1966 Sebring 12 Hours of Endurance

by Harry Kennison

Harry Kennison is a fan with a camera and a gift for telling good stories. This is the first in a series of stories of the sixties and seventies. We hope you enjoy them.

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© Harry Kennison 1966

Webster Turn. The end of the old Warehouse Straight. An abandoned Naval Air Base. Sebring, Florida. Spring Break. 1966. My roommate and I had driven south out of Detroit through the industrial Midwest cutting through the hills of Tennessee and down through the red clay of Georgia, bisecting the state of Florida. The scent of orange blossoms permeated the vinyl interior of my folk’s 383 cu. in. Dodge station wagon that carried us through the rolling hills in the heart of Florida’s citrus country. Unlike most college students on Spring break, we never once saw the Ocean in route to Sebring-the Mecca of sports car racing in the United States.

We cruised into Sebring, stopping to record the moment with a token photo session at the “Sebring City Limits” sign by the side of the road. As we ventured toward the center of town, one could have mistaken Sebring for the “Shuffleboard Capital of the World”, were it not for a gaggle of Ford GT-40’s that rumbled around the town’s square to the west end which served as the site of pre-race scrutineering. It was somewhat of a surreal sight as the three cream-colored and green GT-40’s pulled up in front of the old timers’ shuffleboard court. Even the locals had to raise a curious eyebrow as the mechanic-chauffeurs blipped the throttles of the tightly wound V-8s nestled in the backs of the low-slung racers. We decided to take in the ambiance and wait for the GT-40s to complete their pre-race check.

About twenty minutes later the mechanics twisted their lean frames beneath the gullwing doors. We cranked up the Dodge and began to follow three of the fastest cars in the world to a place we’d just driven 1,200 miles to find. We trailed the three Fords at a respectful distance out onto the two-lane highway that lead to the Sebring airfield that doubles as a race track. As we approached the main gate, the three Fords peeled off to the right toward the paddock entrance and we fell in line to show our tickets and buy an obligatory program. I’d ordered the tickets in advance, having worked two quarters slopping leftover food into a “garborator” in a Michigan State University cafeteria to pay for them. We showed the attendant our tickets, picked up a program and then proceeded over a bridge into the infield and parked the Dodge not far from one of the lone palm trees on the course. I grabbed my trusty Pentax and we wandered over to Webster Turn.

It wasn’t long before we heard the heady sounds cutting across the circuit as the cars lumbered out of the pits to be greeted by the afternoon heat. They weaved back and forth bringing their oil and tires up to temperature as they settled in for Thursday’s afternoon practice session. The procession soon to follow read like a “who’s who” of international racing. There were Formula 1 world champions and up-and-comers, Indy winners, sports car legends, Le Mans winners-hard to comprehend for a couple of kids who grew up in the shadow of Detroit.

There was the glorious V-12 exhaust note of the somewhat ratty looking P3 Ferrari with Mike Parkes up singing past the weathered Quonset-gray warehouses. The Ferrari defiantly crackled through the 90-degree right hand turn then up to the left turn and shot out onto the back runways.

He was quickly followed by the banshee-like shrill of the Lorenzo Bandini’s V-6 Dino Ferrari the exhaust note shooting through your ears to your forehead creating an ice cream-like pain above the bridge of your nose.

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© Harry Kennison 1966

Then came the rolling thunder of the big block V-8 Ford Mk IIs, their monster 427’s resonating shock waves that thumped you in the chest like a fore-arm shiver from a 240 lb. full back. There was Gurney in the metallic blue #2, followed by a young, brush cut Brown University engineer, by the name of Donohue, in the white #3 which he co-drove with the veteran, Walt Hansgen. Ronnie Bucknum motored into view in the gold #4 automatic transmission Mk II he’d share with A.J. Foyt and finally, the experimental Mk XI red Roadster with the venerable Lloyd Ruby doing the honors.

