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Original Issue

A sweet wet win for America at Sebring

Italy's magnificent Ferraris were challenged in the foremost U.S. sports car race by Chaparrals and Fords. This time the challenge succeeded—Jim Hall's Chaparral splashed in first and Fords won major prizes

To many Americans the Ferrari automobile is one of the great treasures of Italy, belonging up there with Sophia Loren, the columns of the Forum and the fettucini at Alfredo's. Swift, beautiful and extravagantly expensive in street clothing, fierce and conquering on the world's racecourses, the Ferrari has glamour, oomph, it. For a decade Ferraris so dominated the world-class endurance races that they came to be regarded as invincible. Their supremacy was nowhere more evident than at Sebring in mid-Florida, where they had rolled to victory in six of the last seven 12-hour races and failed to take the seventh only because, in that one year, Builder Enzo Ferrari loftily declined to participate.

Last week the news that America at last had the means to give Ferrari a fight brought a record crowd of 50,000 people to Sebring's flat but car-torturing airfield racecourse and, lo! the mighty, the magnificent, the marvelous Ferraris were beaten. On a historic day that lifted from U.S. enthusiasts the burden of reaching back to a Duesenberg's victory in the 1921 French Grand Prix for evidence that America could win a first-class road race, not one but two native racing machines outran the cars from Maranello.

Beginning under a tropical sun, but punctuated by heavy rain, the race turned out to be as much a civil war between the two largest American automakers—Chevrolet and Ford—as a U.S. assault on the Ferraris. First home, spraying a bow wave and roostertail of rainwater, was the white Chevy-engined Chaparral roadster of that brainy, wealthy, taciturn Texan, Jim Hall. Four laps down to the Chaparral but second among the 43 finishers came Ford Motor Company's elegant blue-and-white GT coupe—and then the first Ferrari.

Hall, one of the world's rare driver-designers, clearly deserves immense credit for the imagination and zeal he put into the Chaparral project. Just how much credit belongs to Chevrolet is another, and most controversial, matter, since General Motors professes to be entirely out of racing. It is widely assumed that Hall has been given technical advice by engineers of GM's Chevy division—and perhaps some choice hardware for the Chaparral's engine and an automatic transmission unique in racing—on an informal basis and without review by GM Board Chairman Frederic Donner. The latter's stand on keeping GM out of racing appears to be forthright and unequivocal. Hall himself said, "Any help I got from Chevrolet was through the back door." He refused to say more about it.

However much or little Chevy contributed, the public inescapably saw the race as a duel between Detroit's Titans. Ford, having invested millions in an open and massive racing program on many fronts, must have been enormously galled by the Chaparral victory, but its own car's performance was a considerable triumph. Racing in the so-called prototype class and thus conceding some 600 speed-sapping pounds in weight to the Chaparral—an all-out sports car burdened by fewer restrictions—the GT defeated all other prototypes and gained a long lead in the run for an important manufacturers' world championship. The GT had already won February's Daytona Continental, the first point race of the season but a poorly attended event not yet of the first rank. Ford picked up additional Sebring prestige with the Grand Touring class win of a Ford-powered Cobra.

On the scene last week the Ferrari team was technically absent—Enzo Ferrari having taken umbrage at a rules change permitting cars like the Chaparral to race—but it was present in prime driving flesh and racing metal. Around the pits were "spectators" from Ferrari's own North American Racing Team, many with wrenches in their hands. All along the carnival midway and behind the pits the question was: were there, or were there not, two new factory Ferraris? Obviously there were: the No. 33, entered by Kleiner Racing Enterprises of Austin, Texas and driven by Factory Drivers Umberto Maglioli and Giancarlo Baghetti, and No. 30, bearing the blue-and-white racing colors of the U.S., entered by the Mecom Racing Team of Texas and driven by Britain's Graham Hill and Mexico's Pedro Rodriguez. "I don't know anything about the car," said Hill cryptically. "You'll have to ask someone else about that."

Someone else, a North American Racing Team mechanic, allowed as how it was a copy of a new 12-cylinder prototype that had raced at Daytona. Upon reflection, he said it was the same Daytona car. In practice, the car whined around Sebring's 5.2-mile course in 3 minutes 9 seconds. "We're not as quick as the others," said Hill. "We'll just have to rely on Ferrari's staying power."

Two white cars, sharp as creased Stetsons, were quicker than the Ferraris and everything else in practice, darting around the course together wing to wing as if fed on the juice of the Texas road-runner for which they are named. In one of these Chaparrals, Hall electrified the railbirds with a lap in 2:57.6—a time fully 8½ seconds below the existing record. Hap Sharp, his second driver and associate in the building of the Chaparral, did 3 minutes flat. The Chaparrals' quickness was partly due to sensationally low weight and gobs of power, partly to their supersecret automatic transmissions. Normally, a road-racing driver pumps clutch, brake and accelerator just as you or I would in an MG. But with Hall's Chaparrals the drivers use only the accelerator and brake pedals—almost as effortlessly as a man driving a '65 passenger car. Said Hall, "This makes driving much easier. We drivers will be in better shape at the end, which is always an advantage. I think these cars ought to win."

