1966 12 Hours of Sebring – Page Five
At the half-way point the leaders were Ford, Ferrari, Ford, and Ferrari. In fifth position was the #48 Porsche 906 of Don Wester and Scooter Patrick. This car would figure prominently in a tragic accident later in the race.
Except for some minor reshuffling the standings remained the same as darkness crept over the raceway. It was about this time, lap 172, that the folks in the factory Ferrari pits didn’t see their P3 car and driver Bob Bondurant come by at the expected time. They waited and waited but nothing. Bondurant finally showed up at the pits riding on the back of a spectator’s motorcycle. Only then did the crew find out that the Ferrari 330 P3 was parked on the course near the Hairpin Turn with a seized gearbox. It had been running second.
From that point on the only hope for the “glory of Maranello” rested in the hands of Mario Andretti and Pedro Rodriguez driving the #26 NART Ferrari 365 P2/3. Unfortunately they were eight laps behind the two leading Shelby Fords.
But #26 had been a big question mark from the very beginning of the race. According to Luigi (Coco) Chinetti, Jr. whose father owned the car and NART, “It (the Andretti/Rodriguez Ferrari) is a very tired car. It is coming in for its 25,000-mile checkup.” This was also the same car that had raced at the Daytona 24 hour race just a few weeks earlier.
With less than two hours left in the race the Ferrari was in the pits for a normal stop and driver change. Andretti took the car out for what might be the last chance at a win for Ferrari.
The crew was surprised when a few minutes later, on lap 200, Andretti returned to the pits. When he came to a stop it is obvious why, he hit something damaging the front cowling and almost extinguishing the head lights.
While his crew worked feverishly to make repairs to the front end and driving lights he explained to Bill Fleming of ABC what happened. It seemed that his third place NART P2 was approaching the Webster turns at 140 m.p.h. when he shifted from 4th to 3rd gear. At that very moment the gear shift selector gate broke and he went into first gear instead. This caused the rear wheels to lock up causing the car to spin, then off the pavement and into a sandbank. When he got his car restarted he drove directly to his pit in almost total darkness.
When the NART mechanics finished their makeshift repairs Andretti then reentered his car to rejoin the race. However, when Andretti attempted to start the car a flash fire engulfed the engine causing severe damage to the wiring and putting the car out of the race for good.
It was customary for Andretti to have a full racing schedule in those days and he was already committed to a sprint race in Reading, Pennsylvania on Sunday. He had his private plane and pilot waiting for him at the Sebring airport and he flew back that same night.
While he was at the Reading race someone showed him an article in the local paper about an accident at the Sebring race that involved his Ferrari and the Porsche 906 of Don Wester. The article also reported that the accident resulted in the tragic death of four spectators.
The news reports coming out of Florida indicated that the Andretti Ferrari hit the Wester Porsche causing it to go off the track and into a restricted area where the four spectators were not supposed to be. Some of these reports cited “official” press releases made by the Sebring officials to the media minutes before the end of the 12-hour race.
As a result most of the spectators leaving at the end of the race and drivers who left early had no idea that the tragedy had occurred until the next day. There were also stories circulating in the media that Andretti had “fled” the state of Florida in order to avoid being questioned about the accident.
Mario Andretti said at the time and later to this author in a recent phone interview that he had not been aware of the details of the accident prior to leaving Sebring. Nor was he told by anyone that lives had been lost.
It was his belief that in the dark conditions and dust caused by his spinning car that Wester lost control of the Porsche trying to avoid hitting his Ferrari. He doesn’t believe that his car made contact with the Wester Porsche and all the damage to the Ferrari was a result of hitting the sandbank.
In that phone interview Andretti said the failure of the shift gate, that precipitated the wheel lock up and off- course spin, was a direct result of NART not having properly prepared the car for Sebring following the long and grueling Daytona 24 race.
I talked to Don Wester on March 31, 2011 and he related his version of what happened:
In 1966, I was invited by Otto Zipper to drive in the Sebring 12-hour race with Scooter Patrick. We drove the Briggs Cunningham owned Porsche 906 #48. Otto Zipper entered the car in the race. Our Porsche was in 4th place overall and doing well at 8:00 pm, when this situation occurred:
I had caught up with and passed Mario Andretti’s Ferrari at the hairpin turn. Accelerating away from that turn and heading up the straight-away toward the Webster turn, Mario passed me and pulled away some from my car. Then all of a sudden his Ferrari was spinning and sliding off the straight-away to the left. I lifted from the accelerator to slow and make a quick decision on what my options were. It appeared to me that I could make it past Mario’s car without an incident. I floored the accelerator to pass by. He seemed to be completely off the track to the left. Then it happened. I felt a hard bump from the Ferrari in the left rear quarter panel of my Porsche. From then on, I was spinning around off the track to the left, holding the steering wheel with the brakes locked. I was in a cloud of dust and did not know where or when I was going to stop. Then I hit something very hard, and the whole cockpit of the Porsche 906 wrapped itself around me. I could feel it all happening, then I passed out.
The next thing I remember was a man talking to me. He had removed the door of the 906, and he was asking me if I knew where I was. I looked up and there was a sign that said “Webster Machine Shop.” Then I said, “Oh yes, I’m at Sebring.” My legs were pinned in the car, because the chassis had come into the cockpit from the right corner of the car. This man, with help from another man, cut the metal frame tubes and lifted me out and onto some grass.
Then I heard a lot of sirens and some ambulances driving up. Since I knew there were only two cars involved in the accident, I asked the man why there were so many ambulances. He told me that my car had run over and killed four people. I was very saddened by his words. Many thoughts began running through my mind, and I began to weep. I was taken to the hospital with a broken left ankle and a large laceration on my lower right leg.
While the corner workers and emergency personnel were dealing with the carnage wrought by the Andretti/Wester accident the clock was inexorably ticking down to the conclusion of the 1966 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance.