The Annotated History of Sebring, Part 1

A series of posts on overall winners of the 12 Hours of Sebring since 1950, along with comments and background on people and events of historical interest. This is Part 1 of the series and covers Sebring from 1950 to 1955.
[table “” not found /]

In the beginning there was an idea and an abandoned airport.
The first race was held on New Year’s Eve, 1950 and was six hours long. The next race was held in 1952 and extended to 12 Hours and the legendary race that is now the 12 Hours of Sebring was born. The concept for the race was “once around the clock” but the unique nature of the track—part airport runways and, initially, part public roads—combined with a rough racing surface and a 12 hour competition over a very demanding track rather quickly turned Sebring into a must-race event for those who had hopes of winning at Le Mans. The thinking then, as now, was that Sebring was a great place to test your car and crew because the tough nature of the track surface and the time of the race provided a very serious shakedown for the 24 Hour race at Le Mans which, while longer, is contested on much smoother pavement.
In 1953 Briggs Cunningham, an American sportsman, took the first of three wins in a row at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Cunningham was a famous and enthusiastic competitor in a variety of sports, but his true loves were sailing and sports car racing. As his hobbies suggest, he was born into a wealthy family. His father was a very successful late 19th Century entrepreneur from Cincinnati, who made fortunes in real estate, railroads, utilities and banking. Along the way, the father invested in and backed a couple of entrepreneurs who had developed a new type of soap. Their names were Proctor and Gamble and the soap would be named “Ivory Soap” . Proctor&Gamble went on to become one  of the great American companies of all time ($84.0 billion in sales in 2014; in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, P&G sponsored 140 Athletes) and an early leader in such concepts as branding, brand management, and profit sharing for workers.
Briggs Cunningham went to Yale and after graduation he became very involved in international sports car racing and sailing. At Sebring, he won in 1953 with John Fitch (who would become a very accomplished early advocate for driver safety, in addition to his skills as a driver) and Phil Walters driving a Cunningham C4R/Chrysler to the win. In 1954, Cunningham brought an O.S.C.A. MT4, powered by a tiny 1.5 liter engine to Sebring and won again; his drivers were a very quick Englishman named Stirling Moss  (Ken W. Purdy’s biography of Moss, All But My Life  is a magnificent and wonderful piece of writing. Purdy himself was a piece of work and one of the very best automotive writers of all time)and American Bill Lloyd. The entry was notable not just for the win and the ability of the drivers, but the fact that the team won with the smallest engine ever to win the 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1955, Cunningham entered a D-Type Jaguar for Englishman Mike Hawthorne (he went on to become the U.K.’s first Formula 1 world champion in 1958 but immediately retired and died, only six months later, in an automobile accident on public roads) and Phil Walters, who won for the second time racing with Cunningham. Cunningham’s three wins at Sebring were done with different drivers and three types of cars, so obviously, his team knew what it was doing in terms of preparation and operations. Cunningham is also notable for the production of his own line of race cars, including the C3 ( a road car), the C2-R, C4-R, and C6-R race cars.
One of Briggs Cunningham’s major innovations in racing was not on the track but  in the pits. At the time Cunningham started racing, most race cars in America were transported to the track on a trailer. Cunningham changed the paradigm, by using a tractor trailer rig to carry the car, tools, uniforms, refreshments, etc. Thus, Cunningham upped the status ante by introducing the transporter as another element of the show. He had the money to go first class and so he did, but, importantly, he obviously spent the money in the right places because the cars that he raced (Cunninghams of his own design, along with Jaguars, O.S.C.A.s, Coopers, Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsches, Corvettes, Cadillacs) did very well. Cunningham’s cars raced in a very distinct livery, with two blue stripes (the racing stripe is generally considered a Briggs Cunningham innovation) over a white body, a development of the international colors for American racing of white bodies over blue (chassis) rails. Interestingly, a young driver named Carroll Shelby saw the livery when he raced for Aston Martin at Le Mans, and when he had his own team (Shelby American), he picked up the scheme and reversed it, with white stripes over a blue body.
Cunningham’s impact on sports car racing in America was wide and historic. He bought the first Ferrari sold in America, a 166, from Luigi Chinetti, then the North American distributor.  Chinetti would go on to be the force behind the famous North American Racing Team, a defacto Ferrari factory-team.  Cunningham was pals with Alfred Momo and also became a Jaguar importer. One of his drivers—the legendary Walt Hansgen—crashed a Cooper Climax T53 at Watkins Glen in 1961 and Cunningham sold the wrecked car to a young driver named Roger Penske. Penske ultimately re-bodied the F1 car with a sports car body, put a tiny little seat in to conform to regulations, named it the Zerex special, and went on to win the USAC Road Racing Championship in 1962. Roger Penske evolved into one of the most important people in the automobile and racing industry.
One of Cunningham’s pals was another Yale graduate named Miles Collier. Collier was also from a wealthy family; his father Barron Collier, at one time owned over 1.2 million acres of land in Florida and was an early supporter and backer of the Boy Scouts of America. Collier raced with Cunningham, driving one of a pair of Cadillacs entered at Le Mans in 1950, with his brother Sam Collier. The car was completely stock and they finished 10th. He was also the American importer of M.G. automobiles. The Collier Brothers, founded the Automobile Racing Club of America (not to be confused with the current organization of the same name) in pre WWII America; that entity eventually evolved into the SCCA.

Briggs Cunningham not only won Sebring three times in a row, he successfully defended the America's Cup in the 12 Meter Yacht COLUMBIA
Briggs Cunningham not only won Sebring three times in a row, he successfully defended the America’s Cup in the 12 Meter Yacht COLUMBIA

Cunningham was as good on the water as he was on land, and in 1958 he skippered the American 12 Meter Yacht Columbia,  designed by legendary naval architect Olin Stephens, to the win over Britain’s Sceptre in the first America’s Cup series contested in 12 Meter Yachts.
Cunningham collected a very impressive range of automobiles and displayed them in the Cunningham museum in Costa Mesa, California, Eventually, the collection was sold to the son of Miles Collier, who moved the cars to Florida and combined them with his family’s collection at the Collier Automotive Museum. Later, the Collier Automotive Museum transferred the collection to the Revs Institute for Automotive Research (Naples, Florida). Briggs Cunningham died at the age of 96 on July 2, 2003, from complications from Alzheimer’s. We shall not see someone of his style and accomplishments again.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *