Sports Car racing in California is fostered by an army of articulate, fiercely proud enthusiasts who claim the keenest and most frequent competition in the U.S. There is a good deal of rivalry between the coastal drivers and their counterparts elsewhere (the outlanders, as some Californians put it), and points were scored on both sides at Palm Springs last Sunday in the last National Sports Car Club of America race meeting of the year.
It was to be one of the finest events of the season, and it was expected that the fabulous racing stable of California's John Edgar, a cotton and cattle man of means, would chalk up the most points. Edgar brought along six potent machines—two Ferraris, two Porsche Spyders (one the new RS model which placed fifth in the 24-hour race at Le Mans), a Mercedes-Benz 300SL and an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce. Into them he put some of the most talented drivers at large, including the colorful and virtually unbeaten Texan, Carroll Shelby, who had blitzed the opposition in the year's feature races, and Paul O'Shea, the steady New Yorker who had unofficially clinched another SCCA point championship.
Richard Morse started the action with a smooth victory in a Giulietta Spyder in a 10-lap race for small production cars. Mrs. Marion Lowe, driving a Frazer-Nash, was just as effective in the seven-lap ladies race. A third Californian, Bob Oker, dueled aggressively with E. Forbes Robinson and managed to squeeze his AC Bristol in ahead of the opposing Austin-Healey in a 15-lap sprint for middle-sized production cars, as the racing and the sun began to warm up.
After an interlude in which a band of old racing cars chugged around the course, a California deep sea diver named Bob Drake, who drives the way Jackie Robinson runs the base paths, gave the John Edgar people their first jolt. This was a race among 30 modified cars of less than 1,500 cubic centimeters displacement. Edgar had Seattle's Pete Lovely in the Le Mans Porsche, Big Jack McAfee, a veteran campaigner, in the other Porsche Spyder and Skip Hudson in the sleek Giulietta Veloce. Drake, whose bobtailed Cooper had been slightly quicker than the Le Mans Porsche in Saturday's trials, trailed Lovely's car closely for eight laps.
Behind them Johnny Kunstle and Richie Ginther, both in Porsche Spyders, were in a stirring scramble for third place. When Drake came in after eight laps with a broken plug connection Lovely seemed safe, with the real battle between his harriers.
Not so, though. For Drake, who had lost 30 precious seconds and six places in stopping, came back with a fierceness that was electrifying. On the 20th lap Kunstle dropped out after losing third gear and Drake whooshed into second. Drifting the tight corners with daring ease, Drake skylarked on and on and nailed Lovely in the backstretch on the 29th lap. Lovely could get no more from his mount and finished the 35-lap race about four seconds behind the high-flying diver, who averaged 76.6 mph.
In contrast with Drake's directness, Dick Thompson was subtle in his pursuit of the laurels in a 10-lap event for the larger production cars—Corvettes, 300SLs and Jaguars. Edgar suffered another setback when Paul O'Shea, driving his 300SL, had to retire with a broken oil line before the race was half over, winding up a brilliant season in the pits. But the scrap between Thompson's Corvette and the 300SL of Jack Bates needed no hopping up.
Thompson, the Washington, D.C. dentist who has been the leading Corvette exponent, played a waiting game. Nicely placed all the way, he sliced ahead in a corner on the last lap, stayed there during a bit of bumping between the two near the end and won by a split second, averaging 72.0 mph. Thompson, by the way, will introduce the new fuel-injection Corvette next month in the Nassau Races.
The last race of the day, and the season, had been awaited with special anticipation—35 laps for the largest and fastest cars. Here were: Carroll Shelby in Edgar's 4.9-liter Ferrari; Phil Hill, the pride of California, a successful interloper on the tough European circuit this year, driving the 3.5-liter Ferrari entered by George Tilp of New Jersey; Bill Murphy and his Kurtis roadster with the big fuel-injection Buick engine which had been a California sensation; and Jack McAfee driving another Edgar hope, a 3.5 Ferrari which had not been as fast as the Shelby choice in trials.
The fact that Shelby led from start to finish in a superb demonstration of his customary finesse was not surprising. What kept the spectators a buzz was the tenacity with which Hill dogged the Texan. Conceding too much power to make a battle of it on the straights, Hill gained ground with the more maneuverable 3.5 in turns. And so they went, in tandem, as Murphy lost way and finally retired without brakes, as McAfee made no threat.
Brilliant sunshine faded to sudden shadow as the desert sun dropped behind the mountains, and still Hill pursued, even pulling abreast of Shelby at times.
It was Shelby by two car lengths at the finish—average speed 78.55 mph. For the Texan there was champagne (California, naturally) and for Hill the consolation of having won the Palm Springs Concours d'Elegance with his surgically clean, stately 1931 Pierce Arrow.
Shelby wasn't sentimental about the car, although Edgar might well have been. "That old hog is hard to handle in the turns," said Shelby. He made it look easy.
"She was owned by an elderly lady who never went over five knots."
FIRST RACE (production cars under 1,300 cc): 1. Richard Morse, Alfa Romeo Giulietta, 10 laps, 64.4 mph; 2. Walter Garlick, Giulietta; 3. Leon Miller, Giulietta.
SECOND RACE (ladies' race): 1. Marion Lowe, Frazer-Nash, 7 laps, 65.4 mph; 2. Mary Davis, Porsche Speedster; 3. Ruth Levy, Porsche Speedster.
THIRD RACE (production cars of 1,300 to 3,000 cc. except Mercedes 300SLs): 1. Bob Oker, AC Bristol, 15 laps, 70.8 mph. 2. E. Forbes Robinson, Austin-Healey; 3. Donald Dickey, Porsche Carrera.
FOURTH RACE (veteran cars): 1. Duane Alan, Buick, 3 laps, 46 mph.
FIFTH RACE (modified cars under 1,500 cc): 1. Bob Drake, Cooper, 35 laps, 76.6 mph; 2. Peter Lovely, Porsche Spyder RS; 3. Richie Ginther, Porsche Spyder.
SIXTH RACE (production cars over 3,000 cc. plus Mercedes 300SLs): 1. Richard Thompson, Corvette, 10 laps, 72.0 mph; 2. Jack Bates, 300SL; 3. Rudy Cleye, 300SL.
SEVENTH RACE (modified cars over 1,500 cc): 1. Carroll Shelby, 4.9-liter Ferrari; 35 laps, 78.55 mph; 2. Phil Hill, 3.5-liter Ferrari; 3. Harold Erb, D Jaguar.