1956 Sebring 12 Hours Grand Prix – Race Profile Page Five
Besides the big European factories and Detroit iron coming to Sebring in 1956 there were smaller car makers like England’s Lotus, Morgan, MG and Austin-Healey in attendance. Added to that list of smaller car makers was the American car company Arnolt-Bristol.
The Arnolt-Bristol was the brainchild of Stanley “Wacky” Arnolt who mated a BMW-derived Bristol 404 engine to an Italian Bertone-designed body to produce a true hybrid car with British mechanicals and Italian bodywork. It was considered an American creation because in many cases the final preparation and fitting of options were done in the United States.
Arnolt sent four race cars to Sebring in 1956 shipping them from their company headquarters in Warsaw, Indiana. Unfortunately someone forgot to drain all the water from the engine blocks before the cars were put on the transporter. The transporter passed through a fierce winter storm on the way to Florida and when they arrived at Sebring all four engine blocks had cracks in them. The Arnolt team had to rustle up a local welder in Sebring in an attempt to repair the damaged engine blocks. Coincidentally the lone factory Alfa-Romeo entry at Sebring that year was on an Italian cargo ship in the Atlantic when that same winter storm hit. The vessel went aground in the storm and the new Alfa, sporting a 1300 cc Guilietta Sprint engine, never made it to the race.
Arnolt would personally drive one of his cars at Sebring in 1956 along with friend Bob Goldich. Tragically Goldich would die the following year driving another Arnolt-Bristol when he hit one of the dreaded oil drums used to outline the course. Goldich had the dubious distinction of becoming the first driver fatality in the history of the Sebring race.
On the Friday before the race the new English 1500 cc Lotus Mk. XI of Colin Chapman and Len Bastrup caught fire during a practice session. Bastrup was driving and was coming off the sweeping left hand turn, where the concrete airport runway joined up with the asphalt paved road course. The Lotus he was driving went way too wide in the turn, hit several hay bales flipping the car with Bastrup trapped underneath. Spectators nearby rushed to right the car and did so with Bastrup still in his seat. Seconds later smoke, then fire erupted from underneath the hood. Bastrup was helped from the car and the only injury he suffered was a scratched and dented helmet and busted driving goggles. However, the fire put the car out of the line up for good and Chapman was not happy when he saw what had happened.
While the Lotus Mk. XI was entered in the race as a factory Lotus with Colin Chapman as owner and driver it was in reality the property of well-known American racer and car builder Briggs Cunningham who transported the cars to Florida when they arrived in New York from England.
Cunningham was from Palm Beach, Florida and for the previous three years cars he entered at Sebring had won. He would be driving a D-Jag at Sebring in ’56 with John Gordon Bennett. Cunningham even had his own hanger at the raceway where his crews worked on his cars and he was kind enough to let Colin Chapman and his people share the building with him.
Cunningham had already negotiated to buy the Lotus Mk. XI from Chapman and was scheduled to take possession after the race. However, Chapman’s sales philosophy about his race cars was that you might buy them, but during the race they are factory Lotus cars and they become your property only after the race is concluded. In some cases buyers, like Cunningham, went home from races with a pile of junk.
A large photo of the burning Lotus appeared in the New York Times the following day with an article about the race. Sebring officials felt that this was another example of press sensationalism in the post-Le Mans accident era. While not the kind of publicity Alec Ulmann wanted for his race, it did foster interest in the event.