At the end of his first shift last . Saturday in the Le Mans 24-hour race, Olivier Gendebien of Belgium coasted his scoop-nosed red Ferrari into the pits with a bone-dry fuel tank. A few minutes after 4 on Sunday afternoon he sat triumphantly on the car's rear deck, waving a white cowboy hat to those of the 200,000 spectators who were near enough to see him. Gendebien and his countryman, Paul Frere, had just won the world's biggest sports car race—by beautiful driving, certainly, but also by great luck—the luck that deposited Gendebien at his gasoline pump instead of a spot miles away on the course.
At the end of his first shift, the bespectacled young Kansas City driver, Masten Gregory, eased his bird-cage Maserati into the pits with a handsome two-minute lead over the Gendebien-Frere Ferrari. The car would not restart. It took an hour of frantic work on the starter motor to get it going again.
Thus are races won and lost. But there is something especially apt in that image of a Belgian flourishing an American hat in victory, not only because of Gregory's remarkable opening sprint ("As a matter of fact," he said, "I was just taking it easy"). But also because so many other Americans aimed so high at Le Mans and missed the mark.
This is not to say that the U.S. was shut out. Two Chevrolet Corvettes, the first made-in-America cars at Le Mans in five years, finished eighth and 10th. Ferraris driven by Americans were fifth and seventh. But considering the American firepower at Le Mans, the results were disappointing.
Briggs Cunningham (SI, June 27) returned to Le Mans after an absence of five years with three Corvettes, an experimental British Jaguar and a platoon of American drivers. Miami's Lloyd (Lucky) Casner came along with another Corvette, three 2.8-liter four-cylinder bird-cage Maseratis from Italy and a team of drivers headed by the irrepressible Gregory. Phil Hill, one of the world's best road-racing drivers and co-winner with Gendebien of the 1958 Le Mans, had a seat in a twin of the three-liter Gendebien-Frere car; his fellow Californian, Richie Ginther, was assigned to another.
From New York came Luigi Chinetti, Ferrari's man in America—a three-time Le Mans winner himself—with four Ferraris and a sprinkling of U.S. drivers. Not least, there was the little Italian OSCA of the American campaigners, John Bentley and J. S. Gordon, winners on handicap in this spring's 12-hour Sebring, Fla. race. (They were to finish 23rd overall but an impressive third on handicap at Le Mans.)
Before the race, there was a good deal of grumbling over the latest Le Mans rules, aimed at making today's racing sports cars seem more like road cars. One rule required, in effect, bigger windshields; another, that the cars have luggage space for, roughly, a one-suiter.
As a result, some cars broke out in idiotic bulges and blisters. But in the case of Gregory's No. 24 bird cage (so called because of its intricate multitubular frame), the Maserati factory beat the windshield rule by fairing a desk-top-size piece of Plexiglas into a superb aerodynamic shape, extending back from the car's nose.
Cars big and little, grotesque and sleek—55 in all—were angle-parked before the pits on race day for the traditional Le Mans start. Briggs Cunningham, whose No. 1 Corvette had pride of place at the head of the line, held out his hand to a light drizzle falling out of an ugly-looking sky and said, "It's just like old times—even the rain."
Down the line were no fewer than 12 Ferraris entered by Chinetti's North American Racing Team and seven grand touring entries which Cunningham and Casner hoped to shake up with their Corvettes.
At 4 p.m., as a French Tricolor dipped, drivers scampered across the track to their cars, started engines and boiled away.
The side attractions
Before long, part of the big crowd began seeking out some of the other diversions for which Le Mans is famous. One could wrestle a carnival strongman or price a Peugeot or sip a rosé bottled by one of the Le Mans drivers (France's Maurice Trintignant), or sharpen a tooth on the crust of a p√¢té sandwich. Restless types who strayed early missed the gorgeous run by Gregory in the bird cage. Off poorly at the start, he then passed, by his count, 23 cars on the Mulsanne straight, and the three remaining cars down the road a way. The Maserati finished the lap 200 yards ahead of the eventual winner, Gendebien's No. 11 Ferrari. Later on, after the starter trouble was corrected, Gregory was gaining 18 seconds a lap on the leading Ferraris, but toward midnight the pace told. The car, co-driven by California's Chuck Daigh, had spurted from 46th to 20th place. Then, again on the Mulsanne straight, the engine blew to smithereens. Gregory cut the ignition against the fire hazard only to find himself without lights at perhaps 160 mph. He got them back on and stopped safely.
During the evening there were two heavy rains. The first finished two Cunningham Corvettes. Bill Kimberly had just relieved Cunningham in the No. 1 car. The rain caught him on the Mulsanne straight, and the car got away from him, careened over and burned. Providentially, a fire extinguishing crew was at the spot and Kimberly was rescued unharmed.
At the same time Fred Windridge was roaring the No. 2 Corvette toward the deceptive bend in the homestretch known as Whitehouse. He crashed into an embankment, ripping the car's right side.
Cunningham's Jaguar had injector nozzle trouble early and retired with a burned piston. But his remaining Corvette entry—at least one thing went right—ran virtually trouble free during the 24 hours, with John Fitch and Bob Grossman co-driving, to take eighth place.
To the extreme embarrassment of the Ferrari team, two of the works' racers actually did run out of gas during the first stints. The loss of one meant that Phil Hill did not get to drive at all; co-Driver Wolfgang von Trips had started.
A third works Ferrari retired Sunday morning, leaving the Gendebien-Frere car the sole survivor of the official factory team. It had led ever since Gregory's Maserati first got balky in the second hour. Its drivers were never pressed on the last leg of the journey home. Frere, a journalist who now races infrequently, brought it across the line beneath a warm afternoon sun. It had traveled 2,619 miles at an average speed of 109 mph.
The remaining sports Ferrari, the North American team car driven by young Ricardo Rodriguez of Mexico and still another Belgian, Andre Pilette, arrived second, three laps behind. Drivers Roy Salvadori and Jimmy Clark saved third place for Britain with their Aston-Martin. Then came four Ferrari Grand Touring coupes. All in all, just 25 cars finished the 24 hours.
Lucky Casner, who was given his nickname because he was unlucky enough to pull guard through Christmas vacation at military school, rooted his Corvette home 10th. Like most Americans at Le Mans, all Lucky needed was a little more luck.
WINNER OLIVIER GENDEBIEN ALSO FINISHED FIRST, WITH PHIL HILL, IN 1958