And Then The Rains Came – The 1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance
Story by Louis Galanos. Black and white photos by Dave Nicholas and color photos by Walker Fricks, Jr.
A record crowd of over 50,000 race fans came expecting a race to remember, and the foremost sports car race in this country didn’t disappoint them. The drama that ensued both on the track and off became the stuff of legends and is still talked about and written about today.
This was the era known at the Golden Age of Sports Car Endurance Racing where it was customary that the majority of the cars on the grid would be owned and piloted by what was referred to as “privateers” or gentlemen (and sometimes lady) racers.
These privateers and their cars were very different from today’s drivers and race cars because what you saw on the track and in the pits back then were entrants without the ubiquitous patches, logos and graphics that make today’s race cars and drivers look like moving billboards. It was a simpler time, and perhaps, a better time.
The 1965 Sebring race was not without a bit of controversy even before the starting flag fell. The previous year the U.S. representatives to the sanctioning body for sports car endurance racing (FIA) had convinced that body to repeal its engine size limit of 3000cc’s on prototype cars and allow the creation of an unrestricted sports car category.
Alec Ulmann, the creator and promoter of the 12-hour race, also worked a little magic and got the competition arm of FIA, known as CSI, to allow both prototype cars and large-displacement sports cars to race in the same event (Sebring in particular) even though their own regulations prohibited this. These changes went into effect in January of 1965.
Knowing that these rules changes would allow the popular big-block American sports cars to compete against the best that Europe had to offer, Mr. Ulmann decided to invite Texas oilman Jim Hall to enter his race-winning, Chevrolet powered Chaparral cars to the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Ulmann’s decision to invite the Chaparral team was predicated on the belief that American sports car fans, as well as the media, would flock to Sebring to see Chevy, Ford, and Ferrari duke it out to see who was top dog in the world of endurance racing. He wanted those extra gate receipts and prestige that such a match up would bring and as history shows us he got what he was asking for and then some.
The Chaparrals (Spanish for road runner), were equipped with a 5.4-liter aluminum-block Chevrolet engines and an unorthodox “secret” automatic transmission. In 1964 Chaparrals won the Sports Car Club of America’s United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC). USRRC events were much shorter events (usually 2 hours) than Sebring and there was some question if the Chaparrals could last 12 hours. To find out for himself Jim Hall shipped a car and crew to Sebring in late February and after several days of rigorous testing there and at Rattlesnake Raceway in Texas he was satisfied that the car could take anything that Sebring could throw at it.
Both Ford and Ferrari knew that they were at a weight disadvantage with the much lighter (by 600 pounds) Chaparrals and if they expected to come in first overall at Sebring the “Dark Horse” Chaparrals had to fail. In 1964 the Ford program to beat Ferrari was run out of England. However their attempt to develop a prototype car that would be a Ferrari beater was a miserable failure. At the end of that year Henry Ford II turned over the GT program to Carroll Shelby who had shown great success in 1964 with his Cobra cars. Shelby had five Cobras finish in the top ten at Sebring that year. Ford believed that Shelby knew how to win.
Right out of the starting gate in 1965 a Ford powered Shelby GT40 came in first at the 2000-kilometer Daytona Continental. This was remarkable since the Shelby American organization had only two months to prepare for Daytona after Ford dumped the GT program in their lap.
1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – Pre-race Photos
In 1965 the Sebring 12-Hour Race was the only sports car race in America contributing points to the FIA world manufacturer’s title which was perennially won by Ferrari. Ford was determined to win that much coveted title and dethrone Ferrari. This determination was a direct result of Ford’s failure to buy Ferrari from Enzo Ferrari two years earlier when negotiations collapsed at a very late date and after much money was spent by Ford.
Henry Ford II then embarked on a multimillion dollar program to build a car that could beat Ferrari on its own turf. This much written about battle is today referred to as The Ford – Ferrari Wars and in this war, Ford was determined to win at Sebring.
At the 12-hour event in Florida Shelby had no less than six cars entered and they hoped to repeat the success they had at Daytona a month earlier. At Sebring their stable of cars included two Ford GT40’s and four of the six (Pete Brock designed) Cobra Daytona Coupes in existence at that time. In addition there were 12 drivers, more than 20 pit crew and mechanics plus a cadre of specialists whose sole job was to assist anyone else in the race who was driving a Ford or Cobra product. Ford wanted this win and they were willing to dig deep to pay for it.
The Cobra Daytona Coupes were in the all important Grand Touring Class and this group was the only one eligible for points in the pursuit of the world manufacturer crown. The GT’s were in the prototype class and not eligible for points. However, if they came in first overall they would receive the lion’s share of publicity and some prize money. The total prize purse for Sebring was a modest $40,000 and when the race finally ended the overall winning drivers walked away with the princely sum of $2,000. Obviously the folks back then were not in this game for the prize money.
In a huff over the new rules for 1965 and Ulmann’s decision to allow sports cars to compete for the overall win, Enzo Ferrari did what he had been threatening for months. He “officially” withdrew his factory cars from the Sebring event despite the fact that his cars had won there the previous four years. His displeasure was compounded by the fact that race officials had determined that his new 3.3 liter machines had a ground clearance too low for the prototype class and instead were placed in the new unrestricted sports car class against the much lighter and faster Chaparrals. Ferrari also forbid his U.S. representative Luigi Chinetti and the North American Racing Team to field any cars under the NART or Ferrari banner at Sebring. Even world champion John Surtees was told he couldn’t drive at Sebring because he was under exclusive contract to Ferrari. Hell hath no fury like an Italian scorned.
Ferrari later relented and turned over a couple of his fastest machines, plus factory drivers and mechanics to run at Sebring under the guise of being private entries. Even John Surtees was allowed to attend the race but only as a “consultant.” One of Enzo’s best cars at Sebring was the #30 blue-and-white 330P with a 4-liter Super America engine. It was “loaned” to wealthy oilman John Mecom, Jr. of Houston, Texas to race as a “private entry” with Graham Hill and Pedro Rodriguez driving.
In addition to the 330P, Mecom Racing had two other cars entered at Sebring that year. The #22 Lola T70 Mk.1-Ford driven by John Cannon and Jack Saunders. The Lola was making its international debut at Sebring. They also fielded the #29 Ferrari 250 LM co-driven by Mark Donohue (in his first professional race) and Walt Hansgen. It must be noted that Mecom mechanics serviced the Lola and 250 LM but factory Ferrari mechanics worked on the 330P. A bit obvious don’t you think?
Another Ferrari from Modena at Sebring was the #33 Ferrari 275P. It was conveniently loaned to Kleiner Racing Enterprises of Austin, Texas along with Ferrari factory drivers Umberto Maglioli and Giancarlo Baghetti. Both of these so-called “private entry” teams were also allowed to use the factory mechanics and several vans full of spare parts. Enzo Ferrari knew that his cars might not be as fast or as powerful as the American machines but they had a reputation for durability and more than once had outlasted the competition.
In another fruitless attempt to say that both the Mecom and Kleiner organizations were privateers they became part of the hastily created Ferrari Owners Racing Association or FORA. Under this association all Ferrari entrants, not just Mecom and Kleiner, would be allowed to help each other.