A little before 11 o'clock last Saturday night in the chill darkness outside Sebring, Fla., 34 cars of widely differing sizes and cylinders came rattling around an old wartime airport in an effort to hold body and carburetor together for a few minutes more. They had been at it for most of the day in a shakedown that separated a lot of men from a lot of horsepower, a shakedown that was to prove, ultimately, that Ford is back in a big way and ready for a shoot-out with Ferrari at Le Mans.
When the 12 hours of Sebring finally ended, a low, banana-colored Ford Mark IV rolled first across the finish line. It had put in a rewarding day: 1,237.6 miles through sun and wind at an average speed of 102.923 mph, driven throughout by two tough young men named Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren. Off to one side in the night sat another disabled Ford—which still managed to take second place in the standings. Behind the Fords came two Porsches. The 5.2-mile racecourse was strewn with pieces of wreckage and broken hopes. Fifty-nine cars had started the race in the brightness of 11 a.m., and every driver who finished was an exhausted hero.
Sebring has been described as a series of drag strips connected by turns. It requires an average of 40 gear changes a lap and tortures brakes in sudden dips from 190-mph straightaways to 20-mph turns. By the time you read this the town of Sebring will be closed for the season—in fact, it may take all summer to clear the pall of gasoline fumes and clean up the damaged car parts and discarded box lunches—but the lessons seem clear:
1) Ford Motor Company, that industrial giant whose racing ambitions roughly parallel the dreams of conquest harbored by Attila the Hun, has quite suddenly developed in the Mark IV a fearsome new car. Substantially lighter than the overweight Mark II that it succeeds, the Mark IV ran fast, and ran long, as well. It could be a world-beater.
2) Ford's chief rival, Ferrari, whose shop in Modena, Italy employs only 69 people but produces fast, indestructible cars—three of which clobbered Ford at Daytona in February—may no longer have the world by the tail pipe.
3) And Chaparral, a small, inventive outfit with consummate courage that builds cars in Midland, Texas and races them all over the world, is a worthy challenger of the Big Two.
The race also confirmed Porsche's invincibility in the 2-liter class and demonstrated that Alfa Romeo, coming back into racing to battle the Porsches with a new prototype called the 33, has some bugs to exterminate.
Ferrari, obviously building toward a massive assault at Le Mans in June to avenge last year's one-two-three Ford sweep, did not send a team to participate in the masochism out among the mangroves. That left Ford and Chaparral free to battle each other, and, Lord, how they did, in a seven-hour fight that rattled the orange groves on all sides.
A qualifying speed of 111.428 mph had put the new Mark IV on the pole. Chaparral's powerful 2F, with an airflow wing sticking way up above the tail to keep the car on the ground, and an automatic transmission to make it easier to drive, had hit 110 mph and was sitting in second spot. Behind them were Ford's other prototype, a now-outmoded Mark II, and another Chaparral—this one without the wing, but with a huge barndoor spoiler turned up in back.
The Mark IV flew all during practice while Builder Jim Hall, sweating out some mechanical troubles, got only a few warmup miles into the winged Chaparral. Then, on the eve of the race, Chaparral Driver Phil Hill, the 1961 world champion, developed an intense stomach pain that proved to be appendicitis. About the time Hill was rallying from emergency surgery, Hall was preparing to co-drive with England's Mike Spence and boss the Chaparral operation as well.
Since Sebring is actually 11 races in one, the 500-plus-horsepower big cars had to pick their way through a field of such darting, buzzing miniracers as Triumphs, Alpines, Alfas and what seemed like 10,000 Porsches. Four all-girl racing teams added sex appeal, but when word got around the pits that one disoriented pair had pasted a map of the track to the dashboard of their car a number of less valorous male drivers actually considered the discretionary possibilities of retreat.
For a race that had 12 hours to go the action started with indecent haste. The drivers sprinted across the track to their cars in America's only version of the Le Mans start, and roared raggedly down the onetime airplane runway to vanish behind a onetime airplane hangar. An Alfa Romeo prototype had its moment of glory, leading the first lap. But then came the killers.
The Fords surged into the lead, with New Zealand's McLaren at the wheel of the Mark IV. The two Chaparrals were moving up fast. On the 14th lap McLaren set a track record of 108.834 mph. When he pitted to be relieved by Andretit, after blasting away for an hour and 25 minutes in stinging sunshine laced with wind, the winged Chaparral took over the lead. Until dusk these two cars were to be locked in a struggle of closeness and intensity rare for an endurance grind.
At 2 p.m. McLaren was driving calmly out front when, suddenly, sailing through the dust and a puff of scattering Porsches, Hall burst ahead again without so much as a goodby wave of his wing. The Chaparral is bone-white, and the edges of the wing are bright red. "You know why they're red?" said Hall between driving hitches. "You see this scar on my forehead? I walked into the damn thing accidentally one time—that's why they're painted red."
