1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – Page Two
As expected the ultra-light (1450 lbs.) Chaparrals from Midland, Texas were fastest in qualifying but their speed astounded everyone. The Jim Hall/ Hap Sharp Chaparral set a record time of 2 minutes, 57.6 seconds or 105.9 mph. This was almost 9 seconds faster than the record set by John Surtees driving a Ferrari the previous year and for the first time in the history of Sebring the three-minute barrier had been broken.
The other Chaparral driven by Bruce Jennings and Ronnie Hisson qualified second, the Shelby Ford GT40 of Ken Miles and Bruce McLaren was third, the Phil Hill/Richie Ginther Shelby Ford GT40 was fourth, then came the All American Lotus-Ford 19J of Dan Gurney and Jeremy Grant. The Lola T70 of John Cannon and Jack Saunders was in 6th place and the rest of the first ten qualifiers were all Ferraris.
Author’s Note: Jim Hall, Hap Sharp and their Chaparrals were from Midland, Texas. Carroll Shelby of Shelby American was born in Leesburg, Texas. John Mecom, Jr. was from Houston, Texas. The Kleiner Enterprises of Austin, Texas were running Ferrari factory cars for Enzo Ferrari. If Texas mothers were feeding their children something different back then I would like to know what it was and if it is still available today.
The morning of Saturday, March 27 dawned with some ground fog blanketing the nearby orange groves but the hot Florida sun soon burned through and temperatures began to rise. The weather predictions for race day were for temperatures in the 70-to-80 range and clearing. However, by 8:30 a.m. the temperature was approaching an uncomfortable 90 degrees with high humidity.
Fortune smiled on the race fans who had arrived either Thursday or Friday and were spared the misery of being stuck in the boiling heat and a twelve-mile-long traffic jam that defied description. In that long line outside the front gate, cars were overheating in the slow moving traffic and disabled vehicles littered the landscape. Some fans didn’t get into the track until three hours after the 10 a.m. start.
This Sebring was turning out to be an endurance test for spectators as well as race cars. Under normal conditions the amenities for the ordinary spectator at Sebring were seriously lacking when compared to race venues like Le Mans and some referred to the facilities at Sebring as “racetrack primitive.” The record crowd flowing through the track entrance was only going to make things worse with longer than usual lines for everything.
Jorge Cristobal of Woodbury, Tenn. was only 12 years old when he went to Sebring for the first time in 1965 but remembers it well. “The toilets were like circular fountains and everyone stood there facing each other. Not a pleasant experience for a 12-year old. The (spectator) crowd was full of crazy drunks and half-naked girls. I liked that part. The stench was weird and I later found out from my older brother that it was marijuana smoke.”
In 1965, as well as today, Sebring was a popular destination for college kids on Spring Break looking for fun. A bacchanalian attitude prevailed in their spectator area, known as the “Zoo”, with little supervision from authorities. Drunk or stoned college kids in all manner of dress or undress were common and became part of the experience and legend of Sebring.
Race promoter Alec Ulmann and his wife tried their best to bring an air of civility to the event with a hospitality tent situated along Midway Drive in the paddock. Set up by the Automobile Racing Club of Florida (ARCF) the striped tent offered well dressed patrons (many from Palm Beach) a place to meet and eat such delicacies as frog’s legs, king crab legs, roast beef, apple pie, watermelon and English tarts. There was also an open bar where one could get a cold libation anytime during the 12 hours of the race and while you were quaffing a cool brew you might rub elbows with the Governor of Florida or astronauts Gus Grissom or Gordon Cooper. To gain entry to this oasis all one had to do is pay $100 per couple, not a small amount in 1965. So you were not bothered by the common folk, a guard was placed at the entrance to the tent. Most agreed later that it was a vain attempt at trying to recreate the international glamour found at Le Mans and Nurburgring.
1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – The Start
By 9:30 a.m. almost all of the cars were in place on the grid in preparation for the start. Temperatures were now 94 degrees in the spectator area and a blistering 130 degrees on the track. The governor of Florida, under close supervision, was given the privilege of dropping the starting flag at 10 a.m. and when that happened the 67 drivers sprinted 25 feet across the track to their cars in what was referred to in those days as the Le Mans-style start.
To get their cars prepped for the start Shelby’s mechanics had warmed up the engines on the Cobra Daytona Coupes. Unfortunately the cars sat in the boiling sun waiting for the start and when the drivers got in the cars two of the four failed to turn over. The problem was vapor lock caused by the warm engines and the extreme heat of the day. Driving what was later to be Carroll Shelby’s personal Cobra Daytona Coupe, Ed Leslie stalled the #12 Daytona just 50 feet from the start and was rear ended by the #51 Volvo P1800 of Art Riley. After some quick repairs in the pits, both cars would continue but the damage to the Cobra would later cause it to pit for repairs on the tail lights and they would eventually finish in 13th position but third in class. When he returned to the track after those first hasty repairs, Leslie also found that the driver’s door had been sprung and for the rest of the race he and co-driver Allen Grant had to hold onto the door whenever making a right turn.
First away from the pack was the “Lightweight” Corvette Grand Sport of Delmo Johnson. He had raced the previous year at Sebring in the Corvette but this year the car was sporting a new 396-c.u. engine with what was called a “porcupine head.” This was the first big block racing engine to leave the Chevrolet factory and came courtesy of Chevy’s chief engineer, Zora Duntov. Even though General Motors and Chevrolet had “officially’ withdrawn from racing they (mostly Duntov’s engineers) were assisting Delmo Johnson and Jim Hall’s Chaparrals with some “back door” help.
The main reason why the Corvette Grand Sport was the first away from the starting grid was that Johnson had the car already in gear when he punched the starter. Also, while the Chaparral drivers and everyone else were buckling up, he did not. Nor did he even close the car’s door. Delmo didn’t buckle up until lap two and until then had to grip the steering wheel tightly to stay in his seat and not be thrown around the interior of the Corvette.
Richie Ginther, in the #10 Shelby American Ford GT40, quickly caught up to and passed the Corvette after the Webster Turns but had to immediately pit because a faulty magnesium wheel was making contact with the car’s brake caliper and causing an ungodly noise. They replaced the wheels with aluminum ones.