Before the radical events of last week, Sebring had seemed to be losing its old zip. This most glamorous of American sports car races still attracted tanned and glittering specimens of jet society; Connecticut bankers and Chicago industrialists and Texas oilmen still made the spring pilgrimage to see the world's fanciest sports racers through 12 exhausting hours of competition. But the glamour was fading, the rosy mist enveloping Sebring's flat and ugly racecourse fast disappearing. What had been a lively wrangle among big Jaguars, Maseratis, Aston Martins and Ferraris was now a monotonous yearly blitz by the crimson Italian Ferraris. The drivers had changed. Porfirio Rubirosa, once to be seen here in Ferraris, had sought other playgrounds. Death or retirement had removed such exuberant spirits as the Marquis de Portago and Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss and Carroll Shelby.
Missing, most of all, was any sort of real American challenge. Oh, Chevrolet's Corvettes made a few abortive runs, and last year the new Ford-engined Cobras had a moment of glory before breaking down. But Sebring was still a case of Americans paying homage to the cars of other countries.
Last week, however, Sebring hummed with a new excitement. A crippled-up Texan—the same lean and salty Carroll Shelby who used to star as a driver in Ferraris and Aston Martins—hopped out of a wheelchair and onto crutches and throughout that long day's journey into the Florida night watched with glee as his Cobras blew their rival Ferraris just about all the way back to Maranello.
Let it be said at once that Cobras did not capture the overall prize. That went to a Ferrari driven by a tall, cool Englishman named Mike Parkes and a battle-scarred old Italian, Umberto Maglioli, who had all but vanished from the news after taking the last Pan-American dash in Mexico nearly 10 years ago. All honor to Parkes and Maglioli for covering a record number of laps in the 12 hours (214); to the drivers of two other factory Ferraris for placing second and third; and to Enzo Ferrari himself for producing the best sports racers of his long career.
But it must also be said that Ferrari had virtually no competition for these so-called prototype racers, which are theoretically the forerunners of passenger cars and of which no more than one need be built to qualify for international racing. Eight such Ferraris raced, and the overall win had been conceded to them in advance.
But there were other large prizes to be won at Sebring, and in the race for the one that matters most—the world championship for the biggest, fastest Grand Touring machines (of which 100 must be built)—Ferraris were drubbed by Cobras. A fastback coupe model driven by the cigar-smoking Pennsylvania veteran, Bob Holbert, and a young California charger, Dave MacDonald, came snarling in behind the prototype Ferraris in fourth place. Cobra roadsters were fifth and sixth, and if still another Cobra, shared by Dan Gurney and Bob Johnson, had not cracked up with an hour to go, it would have been third, smack in among the top Ferraris.
This means that Cobras now lead Ferraris after two GT championship races—the first was won by Ferrari at Daytona—and if the California-based cars keep flying at subsequent point races, like the one at Le Mans, they will have stripped from Ferrari a cherished title. Until Saturday, GT Ferraris were as unbeatable in endurance races as their sister prototypes. No fewer than five were entered at Sebring, and the highest finisher was seventh.
As 66 cars lined up for the 10 a.m. start under a punishing sun last Saturday, nobody really expected the Cobras to do so well. Nobody but Shelby, that is. "I don't give a damn about the prototypes," he said. "I'm going to beat the GTs." The general feeling, however, was that the Cobras would not survive 12 hours on a course that tortures brakes and gearboxes as no other in the world.
Fans of the smaller stuff ogled sleek new Porsche 904 coupes, Volvos, Sprites, Triumphs and MGs and such, and there were those who looked for American exploits not from the Cobras but from assorted Chevrolets. It is mystifying how much hairy Chevy racing machinery trickles out of Detroit, considering General Motors' no-racing policy. There at Sebring were three superlight Corvette Grand Sport racers, weighing hundreds of pounds less and punching out maybe 100 more horsepower than normal Corvette racers. There also was a Chevy-engined Lola, which Driver Augie Pabst seriously talked up as an equal to the Ferrari prototypes. Except for a rousing first-lap dash to lead the pack by Roger Penske in a Grand Sport, however, the Chevys showed nothing in the race.
People in the Ferrari pits were relaxed and complacent. None was more confident than John Surtees, the balding, deadly-serious little Briton who once won a flock of world motorcycle racing championships. "We've had a spot of handling trouble and some engine difficulty," he said unworriedly. He had no reason to be alarmed. Despite these deficiencies he had, in a new four-liter prototype, slashed more than seven seconds from the previous racing-lap record of three minutes 11.4 seconds and was heavily favored to repeat his 1963 Sebring victory.