At the Ford pits it was apparent that the Mark IV was not one of Ford's most economical products. McLaren and Andretti were getting only 80 to 85 minutes of running per tank of gas. The Chaparrals were getting better mileage—something like two full hours per tank at top speed—but were already drinking buckets of oil. Pit spies carried the news both ways. "They're putting in seven quarts of oil each pit stop!" one of them reported triumphantly to Ford's crew. "But look what they're doing to us on gas," a Ford man growled.
Andretti, who weighs 134 pounds counting his huge U.S.-driving-championship signet ring, stood to one side and shrugged. "It just means we got to make more pit stops and drive a little faster, that's all."
At 4 p.m. the winged Chaparral was a close second when Spence, in a bold thrust, hit 111.032 mph for still another lap record. That one proved to be uncrackable and left Chaparral the single-lap speed champ.
Eighty minutes later the wingless Chaparral expired out on the course. Back in the pits, Ford's Andretti opened the refrigerator of the team's house trailer. He drank some milk, then mixed a glass of lemonade. "Man, it's so hot out there you wouldn't believe it," he said. "And the way that wind is blowing the car is getting all jumpy and wiggly."
Roaring past on the track, the winged Chaparral began to trail puffs of smoke. About the time Andretti was finishing his lemonade, Spence pulled into his pits and mechanics started artificial respiration on the car. This proved futile. Seals on the automatic transmission had let go and the car was out of the fight.
Spotting the sick Chaparral, Mark IV Team Manager Carroll Shelby, his battered black cowboy hat pulled down to the bridge of his nose, made one joyous jump, then leaned over the pit wall and signaled Andretti that the Chaparral was out.
The rest was, in effect, a race between the Mark IV and the shadow of Ferrari in Italy. The last Ferrari of various private entries still running at Sebring was a Berlinetta, driven by a cool pair of women, Denise McCluggage and Pinkie Rollo. Whenever Denise decided it was time to pit, she would sail calmly down the main straightaway and switch on her right-turn signal, meaning she was coming in, you guys.
As the end neared, a few of the 27,600 spectators, overcome by the day's heat and the day's beer, began to wander onto the track, jumping away from the sudden stab of headlights. Others set fires in the infield. Twelve hours of racing makes Americans restless; with a 24-hour race they might burn Sebring to the ground. But there was one final shot of racing drama to come.
With just half an hour to go, the Mark II, driven by Indy veterans A.J. Foyt and Lloyd Ruby, wheeled into the pits, power off and lights blinking in a frantic alert. It was running in second position. Foyt scrambled out, and the crew lifted up the engine deck in the rear.
The nearest Porsche, one of a new 2-liter, fuel-injected coupe series designated 910, which had been running a careful, vulture-like third, was some 50 miles behind. Now it appeared possible that it might push past the Ford into second place in the time still remaining in the race.
Crews ran to the pit wall and signaled Andretti, "A.J. out," and warned him to take it gently. He flashed by in a streak of yellow, nodding but showing no signs of slowing. It took a couple of laps to convince him. Porsche missed by eight seconds. The Mark II was dead in the pits as the race ended, but was counted a finisher. It had completed 226 laps, or 1,175.2 miles. The 910, driven by Gerhard Mitter and Scooter Patrick, reached the finish line to complete its 226th lap just eight seconds after the 12 hours were up.
In any case, the car that counted was the Mark IV, and it took the checker for an impressive triumph. Once called the J-Car, the Mark IV had been a worrisome, ill-handling machine until a seven-day crash program of revisions after the defeat of the Mark IIs at Daytona put it right. Chassis problems were hammered out in tests on the Daytona track and aerodynamic improvements to the sensationally low, slippery coupe body were prompted by wind-tunnel tests at Dearborn. "The Mark IV," said one Ford spokesman, "started as a new concept and then underwent several changes." Said another, "You can't sit in some Dearborn design room and dream up a race car; you've got to find out what it will do. If it won't beat Ferrari, it won't do."
Emerging from an uproarious victory ceremony at Sebring, Andretti said, "We knew all along that this car had it. We knew it would run the distance. And I promise you, it's just made for Le Mans."
Ford's gray fox, Jacque Passino, the company's special vehicles manager, looked as though he had just swallowed an Italian canary. Only Passino's hair is gray; he turned out for the race in a pink candy-striped blazer, and he obviously intended to pick up some sweets for Henry Ford II at Le Mans.
"The Mark IV," he said, "is the new hope. Keep in mind that we did not extend it during today's race. It was fast, but not overextended. There is more in it than we used. The beautiful part, of course, is that it seems to run forever at sustained speed."
Are you ready, Mr. Ferrari?