For one galvanic day it seemed that a storybook race was in the making, but instead, the seventh and most momentous Sebring 12-hours yet was a lesson straight from the textbook: the fastest and soundest car with the most skillful drivers will win, barring bad racing luck.
Nothing resembling ill luck troubled the world champion driver, Juan Manuel Fangio, and his accomplished teammate, Jean Behra, in their pursuit of victory in a Maserati that could run away from any car on the course. They dominated the race completely from the moment Behra took the lead on the 19th lap until the end. If that weren't lesson enough, the driver second only to Fangio in ability, Britain's Stirling Moss, placed second with the considerable help of Co-driver Harry Schell.
Yet look what had happened before the Maseratis and their accomplished drivers proved that automobile racing does not normally lend itself to the fairy tale ending.
Chevrolet brought Detroit's first all-out sports racing car (SI, March 25) to the taxing course at Sebring, Fla. and created a sensation, on the first day of practice, the scope of which would be difficult to exaggerate. Its new racer, the Corvette Super Sport, had been in the making for only five months and had been assembled in reasonably final form for little more than a week. Its shakedown trial would have to be in the race itself, for there was not enough time in practice to explore all the unknowns.
Besides the elegant metallic-blue car which was to represent Chevrolet—and the United States—at Sebring, there was an ugly duckling of a practice car. True, it had substantially the same in-sides as the blue car, but its grimy, white plastic body with a gaping hole in the hood and another behind the cockpit looked shabby beside the glistening magnesium sheath of its patrician stablemate. Its engine had the cast-iron cylinder heads of a standard Corvette, not the lightweight aluminum heads which Designer Zora Arkus Duntov had devised to produce 30 more horsepower in the finished SS. In fact, it wasn't long before everyone was calling the white practice Corvette "The Mule."
When John Fitch, the No. 1 Corvette driver, achieved lap times in The Mule that were within a few seconds of last year's record (3 minutes 29.7 seconds) on a 5.2-mile circuit which had been narrowed at spots and therefore was considered some three seconds slower than last year's layout, the Corvette pit was jammed with spectators.
Before the gawkers had stopped rubbing their eyes, Fangio had strolled over to take a ride in The Mule himself. He turned the first two laps in new course-record times, plus a third in a staggering 3:27.
The seeds of the storybook tale were then sown—a Detroit sports car, of all things, traveling easily at lap speeds that would make it one of the major contenders in a world championship race.
"Fantàstico," said Fangio. "I could have gone two seconds faster if I had tried."
"It is irrational," said Duntov, "that the car should go so fast when it is so new." Having made this disclaimer, he smiled broadly and looked as though he could have danced for joy.
He was no less encouraged by the word that the only car which had gone faster that day was Fangio's 4.5-liter Maserati (3:25.2). This was certainly the car to fear more than any other because its four-carburetor V-8 engine was said to develop a prodigious 400 hp. Its acceleration was phenomenal, and it had lapped the field in the season's first championship race, in Argentina, before retiring with a broken clutch pin. That was the 4.5's first race and it, too, apparently had needed some shaking down. Not as well advertised was the report that Britain's Mike Hawthorn had taken the most promising D Jaguar entry—the one with the new 3.8-liter engine and fuel injection—around the course in 3:24.
Duntov's smile was short-lived; there were problems without number at the hangar near Sebring's airport race course which Chevrolet now occupied. Fangio declined an offer to drive the SS, but Piero Taruffi, the 50-year-old fox of Italian racing, a man famous for his cunning in mountain races and winner of the Pan-American Road Race in 1952, agreed to pair with Fitch.
After receiving the invitation from Chevrolet, Taruffi took the first available plane and arrived only Thursday. When the gleaming blue SS finally made a practice appearance at the track, on Friday, he was at the wheel-steady but not spectacular.
Finally, Chevrolet had no way of knowing exactly what to expect from the SS. The white practice car had been driven several hundred miles, and it was more than passable, but it was not meant to be entered in the race. It could not have passed technical inspection, if only because it had no headlights.
The dream of glory stimulated by Thursday's episode with The Mule was still glowing on Saturday. A few fluffy clouds flecked the sky. The morning sun was warm, promising a hot day. The handsome blue car with the number 1 painted on white bull's-eyes on its panels was engulfed by the curious. Soon the track was cleared and the 65 cars contesting the Florida International 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance awaited their drivers.
Lined up opposite the cars and across the track, the drivers heard out the countdown, dashed to the cars and split the air with a cacophony of un-muffled exhaust noises and screeching tires as they hurried away.
First under the footbridge which marks the start-finish line were the two blue-and-white production Corvettes, stablemates—along with a red, modified Corvette—of the SS.
