SI Vault
Barbara La Fontaine
April 04, 1966
The triumph was Ford's in its continuing massive assault on Ferrari supremacy in world class sports car racing, but before the tense and surprising finish four spectators and a driver lost their lives
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April 04, 1966

At Sebring: Victory And Death

The triumph was Ford's in its continuing massive assault on Ferrari supremacy in world class sports car racing, but before the tense and surprising finish four spectators and a driver lost their lives

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It was a curious and bloody race in Sebring, Fla. last week, but from it the current facts of sports car racing emerged, definitive and clear. Ford has arrived, Ferrari is making gloomy adieus and Chaparral is neither here nor there. Ford finished one, two and three in the 12-hour endurance race and would have finished one, two, three and four if Dan Gurney had not been operating under an obvious curse. On Friday, he set a new lap record of 2 minutes 54.6 seconds (107.2 mph) for the 5.2-mile course in a Ford Mark II prototype, which entitled him to the first starting position on the grid on Saturday. First starting position affords no real advantage in a 12-hour race, but the beginning foreshadowed the end. Gurney could not get the car started, and it moved out 63rd in a field of 64. After 11 hours and 59 minutes he was running first with a comfortable—under the circumstances—one-lap lead, when his engine failed on the back-stretch. This happens to Gurney. "It happened one time at Daytona," he recalled, without enthusiasm, after the race, "and it happened once at the Belgian Grand Prix."

Less than a quarter-mile from the finish line, Gurney elected to get out and push the car, and the car, having covered 228 laps, did cross the line. However, the rules of racing for points toward the Manufacturers' Trophy require that a car finish under its own power, and Gurney was disqualified in favor of the second-running car, a Ford Roadster XI driven by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby, which set official distance and average speed records of 228 laps and 98.631 mph. Had Gurney not pushed his car, he would have finished second.

Ceremonies in Victory Lane were untidy, with half the crowd crushed about Gurney and his disqualified car, and the other half attending to Miles and his functioning, victorious Ford XI. Jim Hall's two Texas-built Chaparrals had been out of the race for eight hours at that point, retired with a broken rear suspension and a bad oil leak. The two Ferrari contenders in the winner's class were just as finished, one with a failed transmission and the other burned up in the pits.

"We won't beat Ferrari consistently until this time next year," Ford's Carroll Shelby had said at Sebring in 1965. At the 24-hour Daytona Continental in February he defeated such Ferraris as there were—privately-owned and aging Ferraris—and judgment was essentially suspended until the Fords should run against new factory machines. At Sebring last week only one such car was entered, a Ferrari 330 P3, dubiously backed up by a much-used Ferrari 330 P2, driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Mario Andretti. However, since Enzo Ferrari had declared before the race that his limited operation had been steamrollered by the Ford Motor Company and he could no longer enter more than a single car in sports car races, one factory Ferrari would be the only opposition Ford was going to get.

The new Ferrari 330, driven by Englishman Michael Parkes and Californian Bob Bondurant, performed handsomely, giving no particular trouble until its last laps, when the gears proved intractable. On the 173rd lap, the transmission quit, and the car, with Bondurant at the wheel, gave up quietly near the track's hairpin turn. At that time the Ferrari was in second place.

The failure of the other contending Ferrari was a disaster. "It is a very tired car," said Coco Chinetti, the son of the car's owner, late in the afternoon. "It is coming in for its 25,000-mile checkup." Two hours later, the tired car's gear selector malfunctioned, and Andretti lost control before the course's Webster turn. Don Wester, in a Porsche Carrara 6, slammed into the spinning Ferrari and then into four spectators, all of whom were killed. Wester's injuries were minor. Unaware of what had happened, Andretti made it back to the pits, where his car was repaired. But there was oil or gasoline loose and when he turned on the ignition the car went up in flames. Andretti got out, but the Ferrari was finished and the cost had been high.

The spectators killed were Willis Edenfield and his two sons, and a friend, Mrs. Ford Heacock, a mother of three. Earlier in the day, Driver Bob McLean of Canada lost control entering the hairpin turn and died instantly when his Ford GT 40 struck a utility pole, turned end over end and burned upside down in a ditch. Thus, there were five deaths at a race that had had no fatalities for six years.

McLean's accident was a dreadful occurrence, but an acknowledged possibility in any automobile race. The deaths of Mrs. Heacock and the Edenfields, on the other hand, were considered by some to be the appalling ultimate result of the careless operation that the running of the Sebring race has become. Sebring seems to make little preparation for this event—which draws some 50,000 people to a town of 8,000—beyond raising its hotel rates. This casual approach might not be wholly without charm, but extended to the race itself it becomes hazardous. The pit areas on Saturday were crowded with little boys, bigger girls in tight stretch pants and old people with Brownie cameras, all identified and admitted by crew passes, press passes and photographers' passes, obviously distributed in small-town fashion by friends to friends.

Mechanics could barely make their way to the cars they were servicing, and drivers, when they were not in their cars on the track, had to hide out from the throng for fear of being smothered. Mr. Edenfield, his two boys and Mrs. Heacock were in possession of marshal's passes given them by Mrs. Heacock's husband (an owner of property at the racecourse). They died in an area where the viewing was splendid but which was closed to ordinary spectators as being dangerous.

Before the race there was an extraordinary, but justifiable, tension among all the principals. Even the ineffably assured Carroll Shelby, manager of what proved to be the top Fords, went around saying, "We're gonna win it," in a certain questioning way. Ford was known to have the speed, but there was legitimate doubt that the Ford brakes would stand up under the Ford weight on a course that is murderous on brakes. The Ferraris were lighter and more suited to the course, but most of Ferrari's eggs were in one basket. Finally, the Chaparrals could not be discounted, having won at Sebring last year (under special circumstances, in a heavy rain), but they had had to be almost totally rebuilt since last March to meet new racing specifications, and the one entered at Daytona had not performed well. Any one of the three makes, it could be argued, might take the race, and there were many who added the English Ford GT 40s and even the Chevrolet Sting Rays to the list.

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