In a test of time and endurance exaggerated by savage heat, two tiny Italian cars went the full distance at Lime Rock, Conn, last Sunday to knock out the Swedish champions at the Little Le Mans classic for small production cars. At the end of eight hours of circling the 1�-mile track nestled in the Berkshire hills the Fiat Abarth Zagatos of the Team Roosevelt came in clear victors over Sweden's Volvos and Saabs, which twice in a row have taken on all comers in this Connecticut counterpart of France's big-car grind.
For the Fiats it was the climax of a season in which they have won all of their major races. Turning out some 47 horsepower from their small, 747-cc. engines (souped-up versions of the 600-cc. power plant in Fiat's 600 sedan), they fulfilled all the expectations of Chief Mechanic Jim McGee, who correctly foresaw the race as a long sprint in which his tiny charges would be going flat out all the way. All through the long, hot night before the race began, McGee and others had pondered the imponderables that lay ahead, tuning engines, adjusting mixtures, striving to foresee the various contingencies that eight hours of climactic strain would bring under a blazing sun. Volvo mechanics decided to rely on thin-air carburetion with a weak mixture, tuning maximum efficiency into their distributors. Saab put its faith in normal operational tuning. McGee gambled that his cars would run fast and hot, and chose a rich mixture with little spark advance for cooler running. Other teams in the seven classes (six production, one Gran Turismo) tuned, checked, rechecked as the night wore on, testing the cars in quick runs down twisting roads, leaving staccato echoes rolling back and forth between the hills.
When the drivers lined up at 10 a.m. for their Le Mans-type running start, the temperature was already in the mid-90s. There was not even a breath of wind to cool the burning air. Hot as it was for all, it was almost unendurable for the Saab and Volvo drivers: to keep the water circulating better in their engines, they ran with the heaters on and emerged at pit stops looking florid and parboiled.
Volvo led almost from the start, and in the early hours of the race had every appearance of another Swedish sweep, with Art Riley and Bill Rutan leading as they had done for two years in the same car and another Volvo close behind. Charles (Skip) Callanan and Roger Penske held third in an Abarth.
Another Abarth, No. 83, driven by" Paul Richards, was an early casualty. Midway through the S's it lost both wheel and axle. Stover Babcock came out to takeover and managed to get the car into the pits, with parts stripped from a passenger car. Back in the race eventually, 83 crept up from last place to 17th, with Dick Stoltz and Ray Erickson driving. Richards, meanwhile, joined Ray Cuomo in No. 87, which performed very well.
Dyna Panhard, the lone entry in Class E, seemed to be completely out of it when the car flipped in mid-race, with John Hearst Jr. at the wheel. The car landed on its top, was rolled back onto its wheels and continued the race minus windshield and back window. "It was the coolest car going," Hearst said later.
By mid-race, with the Riley-Rutan Volvo still leading, the Callanan-Penske Abarth had crept to second place, and Cuomo and Richards later backed them up in third place. Behind them, Volvos and Saabs alternated through the top 10.
Then, a little beyond the midway point, the pattern changed. In the 254th lap Bill Rutan came into the pits complaining of spark trouble. He warned Art Riley that he could get nowhere near full throttle. Seven laps later Riley bumped sluggishly to a stop at the S turn and sat resignedly while officials pushed the car a little way back toward the paddock. Riley thought his clutch was gone for good, but to his surprise he got the Volvo moving again and went back to lap the course in 1:23. The assistance he had received by being pushed, however, disqualified him.
Thus Callanan and Penske moved into the lead in Abarth 84, with Cuomo and Richards still behind them. Chief Mechanic McGee pushed his cap back from his dampened brow. "They've got first and second now," he said confidently, "and all three will finish."