Andretti was good for the restart and led the pack off into the dark and back around to the Hairpin. Mario, now using a highly modified line around this turn due to the lack of low gear, was braking quite early. He was going wide trying to carry as much speed around the turn in second gear as possible rather than taking the faster hole shot in first. Gregg, caught out by this maneuver, braked hard and early to accommodate Andretti’s crippled car and was tapped in the rear by George Follmer. It was a light tap but that was all it took. Gregg in an unbalanced car under heavy braking goes hard into the right side of Andretti’s Ferrari. Racing incident or payback, we will never know, but it was the coup de grâce for both Andretti and Gregg. After leading for all but two laps and having a two-lap lead on the rest of the field, Mario’s bid for his fourth Sebring win came to an abrupt end.
With the two leaders now out of the race this moved the DeLorenzo Vette into the lead on the track but still three laps down on the charts with less than fifteen minutes left in the race. Just as it appeared a done deal, with less than five minutes left DeLorenzo’s Vette came limping out of the dark and into the pits with its right bank exhaust blowing smoke like a mosquito machine. DeLorenzo, in a heads-up move, pulled the car to within inches of the start/finish line in pit lane and killed the sick beast but not before a couple of fire units responded to all the smoke.
This moved the number 17 Armadillo Breeders Association-sponsored Camaro into the lead on the track but still two laps down on the charts to the crippled Andretti/Ickx Ferrari that was slowly crawling back to the pits.
The Armadillo Breeders Association was a marketing ploy created by my long time friend and drinking buddy Bill Neely for a new line of car care products developed by two friends that were ex-Lockheed Martin chemical engineers. Neely, a motorsport icon, had headed up the public relations department for Goodyear in the 1960’s during a period that is referred to as the “Tire Wars.” With the blessing of Goodyear, Neely authored a book of the same name, launching Neely onto a new career as a very successful writer.
For a number of years he was an AutoWeek editor and a freelance writer for a number of magazines. He abandoned the editor position for more freedom to write on his own, authoring hundreds of articles and 19 books. One might say Neely was well connected in the industry. With the help of Neely, the car care product line was an instant success, accelerating Neely and his two out-of-work friends to multi-millionaire status in less than two years. I was happy for my long time drinking buddy, now man about town and race team owner.
Minter, in the surviving Ferrari, was closing on the Armadillo Camaro at a high rate followed by Baldwin in the Chicken Ranch Vette. The Camaro owned by Bill Neely, built by Vince Gimondo and crew-chiefed by Lugs Harvey had run a perfect race. Collectively between Nelly, Gimondo, and Harvey there was years of racing experience and a wealth of knowledge. The drivers had done their part by running the pace and keeping out of trouble. While the team hoped for a good finish, realistically a top ten was a stretch and never did they dream of an overall win.
A few of us media types savvy enough to see what was about to happen started to gather in the Neely team pit. Neely with a big grin on his face kept saying, “If this doesn’t beat all.” I was happy for my friend Neely for we went back a long way, hell; we are founding members of Club 720, a men’s club for those serious about drink and fun.
With the checkered flag in the starter’s hand, Minter caught the Camaro going into the last turn before the front straight and went to the inside for the pass but the Camaro, having none of it, closed the hole between him and the pit wall forcing Minter to back out or be forced down pit lane. Minter realized his mistake of not going to the outside but it was too late as Stroker Ace took the checkered flag in the Armadillo Camaro to win the closest finish in Sebring history.
Who would have believed it? After Ace walked away from NASCAR and the big dollar Chicken Pit fast-food restaurants sponsorship from fried-chicken mogul Clyde Torkel at the end of 1973, starting the 1974 season with a win in a new genre was almost too good to be true. Hollywood or Neely could not have written a better script.
Tony DeLorenzo saw the flag, put his car into first gear and hit the starter, thus pulling it slowly toward the finish line in pit lane. Yes, the finish line runs across the track and across pit lane. Andretti in his badly-bent Ferrari queued up behind the DeLorenzo and assisted him across the finish line with a push. The scene reminded me of a giant red crab attacking a Corvette. With this generous maneuver Andretti salvaged fourth place for his team and fifth for DeLorenzo.
The winner’s circle was chaotic and no indication of the small spectator crowd. The mob reminded me of the 1970 victory circle when Mario Andretti ran down Peter Revson for the closest finish at that time. The crowd was for Steve McQueen, Revson’s co-driver.
As Stroker Ace managed the car to victory lane, Walter Mitty, Stroker’s co-driver, and Lugs Harvey, crew chef/mechanic, escorted team timekeeper Pembrook Feeny through the crowd to the winner’s circle while Bill Neely commandeered Jack Ansley’s Chicken Ranch girls for his entourage. The Chicken Ranch girls definitely added a new and different set of dynamites to winner’s circle.
Stroker and Walter were the true odd couple in racing. This had been a long and problematic journey for both men. For Walter it had started in 1939 New York City. Walter was born the son of a famous writer and humorist for The New Yorker, a well-respected and established cosmopolitan magazine. Growing up he had all the advantages of money and position. Stroker on the other hand was about as opposite as you could get being born in depressed 1942 West Virginia the son of a dirt poor undertaker.
Not only would this be the first Sebring win for both Stroker and Walter but also the last appearance for both in this classic American endurance race. Walter would withdraw into a somewhat secret life but would reappear with Miss Orange Blossom, the Sebring 1974 Race Queen, some years later in vintage racing much to the delight and surprise of his old friends and fans.
Stroker, well hell, we all know what happened to Stroker.
1974 12 Hours of Sebring Final Results
1. Ace / Mitty, Chevrolet Camaro
2. Minter / Wietzes, Ferrari Boxer
3. Peterson / Redman, BMW CSL
4. DeLorenzo / Durst, Chevrolet Corvette
5. Andretti / Ickx, Ferrari Boxer
6. Felton / Baldwin / Ramsey, Chevrolet Corvette
7. Follmer / Donohue, Porsche Carrera
8. Keyser / Holbert, Porsche Carrera
9. Posey / Stuck, BMW CSL
10. Haywood / Gregg, Porsche Carrera
[Source: Hal Crocker]