1957 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix – Race Profile Page Three
Considering the press coverage the race was getting it was apparent to all that the Sebring 12-hour event was finally coming into its own since it was created by Alec Ulmann in 1952. Since that first event it has gained in popularity each year and 1957 would see a record crowd of 30,000 in attendance at the 5.2 mile road course laid out over the landing strips and taxi-ways of the old B-17 bomber base formerly known as Hendricks Field.
The town of Sebring, population 7,000 in 1957, benefited economically each year from the event but there was the expected group of locals who resented this annual invasion and disturbance of the peace by all those loud cars and milling strangers who didn’t speak “American.”
Some residents objected to the factory Ferrari cars being housed at the Pontiac dealership and the Maserati team housed at the Weaver Auto Parts garage in the heart of Sebring. The garage owners, however, didn’t mind the rental fee they were paid. To some locals having those teams in the heart of Sebring only added to the congestion downtown during the week before the race and the fact that some of these unlicensed and unmuffled race cars were driven the seven miles to and from the track during the days before the race upset a few residents. For the most part the citizens of Sebring welcomed the newcomers because it literally put Sebring on the map for one week of the year.
Added to the complaints by some of the older folks was the fact that the young ladies of Sebring thought that many of the Italian drivers and mechanics were “cute.” Maybe they should have put up a sign in town for the locals to “Lock up you wives and daughters.”
Some of the Ferrari and Maserati race cars were driven by mechanics and drivers from the downtown to the track and back along a stretch of highway today known as Kenilworth Boulevard. If you drove the rather desolate road back then you couldn’t help notice several abandoned housing developments that were left over from the Florida real estate boom of the 1920’s. All that was left from those heady times were the dilapidated gates and faded signs marking someone’s dream of life in paradise.
There was a rumor circulating at the track that the local police had arrested Ferrari driver Alfonso de Portago and had taken him to the police station. It seems that the Spanish Marquis was going a little too fast in town and when stopped he tried to feign ignorance of local speed limits by not speaking English, despite the fact that he was fluent in several languages including English. Only with the help of Alec Ulmann and a pile of cash was he released lest he spend race day in the “hoosegow.” Unfortunately this was de Portago’s last Sebring because he would die tragically at the Mille Miglia less than two months later when his car left the road at high speed killing him, his co-driver and a number of spectators including several children.
Many of the fans attending the only FIA sanctioned sports car race in North America traveled great distances in an era when Interstate highways like I-95 and I-75 didn’t exist. Automotive license tags from just about every New England state could be seen on cars in the spectator enclosure on race day and some West Coast tags were also seen. Added to this was a hoard of foreign cars, especially Jaguar automobiles, and for some reason the Jag drivers would give each other a modified salute every time their cars would cross paths.
Sports car clubs from around the nation were there with early arrivals already staking out an enclosure for their members who might arrive late. Probably the largest contingent was the Miami Sports Car Club who came to see several of their members who had entered the race. As with many of the clubs, banners and club flags announced their viewing area. Some spectators and club members would even show up with a truck load of scaffolding to build elaborate viewing stands that would need a building permit in today’s world.
As anyone who ever attended a Sebring race during that era will tell you, the event was as much an endurance event for spectators, especially at Sebring, as it was for the cars and drivers entered. The record crowd in 1957 only added to the perennial problem of long lines for bathrooms, food, drinks and everything else.
But, this didn’t stop the crowd from having a good time and the race organizers would sometimes turn a blind eye to the wild parties that would be legendary for years to come. The police who provided security in the spectator area seemed more concerned over the dogs that some spectators would smuggle into the track. In the past loose dogs were serious problems with some crossing the track in the middle of the race. In 1957 one officer had to threaten to shoot an owner’s dog if he didn’t keep it on a leash.
Sebring was a great place to show off your car to others who owned the same make and show off yourself if you were so inclined. Hats and outfits of all kinds were in vogue at Sebring in 1957 with one woman parading around the spectator enclosure wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat with a large stuffed pheasant mounted on it. A male spectator was seen walking around with a Nassau policeman’s “topee” helmet on his head.
As was to be expected numerous young women paraded around in skimpy shorts and tops or in two-piece swimsuits with some coming close to bikini standards. None of these outfits went too far lest the local constabulary take an interest in them. However, in the city of Sebring the French Renault team was housed at the Kenilworth Lodge. Some of the drivers were women and one, Mademoiselle Gilberte Thirion, decided to take advantage of the warm Florida weather by wearing her very skimpy French bikini to the hotel pool. This made several hotel employees and guests do a double-take. One can only guess what happened at the hotel once the word spread through the town.