1966 12 Hours of Sebring – Page Seven
Epilogue: 1966 Was The Death and Re-birth of Sebring
The day following the March 26, 1966 Sebring 12 Hours of Endurance and for the rest of the week the newspapers at home and abroad were replete with the news of Ford’s 1-2-3 victory. But this story was overshadowed by the reports of the death of a driver and four spectators at America’s premier sports car event. Editorial criticism of the track and promoters in regard to adequate equipment to put out car fires and the lack of safety for spectators was very strong.
The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel of March 29 bitterly reproached the Sebring organizers for their failure to “provide spectator protection from the hurtling juggernauts.”
This criticism continued throughout the summer as automotive and sports magazines, with later deadlines, joined the chorus of nay-sayers with critical articles and editorials. Sebring founder, Alec Ulmann, got more than his fair share of the blame for what happened at that tragic event.
The June issue of Car and Driver magazine ventured the following: “The track at Sebring is far from being a paragon of safety, and certainly the promoters should be called to answer why, after 16 years of operation on the same site, more had not been done to generally improve the crude facilities.”
As expected, some local Florida politicians also jumped on the “kick Sebring when it’s down” campaign. Florida legislative candidate, Leo Furlong, pledged, that if elected, he would introduce legislation to create a state Athletic Commission that would, in part, regulate safety at automotive events like Sebring.
In the midst of all this criticism of his management of the Sebring race and the track facility Alec Ulmann got an offer that summer that seemed too good to refuse. It seems that the folks who owned and managed the Palm Beach International Raceway (PBIR) were interested in putting on a race. To be more specific they wanted Ulmann to move the Sebring event to Palm Beach, Florida. (Note: PBIR is actually situated in Jupiter, Florida.)
Ironically the 12-hour endurance race got its start in the Palm Beach area in 1949. It was held on the Beach Road on Singer Island. It was eventually moved to Sebring because area residents complained about the noise and spectator interest was small.
Pete McMahon, the general manager of Palm Beach International Raceway was willing to invest $1.5 million in track upgrades to the two-year-old track that would include extending the existing track length from 2 miles to 5.5. miles and the track would have 20 hairpin turns. According to Alec Ulmann, with that many sharp turns drivers would have to gearshift about 200 times for every lap of the track.
In addition 80 covered pits would be built for the entrants plus bleachers for the spectators, private parking, a scenic lake and roads the spectators could travel on to see parts of the course. All Ulmann had to do was sign a 10-year contract and change the name from The Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance to the Florida International Grand Prix of Endurance with the first race to be run on April 1, 1967 (Note the date.) On September 6, 1966, after several visits to PBIR, Alec Ulmann announced to the media the death of the Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance and the birth of the Florida International Grand Prix of Endurance.
This must have made “somebody” angry because the ink was hardly dry on the contract when it began to rain, and rain and rain some more. It rained regularly for almost two months in the Palm Beach area causing delay after delay in the PBIR track improvements.
Finally the PBIR people announced on November 22, 1966 that they were giving up the 10-year contract to hold the race because the rains and high water table prevented them from getting the track ready, as contractually agreed, for the April 1 running of the Florida Grand Prix of Endurance. (Was the Big Man Upstairs pulling an April Fool’s Day joke on Ulmann and PBIR?)
With no PBIR, Ulmann was forced to hurriedly move the event back to the aging Sebring 5.2-mile facility where it has been ever since, except for 1974 when it was cancelled due to the energy crisis. To address safety issues at the Sebring track the promoters first move the race course to a road that paralleled the Warehouse Straight. They then eliminated the old Webster corner and replaced it with the high-speed Green Park Chicane.
To protect the buildings and their inhabitants along the Warehouse Straight they erected war surplus nylon belting that was designed to catch Navy planes that might overshoot a carrier landing or a short runway.
A week before the 1967 Sebring race a $1 million wrongful death law suit was filed in Sebring, which is the county seat of Highlands County, Florida. Legal papers were served on the three “principals” in the ’66 tragedy and that included Alec Ulmann, founder and director of the Automobile Racing Club of Florida and driver Mario Andretti. The third principal, Don Wester, was not at Sebring that year.
