Story by Louis Galanos | Photos as credited
By March of 1961 the controversy surrounding the poorly reviewed 1960 Sebring 12 hour race was forgotten by most. Gone were any threats or boycotts by factory Ferrari and Porsche over the Sebring requirement, in 1960, that all entrants use Amoco gasoline. The Sebring track’s major sponsor, the American Oil Company (Amoco), had withdrawn its sponsorship of the race after the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) dictated that Sebring promoter Alec Ulmann could not enter into any exclusive agreements with companies, like Amoco, and require entrants to use their products. Ulmann protested to the FIA citing that they allowed such an exclusive arrangement for the 24 Hours of Le Mans but the FIA ignored Mr. Ulmann’s argument.
Losing your major sponsor didn’t deter Alec Ulmann because he was a genius when it came to marketing and promotion and it didn’t take him long to find another sponsor in the form of Italian airline Alitalia. Not only did Alitalia provide money for the purse and a beautiful sterling silver trophy but they were able to transport many of the European competitors to the East Coast of the United States where they could then arrange for transportation to Florida.
The 1961 Sebring 12 Hours race would be the tenth anniversary of what many now called “The World’s Greatest 12-hour Endurance Race.” Both Alec and wife, Mary Ulmann, were going all out in anticipation of a large crowd of race fans and attendance by a “who’s who” of New York and Palm Beach society along with a smattering of Florida’s political big wigs. Later writers would characterize this moment in time as part of the golden era in sports car racing in America.
One of Mary’s responsibilities was to see that all the invited guests were well treated and the Automobile Race Club of Florida (A.R.C.F.) hospitality tent in the paddock was the place to find gourmet food, Florida delicacies like gator tail and oysters all washed down by copious amounts of expensive champagne. There was even a fully stocked bar where ARCF members and invited guests could find a drink long after drinking establishments outside the track were closed. More than one guest would spend the entire race in the hospitality tent eating, drinking and smoking cigarettes.
In the previous ten years Sebring had built up a national and international following as well as a host of sponsorships by both national and international companies. For those involved in motorsports Sebring was the place to be. Going to Sebring and sunny Florida in March was also a good excuse to get away from the frozen regions of the U.S. and Europe and Florida complied with bright sun and mild temperatures during the entire week before the race. More than one participant at Sebring in 1961 returned home with a sun burn.
The 1961 race at Sebring was getting a lot of attention in the international motorsports press because it was the season opener for the International Manufacturer’s Championship that was sanctioned by the F.I.A. and Porsche would be returning with seven entries as they hoped to repeat their overall win from the previous year.
Ferrari, which won in 1956, ’58 and ’59 would be there to challenge Porsche with thirteen entries including a radically new rear-engined Ferrari Dino 246 SP to be driven by Richie Ginther and Count Wolfgang von Trips. One automotive magazine described the all-new rear engined Ferrari as, “…ugly, brutish and blindingly fast with almost unbelievable road-holding.”
The car’s “ugliness” seems to be a direct result of wind tunnel testing by Ferrari which by all accounts was a first for them. The testing produced a rather large front nose on the car and a hump at the back. During the first day of practice driver Richie Ginther clocked a record 3:14 lap which broke Stirling Moss’s record run in 1960 by three seconds and set the standard for the day. Many tried to equal it including Moss in his Birdcage Maserati but all were unable to do so. When asked about this Camoradi team manager Lloyd “Lucky” Casner said, “We can break the record lap time whenever we want to.”
The team of six Maserati Tipo entries were there to challenge the Ferraris but few gave them any chance at winning because not a single Maserati finished in 1960 and two of the cars at Sebring in ’61 were new unraced rear-engined Type 63’s. Chief Camoradi mechanic Lee Lilley said, “We really don’t know what we have here. The Maserati hasn’t been tested enough to give us much idea but we do know that she has great speed.”