Sebring Saga – The Story of Two Bizzarrini Iso Grifos at the 1965 Sebring 12 Hour Grand Prix
By Louis Galanos | Photos as credited
In March the Sebring International Raceway (SIR) will celebrate a couple of anniversaries that are part of the significant motorsports history of that legendary track.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first win by BMW with the overall honors going to British driver Brian Redman and Australian Allan Moffat who started the race in their BMW 3.0 CSL. The racing CSL’s were very successful in the European Touring Car Championship as well as the IMSA GT Championship in the 1970’s. With their full aerodynamic package they also went by the nickname “Batmobile”. BMW is planning a celebration of that win at Sebring this year.
2015 is also the 50th anniversary of the overall victory by Texans Jim Hall and Hap Sharp who delivered an unexpected win in their American-made Chaparral 2A. Prior to 1965 the last time an American-made car had won at Sebring was the Cunningham C4R of John Fitch and Phil Walters in 1953.
The 1965 win by a Chaparral with its unorthodox automatic transmission is now part of motorsports history and in the record books. However, one aspect of the race that is often overlooked is the tropical deluge of rain that struck the track half way through the race changing the outcome for many entrants.
One of those entrants that felt the wrath of Sebring weather that year was the two car team of Chevy-powered Bizzarrini Iso Grifo A3C coupes entered by Italian auto manufacturer Giotto Bizzarrini of Livorno, Italy. Bizzarrini was a chief engineer at Ferrari in the 1950s but during the major upheaval at the factory in 1961 he left and eventually formed his own company, Bizzarrini SpA where he built handmade cars for the street and racing. One thing unique about his Italian-made cars was that they were powered by Chevrolet V8 engines.
As a small Italian auto manufacturer Mr. Bizzarrini knew that success in racing usually meant better sales at the showroom. A win or high placement at North America’s premier sports car race would go a long way in promoting sales in the U.S. and Europe.
The Bizzarrini Iso Grifo A3C was the competition version of the A3L super coupe and in 1964 did quite well at Le Mans, Monza, Targa Florio and the one car entered at Sebring managed to finish. A repeat trip to Sebring was needed and plans were made to ship two race cars to the U.S. A good finish at Sebring in 1965 might be just what was needed to boost sales in the U.S. especially in the car crazy culture of Southern California.
Going to Sebring from Italy was a monumental and expensive undertaking for such a small company and Mr. Bizzarrini sought the help of C. Rino Argento who had numerous contacts in the U.S. racing community. A native Italian Mr. Argento had been living in the U.S. and working in the American automotive industry for many years. Racing teams like Ferrari, Maserati and Abarth had enlisted his help in the past with dealing with the myriad of problems associated with shipping race cars from Italy to Sebring for the race.
Mr. Argento told his story about his adventure with the Bizzarrini team at Sebring in 1965 in the Spring 2001 issue of The Griffon (The magazine of the Iso & Bizzarrini Owner’s Club). In that story he told how he arranged for accommodations for the Bizzarrini team, garage space for the cars in Sebring, transportation for the cars when they arrived at the port of Jacksonville, Florida as well as arranging for fuel, tires and other items needed for the race.
With his many contacts in U.S. motorsports Mr. Argento was instrumental in recruiting two American drivers for the Bizzarrini team who would drive the #9 Iso Grifo A3C during the race. The other two drivers were recruited by Mr. Bizzarrini and would be coming over from Europe with him. They were Swiss driver Silvio Moser and Italian Mario Casoni.
The Americans, Charlie Rainville and Mike Gammino, were both highly respected drivers from Rhode Island. Rainville was a Sebring veteran of long standing while Gammino had vast experience driving Ferraris in SCCA club events.
According to Mr. Argento both Rainville and Gammino were willing to drive at Sebring for no compensation. In addition they would bring along their own mechanics and family members to help crew. Rainville’s wife was experienced doing lap charts for her husband and was recruited to do the same for the Bizzarrini team. Getting people to volunteer their services at their own expense was not uncommon during this period. For some going to Sebring was at the top of their “bucket list” and this offer to be part of the action was too good to pass up. By the time the cars arrived from Italy Mr. Argento had a full complement of experienced personnel ready to support the team and at no additional cost to Mr. Bizzarrini and his car company. Such was the draw of being at Sebring in the 1960’s.