Enzo Ferrari knew from experience that such a suit would eventually be filed and could guess that doing so right before the 1967 Sebring race would guarantee maximum media coverage. They addressed this problem by announcing earlier in 1967 that both Ferrari and their North American representative (NART) would not field any cars at Sebring that year. Their excuse was that they were getting their cars ready for Le Mans and would skip America’s premier sports car race. However, they did show up for the Daytona 24-hour race and did brilliantly there by coming in 1-2-3.
According to a report in Road and Track magazine, “Luigi Chinetti of North American Racing Team said he feared the action (the Sebring suit) might result in a writ of attachment which would prevent him, as Ferrari’s U.S. representative, from removing his cars from Florida after the race so he wasn’t going to come.”
Both Don Wester and Mario Andretti were called to give depositions in this case. Andretti had to fly down to Sebring to answer questions from the lawyers while the same lawyers flew out to California to depose Wester who was still recovering from the injuries he sustained at Sebring.
The Edenfield family lost a father and two sons at the ’66 Sebring race and the Heacock family lost a mother and had a son seriously injured. The Edenfield family pushed for the lawsuit when negotiations with the insurance company broke down. The Heacock family settled things quietly because of their close relationship with Alec Ulmann. There is no indication that the suit ever went to trial. Information available on the Internet indicates that the deaths were officially ruled a “racing accident.”
The fall-out from the deaths at Sebring in 1966 was profound for track owners. Insurance companies demanded that spectators get no closer than 120 feet from the track rather than the previous 75 feet. Snow fencing was ruled inadequate for restraining the crowds and track owners had to install chain-link fencing and protective Armco barriers. After 1966 racing got a little more expensive for track owners and promoters but a lot safer for spectators.
March 26, 1966 will go down as the bloodiest day in the history of the Sebring 12-hour race and the aftermath of that event had a profound effect on American motorsports when it came to spectator safety issues.
The tragic death of Bob McLean at this race also led to some much needed modifications in later Ford GT40s to make them safer. This included a stronger roll cage and thicker fuel bladders to prevent fire.
To this day a controversy still surrounds what happened to the remains of the burnt-out car. One version is that it was buried in a landfill outside of Sebring. The other is that it was returned to Comstock Racing in Canada. A third is that a person in England has restored it. In motorsports folklore it is referred to as the “Ghost GT40.”
Ever fearful of any negative publicity affecting the company Ford hoped to bury the story of what caused the death of Bob McLean and refused to respond to any inquiries concerning the accident. To this day no official cause of the accident was ever produced by Ford. Bob McLean’s widow felt that Ford wanted to sweep things under the rug as quickly as possible.
During Le Mans testing on April 7, 1966 well known American racing champion Walt Hansgen was killed driving a 7-liter Holman Moody Ford GT40 Mk. II when the car aquaplaned in the rain and crashed heavily.
The deaths of McLean and then Hansgen within weeks of each other shook the Ford executives to the core. On top of that they were both at the wheel of Ford’s pride and joy, the GT 40 when the fatal accidents occurred.
The April 23, 1966 issue of Competition Press and Autoweek had a front page article that said. “Win or lose Ford may drastically curtail road racing after Le Mans.” It seems that the bean counters at Ford had convinced the executives that supporting a racing program might do more harm to the corporate image (and bottom line) regardless of how successful they might be.
The 1966 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix was just one of many battles in the Ford versus Ferrari Wars. As in most battles and wars there are winners, losers and casualties. At Sebring Ford was the winner in 1966 while Ferrari was the loser. However, Ford’s victory was overshadowed by the tragic loss of a driver and four spectators. Other Sebrings were races to remember but this one most would like to forget, if they could.
For further reading:
The Sebring Story, Alec Ulmann, Chilton Book Company, 1969
Sebring: The Official History of America’s Great Sports Car Race, Ken Breslauer, David Bull Publishing, 1995
1966 Sebring 12-Hours of Endurance, Harry Kennison, motorsportsmarketingresources.com
Competition Press and Autoweek, April 23, 1966, front page
St. Petersburg Times, November 24, 1966, P. 1C
Race on Sunday – Sell on Monday, www.aarcuda.ch
Daytona Beach Morning Journal, November 24, 1966
Sports Illustrated, April 4, 1966, www.//sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault
The Legend of the Buried GT40, Gary Grant, The Garage Blog, Sept 7, 2010
[Source: Louis Galanos]