1966 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – Ford Triumphs Amid Tragedy
By Louis Galanos | Photos as credited
During the third week of March 1966 the annual pilgrimage of sports car aficionados was taking place in South Central Florida as fans of the Sebring 12-hour race descended on the aging 5.2 mile road course that was laid out over the runways and access roads of an old World War ll bomber base.
Many of the die-hard fans of America’s premier sports car endurance race had planned for months in anticipation of the event and some were already arriving at the airport facility several days prior to the race to find and secure coveted viewing spots.
When they arrived they found that things had changed somewhat. A new vehicle bridge was in place across a part of the track called the “Big Bend.” This opened the adjacent area known as Green Park to spectators thus almost doubling the size of the spectator enclosure. Also, hundreds of feet of new chain link (hurricane) fencing was in place to replace some of the snow fencing that was common in previous Sebring races and that provided little protection to the spectators who were injured in 1965 when a Bizzarini Iso Grifo lost its brakes and plunged into the crowd.
To the disappointment of some, fans carrying scaffolding materials in their vehicles were told that viewing scaffolds would not be permitted this year. It seems that when the big storm and deluge that struck the track the previous year several of these viewing scaffolds were blown over with people still in them. Fortunately there were no serious injuries.
Following the end of World War II the Sebring facility became a functioning civilian airport as well as an industrial park with private businesses ensconced in the numerous World War II-era warehouses and hangers. As a result the access roads that allowed employees to come and go also allowed early arrivals for the race to enter the facility without too much hindrance or having to pay for a race day ticket.
Back in those days the Sebring race officials would deal with these “early arrivals” by sending out a large contingent of race workers to the spectator enclosure. They would line up almost finger tip to finger tip and then walk through the spectator enclosure stopping all they met and requiring them to produce an entry ticket. If they didn’t have a ticket they had to pay $5.00 on the spot.
At one point the track workers came across a young man sleeping (or feigning sleep) in his locked vehicle. No amount of banging on the doors/windows or rocking the car could rouse him. They eventually gave up and proceeded on to the next group of spectators.
The topics of conversation among these early arrivals in 1966 included the large contingent of Fords entered in the race and would Jim Hall and the Chaparrals repeat their win from last year. Also in that conversation were several who regaled each other with stories about the big storm the previous year and how much better prepared they were for a similar event this year. One race fan even showed his buddies a large war-surplus inflatable Navy life raft that he had purchased just for any eventuality. If it didn’t rain he said he could then use it for a “wading pool.”
Among many of the early arrivals in March of 1966 were members of the automotive press who were waiting to see how many factory Ferrari race cars would eventually show up to challenge the Fords. According to Sebring race founder, Alec Ulmann, “without Ferrari the race wouldn’t be worth watching.”
In 1965 Ulmann’s decision to allow the light-weight Chaparrals to enter the Sebring race in the sports car category precipitated a boycott by Ferrari. Enzo later relented and allowed several of his cars to enter the event but strictly as private entries.
However, by 1966 the Ford – Ferrari War was fully engaged. Henry Ford II was pumping millions of dollars into his determined effort to beat Ferrari where it counted, on the track. At the very first (earlier races had been 3 and 6 hrs.) Daytona 24-Hour Continental in February of 1966, Fords came in 1-2-3 and Enzo Ferrari was warning European race constructors that they were losing the war to the “American steamroller.” (Note: In 1967 Ferrari would finish 1-2-3 at the 2nd annual Daytona 24).
Alec Ulmann, fearing an impact on gate receipts if Ferrari boycotted Sebring again, travelled to Maranello, “hat in hand…to plead with the Commendatore.” This was no doubt humiliating for Ulmann but as the saying goes, “money talks.”
The parties met in Enzo’s office and after much haggling, in French no less, Ferrari agreed to send over two of his new P3 cars. At the moment he made that commitment there was serious doubt that the factory could get those cars ready in time. In the end only one of the new factory 4-liter 330 P3s made the starting grid at Sebring with a North American Racing Team (NART) 365 P2/3 as back-up. On the surface it was not much competition for the slew of Fords entered with several of them being monster 7-liter cars.
On the other hand the new Ferrari 330 P3 was nothing to totally dismiss out of hand. The massive fuel-injected 12-cylinder engine generated 420 h.p. and Ferrari cars had a reputation for durability. More than once they outlasted the race leader to take the overall win at an endurance event.
At Sebring in 1966 Ford was a heavy favorite just because of the sheer number of cars entered. In that number were three 475 h.p. 7-liter 427 GT40 Mark II coupes, a 427 GT40 Mark II “X1” roadster, two 289 GT40s entered as prototypes and seven more GT40s entered in the Sports 5000 category. Plus there were three Cobras ready for this grueling 12-hour race. (Note: 22 Ford race cars were entered at Sebring that year and 18 of the 64 that made it to the starting grid were Fords).
Interestingly enough while Ferrari, Chaparral, Porsche, Alfa, Austin-Healey and Triumph were all listed as entrants all of the Ford cars mentioned above were from private shops like Shelby American, Holman Moody, Essex Wire Corporation, Scuderia Bear, Bill Wonder and Comstock Racing of Canada.
Have no fear though for Ford had a whole host of executives there from Dearborn as well a “consultants” ready to assist any Ford-powered entry.