Ruby was paired with Ken Miles, Shelby’s “numero uno” Cobra development driver. And being a sprint car and Brickyard veteran, he seemed somewhat suspicious of the “fir-in” contingent that seemed to be invading U S waters. But Lloyd was also someone who soldiered through the night with Ken in the prototype, Shelby-tweaked Mk II to take victory on the high banks in February’s 24 hour race at Daytona. After two years of trying, Dearborn finally decided that what they needed was to turn their “baby” over to someone who knew how to race, not to mention win.

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© Harry Kennison 1966

The two refrigerator-white Chaparral 2D coupes led by Jim Hall and followed by hired gun, Phil Hill. (The Texan and his business partner and co-driver, Hap Sharp, had surprised the racing world the year before with a dominating win in his Chaparral 2A roadster, but this year was would prove to be another story.)

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© Harry Kennison 1966

Bandini’s diminutive 2-liter Ferrari Dino negotiated the right-left sequence of turns with a nimbleness unmatched by the larger displacement machines. But, hey!, there are three straight-a-ways each nearly a mile long. You may be quick on the twisty country roads of the Targa Florio, but at Sebring one of racing’s oldest adages still holds true: “You can’t beat cubic inches.” Its factory stable mate, the new P3 for Mike Parkes and Bob Bondurant was hastily readied in an effort to stem Dearborn’s awesome might.

There were plenty of other racers of note, not the least of which was the Alan Mann Racing #24 GT-40 pairing of Graham Hill and the “wee Scot”, Jackie Stewart, a few years before winning three world championships and becoming the winningest driver in Formula 1 when he retired in 1973. Think of it. Two drivers who would compile five world championships in eleven years between them were relegated to “also ran” status, simply making up the “Show”.

Another notable entry was last year’s Indianapolis rookie of the year, Mario Andretti, piloting the battle-worn NART P2 Ferrari along with Pedro Rodriguez. It wasn’t the quickest car, but it was reliable enough to back up the faster P3 of Parkes and Bondurant.

At Sebring, the 12-hour race begins at 10 am Saturday morning and ends at 10 PM Saturday night. So having a grand stand seat opposite the #1 and #2 Ford Mk II pits was definitely the place to be for the events which were about to unfold. We watched the hopeful crews push their cars into position along the pit straight away under gray skies.

Regardless of make, their noses were angled toward the Sebring bridge. Their engines were quiet, awaiting the nervous footsteps of the drivers racing across the track and climbing into their mounts, trying to be the first under the bridge and perhaps, just perhaps, being the first to lead the pack across the start finish line on the first lap.

This fleeting piece of glory was not shared by the pole sitter, one Daniel Sexton Gurney in the awesome guardsman blue #2 Ford Mk II. Sebring would never be the same. Nor would America’s position in international GT racing. Not only did he take his time getting into the black cocoon of a cockpit in the mighty Ford, but he took meticulous time to fasten his seat belt and shoulder harness before trying to fire the massive 427 V-8. Alas, the Holley carburetor, which was approximately the size of Paul Bunyan’s commode, was flooded. The engine lay silent. Alone on the grid as 65 other cars thundered by and out of sight Dan sat patiently, until finally, the engine came to life.

Fear not. Within the first hour, Gurney would power the big Ford through the entire pack and past the lead Ferrari P3 into the lead. No mean feat, even for the likes of America’s greatest road racer.

The next Ford to dispatch the fastest of the Ferrari’s and take up station behind the Gurney/Grant mount, was none other than Messer’s Miles and Ruby in the one-off roadster version of the Mk II, in what would turn out to be, its first and only international competition. The clock hadn’t struck noon, and the two lead Fords were in a sprint race, with over ten hours left to run. Caroll Shelby, under considerable pressure from Ford to bring home a winner, had no choice but to cross over to the pit wall, and shake an angry knock-off hammer at the offending drivers telling them to “slow down”.