John Fitch fiddled with the controls for a second or two and then the SS was off with the first flight. Down the line Mike Hawthorn jabbed the starter of his D Jag anxiously. Finally the motor roared, but his car, one of the great favorites, had lost precious time and was lagging back among the tardiest stragglers.
At the end of the first tour of the 5.2-mile course, Peter Collins, the 25-year-old No. 1 driver of the Ferrari racing team, was leading in a red 3.5-liter model. Behind him came Stirling Moss in a 3-liter Maserati; Phil Hill, of California, in another 3.5; the Kansas Citian, Masten Gregory, in still another; France's Jean Behra with the formidable 4.5-liter Maserati; and then—John Fitch in the blue Corvette.
Fitch stayed with the leaders through the second lap but came to the pits after three laps to have a wheel changed. Early morning brake tests had disclosed some front-wheel locking, and now a wheel had gotten out of balance causing the front end to shake. The car went fairly well for six more laps, then the engine died, but Fitch was near enough to the pits to coast in. Long tinkering repaired trouble in the ignition circuit. The brakes were still not right, but Fitch went out again and turned some very good laps until the engine quit again. This time Fitch repaired the car with a spare ignition coil. Again the SS went well for a while, but handling qualities deteriorated and the cockpit became unbearably hot. Taruffi finally took the car out for a lap and reported alarming body noises.
"We discovered," said Duntov, "that the rubber bushing on a rear suspension arm was damaged. Since the condition would have deteriorated further and would not permit fast driving, we felt there was no point in just cruising, and withdrew." But he added that it was a design of great promise and he was quite pleased with it.
SMOOTH AND SPARING
Meanwhile, Behra was giving the Maserati pit happier news. He recorded the fastest lap of the day (3:24.5) while overtaking the early leader, Collins, and then drove smoothly, sparing the car while continuing to increase his margin. Moss was well placed in the 3-liter Maserati. Carroll Shelby, the Texan who joined the Maserati team this year and received SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Sports Car Driver of 1956 trophy during the Sebring week, was another who was saving his car (a 3-liter model) for the finish. He began to run out of fuel in the third hour and came to the pit for more. Instead of replacing him immediately with Co-driver Roy Salvadori of Britain, the pit crew dumped in five gallons of gasoline and waved him on. They signaled Shelby to come in three laps later to hand over to Salvadori and had to refuel again, thus breaking a rule against refueling before 20 laps had been run. The car was disqualified on the 68th lap as Salvadori was lying eighth—in a fine striking position.
Enervating heat, faster cars than ever before, fiercely competitive drivers and a course notorious for its destruction of brakes kept the situation behind the 4.5 Maserati fluid. The Ferrari drivers made a resolute assault, but all the contending cars began to have braking difficulties. Collins' swift early laps were costly; he started to slip back and eventually finished sixth, co-driving with France's Maurice Trintignant. The Marquis de Portago and Masten Gregory, with Co-drivers Luigi Musso and Lou Brero, each had a taste of second place with the 3.5s, only to lose most of their braking power.
Far ahead of the pack Behra and The Master gave a demonstration of coldly efficient driving. They changed places every three hours and Fangio's only bother was that mechanics sloshed gasoline into the cockpit when he took over for the last three hours. He splashed a puddle of gas off the seat as he got in, but he must have been extremely uncomfortable as he sat in the remainder of the stinging fuel for those three hours.
Sebring, as expected, kept its reputation as a destroyer of cars (38 of 65 starters finished) and it cost one life. Bob Goldich of Chicago, a longtime amateur racer, flipped an Arnolt-Bristol in a deceptive S-curve and was injured fatally. S. H. (Wacky) Arnolt, builder of the cars, immediately withdrew his two remaining entries.
The race was Fangio's and Behra's and Maserati's (evening the score for the manufacturers' championship with Ferrari at one victory each), but the day and the week will be remembered as that time when Detroit entered the lists of international racing.
The SS, at the moment when Fangio and Behra sat in the 4.5 and accepted the plaudits of the crowd, was half forgotten, yet it would not be forgotten long. The renowned 24-hour race at Le Mans is in June, and by that time Duntov and Chevrolet surely will have a car as proficient as it is handsome.
HIS BRAND-NEW CORVETTE SS IN THE FRONT POSITION, DRIVER JOHN FITCH LEAPS HURRIEDLY INTO THE COCKPIT IN TRADITIONAL LE MANS-TYPE STANDING START WITH THE ENGINES OFF
WINNERS FANGIO AND BEHRA, WREATHED IN ORANGE BLOSSOMS, ACCEPT THEIR ACCLAIM
FIRST DEATH in Sebring history came when Driver Bob Goldich, of Chicago, flipped on the 51st lap in his Arnolt-Bristol, causing the withdrawal of the three-car team.