1957 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix Race Profile – “El Chueco” Rides A Hot Seat
Story by Louis Galanos
In 1957 Sebring was holding only its sixth installment of the 12-hour race. With the growing popularity of sports car racing in post World War II America, the event was finally coming into its own since its creation by impresario Alec Ulmann in 1952.
To many sports car fans in America at that time the Sebring race was second only to the 24-Hours of Le Mans. The fact that it was the only event in North America that qualified for points toward the Federation Internationale de l’automobile (FIA) World Sportscar Championship (WSC) didn’t hurt. As a result, Sebring became the premier sports car event in the U.S. and a must-attend if you were an aficionado of sports car racing.
Always on the look out to help promote Florida, and tourism, the then governor of Florida, Leroy Collins, proclaimed March 18-23, 1957 as International Sports Car Race Week thus gaining additional media attention for the event at Sebring.
Not everyone in Florida was thrilled with all the hoopla surrounding the Sebring event. Bernard Kahn, sports editor for the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, had a few choice words in his regular newspaper column about the Sebring 12 hour race and the folks who raced there.
In his writings Mr. Kahn did recognize the obvious talents of driving “artists” like four-time world driving champion Juan Manuel Fangio (affectionately known as “El Chueco” or knock-kneed by his fans) and British driving ace Stirling Moss. However, Mr. Kahn referred to many of the lesser known drivers at the Sebring event as that “nameless number of café society snobs trying to get their kicks by being ‘sportsmen’ for a day.”
This “snobbish” remark was obviously designed to appeal to the large numbers of NASCAR fans who lived and worked in the Daytona area and may have resented anyone who drove a “furrin” automobile.
Besides the governor of Florida, the folks in New York and Detroit were also well aware of the significance of this race. For weeks national newspapers, magazines and wire-services fed the public’s interest by reporting on the international celebrities who would attend the Sebring race in 1957 or drive in it, like the Marquis de Portago of Spain and Count Wolfgang von Tripps of Germany.
Of the several media stories making the rounds about this year’s race was that General Motors Chevrolet Division would challenge the European dominance of this event by entering four Corvette sports cars (two modified & two production). In this group would be a radically new car made of lightweight materials.
General Motors interest in the Sebring race was purely business. There was a mantra taking hold in Detroit back then that went something like this, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” With that in mind the folks at GM arrived at the track in early March for some testing. One of those cars undergoing tests and a shakedown was a magnesium-alloy bodied Chevrolet Corvette Super Sport (SS.) It was equipped with a 4,638 c.c. engine with lightweight aluminum heads that produced 30 more horsepower (315) than the production Corvette and with 1000 fewer pounds. The power plant on the SS would have the largest displacement of any car to race at Sebring that year.
Paul O’Shey, who was scheduled to drive one of the GM team Corvettes in the race, commented that the power-to-weight ratio on the Corvette Super Sport or “space-frame Vette” was such that you could burn rubber in all four gears.
This ‘concept car’ was the brainchild of Chevy competition director Zora Arkus-Duntov who was now the Director of Performance for General Motors. History would later refer to Duntov as the “Father of The Corvette”.
In addition to this elegant metallic-blue Corvette SS there was a practice SS built that was equipped with the less powerful standard Corvette engine and painted with a large letter “P” on the body. Also, the body was plastic and not magnesium and looked so shabby, when compared to the other car, that it got the dubious moniker of “mule”. However, it was very fast and in the days prior to the race other drivers were constantly peppering Duntov for a chance to drive one of the SS’s.
Not wanting to risk having another driver wreck the one-of-a-kind magnesium-bodied concept Vette he allowed a selected few to drive the “mule”. After finishing practice in their Maserati team cars both Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss were allowed by Duntov to take a courtesy run in the practice car.
Fangio got into a car he has never driven before and on his first two laps broke the course record of 3:29.7 set the previous year by Mike Hawthorn of England in a Jaguar. On the third lap Fangio broke the course record by almost three seconds (3:27.4). Not to be outdone by his team-mate, Stirling Moss also broke the 1956 record with a time of 3:28 in the Corvette. When John Fitch, who was the designated SS driver for the race, took the “mule” out for a run the best he could do was get a couple of seconds closer to the course record but not break it.
When Fangio returned to the pits he was ecstatic. He claimed he could have gone at least two seconds faster “if he had tried.” This was an obvious testament to the driving skill of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, driver who ever lived. Note: According to Sports Illustrated magazine, General Motors representatives had been in negotiations with Fangio to drive the new Corvette SS at Sebring up to a week before the race. They were offering what some say was a “huge” amount of money. However, Fangio felt the car was too new and untested and he decided to stay with Maserati. GM also had similar talks with Moss.
The Duntov folks tried to keep quiet the news that an American car had broken the track record so resoundingly. But the word got out and as both the foreign and domestic drivers were arriving at the track for practice the next day the main topic was that an American Corvette had broken the track record. The press descended on the Corvette pits but both the drivers and crew were uncharacteristically mum with no one willing to comment. It was assumed that Duntov had ordered everyone to keep quiet until he was ready to go public with the news.
This didn’t stop the media from reporting it as an “unconfirmed story” and this fueled speculation that an American car had a chance to end European dominance of the premier sports car racing event in America. This might have encouraged undecided race fans to attend and possibly witness history in the making. Besides watching the new Corvette in action was reason enough to attend.