A little before 11 o'clock last Saturday night in the chill darkness outside Sebring, Fla., 34 cars of widely differing sizes and cylinders came rattling around an old wartime airport in an effort to hold body and carburetor together for a few minutes more. They had been at it for most of the day in a shakedown that separated a lot of men from a lot of horsepower, a shakedown that was to prove, ultimately, that Ford is back in a big way and ready for a shoot-out with Ferrari at Le Mans.
When the 12 hours of Sebring finally ended, a low, banana-colored Ford Mark IV rolled first across the finish line. It had put in a rewarding day: 1,237.6 miles through sun and wind at an average speed of 102.923 mph, driven throughout by two tough young men named Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren. Off to one side in the night sat another disabled Ford—which still managed to take second place in the standings. Behind the Fords came two Porsches. The 5.2-mile racecourse was strewn with pieces of wreckage and broken hopes. Fifty-nine cars had started the race in the brightness of 11 a.m., and every driver who finished was an exhausted hero.
Sebring has been described as a series of drag strips connected by turns. It requires an average of 40 gear changes a lap and tortures brakes in sudden dips from 190-mph straightaways to 20-mph turns. By the time you read this the town of Sebring will be closed for the season—in fact, it may take all summer to clear the pall of gasoline fumes and clean up the damaged car parts and discarded box lunches—but the lessons seem clear:
1) Ford Motor Company, that industrial giant whose racing ambitions roughly parallel the dreams of conquest harbored by Attila the Hun, has quite suddenly developed in the Mark IV a fearsome new car. Substantially lighter than the overweight Mark II that it succeeds, the Mark IV ran fast, and ran long, as well. It could be a world-beater.
2) Ford's chief rival, Ferrari, whose shop in Modena, Italy employs only 69 people but produces fast, indestructible cars—three of which clobbered Ford at Daytona in February—may no longer have the world by the tail pipe.
3) And Chaparral, a small, inventive outfit with consummate courage that builds cars in Midland, Texas and races them all over the world, is a worthy challenger of the Big Two.
The race also confirmed Porsche's invincibility in the 2-liter class and demonstrated that Alfa Romeo, coming back into racing to battle the Porsches with a new prototype called the 33, has some bugs to exterminate.
Ferrari, obviously building toward a massive assault at Le Mans in June to avenge last year's one-two-three Ford sweep, did not send a team to participate in the masochism out among the mangroves. That left Ford and Chaparral free to battle each other, and, Lord, how they did, in a seven-hour fight that rattled the orange groves on all sides.
A qualifying speed of 111.428 mph had put the new Mark IV on the pole. Chaparral's powerful 2F, with an airflow wing sticking way up above the tail to keep the car on the ground, and an automatic transmission to make it easier to drive, had hit 110 mph and was sitting in second spot. Behind them were Ford's other prototype, a now-outmoded Mark II, and another Chaparral—this one without the wing, but with a huge barndoor spoiler turned up in back.
The Mark IV flew all during practice while Builder Jim Hall, sweating out some mechanical troubles, got only a few warmup miles into the winged Chaparral. Then, on the eve of the race, Chaparral Driver Phil Hill, the 1961 world champion, developed an intense stomach pain that proved to be appendicitis. About the time Hill was rallying from emergency surgery, Hall was preparing to co-drive with England's Mike Spence and boss the Chaparral operation as well.