1966 12 Hours of Sebring – Page Four
At the one-hour-20-minute mark the pace was too much for the Phil Hill/Jo Bonnier Chaparral 2D and they retired due to a persistent oil leak that plagued them all week. When they entered the pits for the last time the rear window on the 7-liter mid-engine car was covered in oil.
Eight laps later the other Chaparral retired with a broken rear suspension. The team was kaput after completing only 35 laps. When asked by Bill Fleming of ABC’s Wide World of Sports about the problems that Chaparral was having Hap Sharp said, “We don’t seem to be able to build a closed car as well as the open cars we campaigned here last year.”
According to Sharp the additional 300 pounds of weight required for the prototype class was too much for the underpowered 327 cubic inch Chevrolet engine. “Everything we have was designed for a light-weight automobile”, said Sharp.
At 2:40 p.m. the #18 Canadian Comstock Ford GT40 driven by Jean Oulette pulled into their pit for fuel, brake pads and a driver change. When it left the pit Bob McLean was at the wheel. Just minutes later on the short straight just before the Hairpin Turn the rear brakes locked up causing the car to slide off the pavement. It hit a ditch and begins a barrel roll before making a hard contact with a telephone pole on the passenger side of the right hand drive car. That is where one of the fuel cells was located.
The fully loaded car burst into flames then went end over end before landing on its top. The ruptured gas tank had spilt most of its contents and the car was a mass of flames. Bob McLean was trapped inside.
Those who wrote about the incident at the time claimed that McLean was killed outright by the impact with the pole but the photos in this story indicate otherwise. The driver’s side of the right-hand-drive car did not impact the telephone pole.
Although there was a fire truck nearby all they had on board was water (no foam) and two ten pound fire extinguishers, a CO2 and a dry chemical which was totally inadequate for the job at hand.
The fire burned for a long time with the magnesium wheels seen sparking from a long distance. The mushroom of black smoke drew almost 2000 onlookers and the police had their hands full trying to control the crowd. One photographer was roughed up by the police and his camera destroyed when he got too close to the burning car. The action of the police and the inability to rescue McLean or douse the fire quickly drew scathing criticism in US and international newspapers after the race.
Back in the pits the black smoke was clearly visible and a strange hush came over the mechanics, crew members and families of drivers as each stared intently down the front straight hoping to catch a glimpse of their car coming out of turn 12. When the word of McLean’s death finally reached the folks in the Comstock pits it hit them very hard and, as was the tradition back then, they withdrew their other car from the race. This was only the second death for a driver in the long history of the Sebring race with the first coming in 1957. However, more deaths were about to follow on this tragic day in Sebring racing history.
It is interesting to note that if such an incident were to happen at an auto race today, the course officials would immediately red-flag the race until the fire was extinguished and wreckage removed. In 1966 the race continued its blistering pace as the GT40 burned, and burned and burned. This was nothing new back then. The previous year when a deluge of five inches of rain flooded the Sebring track making driving extremely dangerous the race continued unabated. You either had to be nuts to race in those days or be one tough son-of-a-gun.