steady, well-driven race, came in a creditable ninth. The winners, Fangio and Castellotti, averaged 84 mph in setting a new record of 1,008.8 miles. "My only worry was the brakes," said Fangio. "We were trying to burn the Jaguars up, and we succeeded, no?"
He had indeed, with one exception. The Sweikert-Ensley D-Jaguar had enough brakes left for 12 hours more. After the race was over, Bob Sweikert sought out Fangio, and the two had a long conversation. The gist of it: an invitation from Fangio to Sweikert to come to Europe for some more sports car races this summer; an invitation from Sweikert to Fangio to come to Indianapolis and drive a Sweikert-entered D-A Lubricant Special. Light-foot Fangio and Leadfoot Sweikert both agreed to think it over.
STRAIN OF RACE shows in weariness of Bob Sweikert's (left) and Juan Manuel Fangio's faces as they come into pits during the grind.
TOLL OF RACE is Carlos Menditeguy's Maserati (left) which flipped with near-fatal consequences. Here, seconds later, Fangio in No. 17 passes his fellow Argentine and friend.