At about the same time the Fords were fighting for the lead, last year’s winning Chaparral team, was about to be sent packing back to Midland, Texas. Altering the balance and agility characteristic of the 2A roadster by turning it into a somewhat ungainly coupe with an under-powered 327 Chevy, was simply not to be (the team would have to wait for the Nurburgring to claim its first closed cockpit win).

There was always something going on in the pits and it became mesmerizing to watch the respective crews service the machines and the drivers swap places in generally less than orchestrated ballets. As the afternoon wore on, a sinister black plume of smoke rose in the vicinity of the hairpin turn. Apparently the young Canadian sports car champion, Bob McLean, had lost control of his GT-40 and was tragically killed when the machine we’d seen two days before in town for tech inspection, slammed into a communications pole. The race continued at a record-setting pace.

Late afternoon can be a magical time for the spectators at Sebring. With the sun slipping through a line of high clouds the sky turns golden in the dense air filled with tire dust, and the cars become back-lit shadows as they head down the main straight, under the bridge and into the first turn. More headlights pop on as the cars ready themselves for the night ahead.

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© Harry Kennison 1966

With darkness falling, the first of the night pit stops begin. The exhaust pipes barking orange flame as the drivers blipped their throttles as they made their way to their pit stalls. The gold Ford of Buckman and Foyt is perched precariously on jack stands while the Holman & Moody mechanics work feverishly on the automatic transmission, to no avail.

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© Harry Kennison 1966

Meanwhile, Jerry Grant continues to press the electric blue Mk. II into what appears to be an insurmountable lead, its door lights looking more like fire flies stuck to the side of the car with ribbons of light streaming eerily down the side of the car.

It’s nearing 9 PM when Mario limps the red P-2 Ferrari down to his puzzled pit crew. He was in only a few laps before, but has obviously encountered trouble out on the track. Trouble it would turn out to be of the worst kind. News reports would later recap the tragedy that unfolded on the Warehouse Straight. Apparently, Andretti’s Ferrari touched Don Webster’s Porsche 906 sending it into a group of spectators who had made their way into an un-authorized area. Four never walked out. We blissfully sat in the pit straight grand stand, unaware that this has turned into the most deadly Sebring of all time.

Nearing the 12-hour mark the scoreboard posts the final running order-“2, 1, 3”- Gurney, Miles and Hansgen, in what appears to be certain victory for Gurney and a one-two-three sweep for the Fords. But, as the race enters its last 5 minutes, two headlights appear to be stationary at head of the pit straight. It’s as though the driver can’t make up his mind as to whether to pit or go another lap, after all, it’s another 5.2 miles around. Then the car begins to move ever so slowly. It’s on the track side of the pit wall but the motor is dead. It’s being pushed by its driver.

It’s an agonizing two or three minutes as the machine comes into view. The PA announcer keeps saying “This is unbelievable, this is “un-bee-lee-va-bull”. The crowd simultaneously groans as it becomes clear that the car in trouble is none other than the lead Ford and the guy doing the pushing is Dan Gurney. Then they simultaneously cheer Dan toward the finish line as the clock strikes 10 PM.

Meanwhile, the Ford Mk XI roadster with Ken Miles at the wheel has made up its lap and motors across the finish line to take the checquered flag. Confusion reigns. Would the Blue Ford that dominated the race finish second? It is not to be. As a result of his Herculean efforts, Dan’s car is unceremoniously disqualified.

We made our way back to the car and slept the rest of the night in the infield in the back of the Dodge. The next day, as other students worked on their tans on the beach at Ft. Lauderdale, we began the long trip back North. Not quite appreciating what we’ve seen. For, indeed, the face of endurance racing had changed.

Two short months later, the mighty Fords would finish first, second and third in what has been referred to since as a time of “Camelot” for big time endurance racing. In an orchestrated photo finish that inadvertently robbed Ken Miles of his much deserved Le Mans victory. I guess I’ll always think of that sunny, yet tragic, weekend in Florida as a “Prelude to Camelot”. I’ve never forgotten it.