One man worrying more about the Chaparrals than the Ferraris was ubiquitous Carroll Shelby, builder of the Cobra roadsters and now boss of Ford's GT push. Dan Gurney in a Lotus-Ford gave Dearborn a powerful but potentially fragile entry in the unlimited sports car class. "Gurney should be right in there," said Shelby, "because his car is light and quick and because he's Gurney." The Chaparrals, he reasoned, might break down because the automatic transmission would not help the brakes slow the car and the brakes might not stand Sebring's pounding.

On race morning the sun was out clear and hot, and on the narrow entry roads racegoers crept trackward in as dense a traffic jam as Florida has seen. Many missed the Le Mans-style start—67 racing cars off and running in a fine tangle of their own. In the first hour the temperature rose from 80° to 88°. Car after car coughed into the pits, radiators sending up geysers. Up front, after a high-velocity dice with the Chaparral of Hall and Sharp, Gurney's Lotus-Ford moved off to an impressive lead. The track temperature at midday was 130°, and Gurney was steaming along 47 seconds in front of the Chaparral. Now the Ford GT driven by America's Phil Hill rocked into the pits with a broken suspension. Minutes later Ford suffered another blow. Gurney was abruptly out, and the Hall-Sharp Chaparral ahead to stay. "I was watching my oil-pressure gauge back there when suddenly it went whump," said Gurney.

Still, all was not entirely well with the Chaparrals. Driver Ronny Hissom pitted the mate to Hall's car with a failing battery.

Shelby, a black cowboy hat pulled villainously down over his eyes, peered into the Chaparral pit to see if Hall's mechanics could make repairs in time to keep the car competitive. They could not. But at the 4 p.m. halfway point the other Chaparral looked unbeatable. Spectators watched it go by with eyes glazed from following too many cars, their minds already numb from too much beer and too little shade.

Mecom's Ferrari was five laps behind the Chaparral. On the same lap lay the last Ford GT. If any of the big three were to crack, Ferrari looked the best back-stopped, with reserves in fifth and 10th places. Shelby's old reliable Cobra GTs were running strongly in seventh, eighth and ninth places.

At a quarter past 4 the Mecom Ferrari pitted and the Ford GT moved up to second place. At 4:40 the Ford GT pitted and Ferrari regained second. Hall's Chaparral rolled smoothly in the lead. Then the rains came.

A raggedy black cloud had lurked for some time in the north. It burst, and in seconds the course in front of the pits became a canal. Cars in the back of the pack, hoping to regain some lost laps, slogged on through, while a few of those in the front pitted, spluttering in with engines that were not overheating now but soaked. Spectators ran for cover. Track officials took off their shoes and waded. The entire race took on the atmosphere of a Gold Cup run with a load of sick-sounding entries. Unofficially, 50 cars remained on the course. Said Carroll Shelby of his Ford GT, "I wish I could turn the damn thing over and use it as a hydroplane." Hall, meanwhile, found that his low-slung Chaparral acted as a shovel, scooping up a torrent of water with its nose and dumping it into his lap.

At the height of the squall a Goodyear blimp parked in the airfield stood on its nose. It was quickly put back on an even keel by its ground crew. Shortly after 6 p.m. the Mecom Ferrari pitted for rain gear (four tires, a special rain windshield and wet weather specialist Rodriguez) but was never again a threat. Into third place went the private Ferrari driven by England's David Piper and South Africa's Tony Maggs.

With three hours to go, the storm blew over and the track dried off. By simply hanging together, American cars could, incredibly, seize the three major prizes. This they did. Despite rain, mud, floods, Ferraris and Fords, the Chaparral sailed in safe and strong in another downpour. It had traveled 1,019.2 miles—not a record, but the fault was the weather's, not the car's. In a sense, everyone was happy—save Ferrari. Shelby had a pair of winners: America's Ken Miles and New Zealand's Bruce McLaren, arriving first among prototype drivers in the GT; Jo Schlesser of France and Bob Bondurant of the U.S., first in the Grand Touring class in the fourth-place Cobra. Hall had his big winner. And Porsche was ecstatic because four Porsches finished in the top 10.

After a damp Miss Florida circled the winning drivers' necks with kumquat leis, Hall spoke cautiously of the future. "We've broken Ferrari's string here," he said, "but I don't think we've ended their domination." It was a rare beginning, though. Wow-ee!