1956 Sebring 12 Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – Sebring Comes of Age, With Difficulty
By Louis Galanos | Photos as credited
The 1956 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance was a sign to many in the automotive community that this race had definitely become North America’s premier sports car race and from an international standpoint second only to the 24-Hours of Le Mans.
However, events eight months earlier at that same 24 Hours of Le Mans would conspire to cast a dark shadow not only on Sebring but on all racing world-wide in 1956. Two-and-a-half hours into the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race Pierre Levegh, driving a very fast factory Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, hit the rear end of the slower moving Austin-Healey 100S of Lance Macklin. Macklin was trying to avoid the leading Jaguar D-type of Mike Hawthorn who had unexpectedly braked right in front of the pits. Macklin swerved to avoid Hawthorn and Levegh hit him when the Healey crossed his path.
The Levegh Mercedes became airborne at great speed and struck an earthen embankment across the narrow track that was the only protection for thousands of spectators watching the race. The car struck with tremendous force, killing Levegh outright, and large parts of the car, including the engine, separated from the car flying through a packed group of spectators killing 83 and injuring 120. Today it is considered the most catastrophic accident in the history of motorsports.
Throughout Europe the reaction to this disaster was very strong. The countries of France, Germany and Switzerland immediately instituted a moratorium on all motor sports events until all tracks were studied for safety flaws and improvements were made. The press at home and abroad “decried it (automobile racing) as a sensational, useless sport that was akin to murder.”
The United States was not immune to the fallout from the disaster in France and mindful of the spreading public outcry against motor racing the American Automobile Association or “Triple-A” (AAA) decided to withdraw from all participation in racing events.
Most Americans know AAA as those friendly folks who show up with a wrecker when their jalopy leaves them stranded on the side of the road. However, from 1902 to 1955 the AAA, through their contest board, was the premier sanctioning body in the United States for such motorsports events as the Indianapolis 500, The Vanderbilt Cup, Sebring 12 Hour GP, stock cars, midgets and sprint cars. Mindful of their public image the AAA was well aware of the hue and cry coming from the public and press following the Le Mans disaster. Fearing an impact on their “bottom line” the AAA elected to abandon its 53 years of involvement in motorsports and thus leave American racing promoters in the lurch.
One of those promoters was Sebring founder, Alec Ulmann, and he was in a particularly bad position because in order for his event to receive international recognition he had to find a U.S. sanctioning body for the Sebring race that could be approved by the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) headquartered in Paris, France. This approval by the FIA would also give the U.S. sanctioning body the authority to issue FIA racing licenses to American drivers wishing to compete at Sebring. It was very simple; no FIA approved sanctioning body, no international race.
When Ulmann got the news about the withdrawal of AAA from racing he knew he had to quickly find such an organization so he contacted Jim Kimberly who was the newly elected president of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). Kimberly was the grandson of one of the four founders of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the makers of Kleenex. In racing circles he was a wealthy “gentleman racer” and a strong proponent of amateur road racing.
Since its creation in 1944 SCCA had a policy of amateurism and non-involvement in professional contests and Kimberly continued this policy by declining to help Ulmann. However, he did announce to the membership in February of 1956 that they could compete in the March 24 Sebring classic, provided they sign agreements not to accept cash prizes. In that way SCCA members could maintain their amateur status.
When asked what a SCCA member was to do if he did win a cash prize at Sebring Kimberly suggested that the driver donate the money to the hospital in Le Mans that was still treating the many who were injured in the catastrophic accident the previous June. This was the first time in the history of Sebring that a cash purse was offered. In previous years trophies were the only prizes awarded to winning drivers, now the prize was a share of $10,000. Sebring was now officially a professional racing event.
With SCCA out of the picture Ulmann was not about to throw in the towel and cancel Sebring. He called on his wealth of contacts at home and abroad to get “special permission” from the FIA to allow him to process and issue international licenses for the Sebring event as well as approval to run the event through Ulmann’s creation, the Automobile Racing Club of Florida (ARCF). Ulmann appointed himself as president and his good friend, Reggie Smith, as vice president.
While much of the hullabaloo surrounding the Le Mans tragedy had subsided by January of 1956 those in the international racing business were still contending with the fallout. The Le Mans 24-hour race had been removed from the FIA World Sportscar Championship (WSC) series which was in its fourth year. Le Mans would return to the schedule after the required safety improvements to the track were made.
Although it did run as a non-championship event the Targa Florio was removed from the 1956 WSC calendar amid concerns over safety. This would leave only five events for the ’56 season: Buenos Aires, Sebring, the Mille Miglia, Nurburgring and the Swedish Grand Prix. It would be the shortest season in the history of the World Sportscar Championship.