Ferraris are red,
Lolas are blue,
Porsches are white
And will finish one-two.
It scanned, it sang and it promised, but the graffito on the men's room wall outside the Sebring racecourse last week only proved that latrine prophets are as prone to error as all others. The single scarlet V-12 prototype entered by Enzo Ferrari in Saturday's 12 hours of speed and endurance ran quickly but steamily and finished only second. The blue Lola-Chevrolet of Roger Penske, which had won Daytona's 24-hour race (SI, Feb. 10), held the lead briefly, and a sister Lola, Actor James Garner's entry, challenged right on down to an hour before the checkered flag fell, only to end up sixth. A plentitude of Porsche 908 Spyders (five of them, plus another offered up to practice and cannibalization), avoided the camshaft calamities that had wiped them out at Daytona but fell victim to another epidemic: weak rear suspensions. Though they finished third, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth, they couldn't fulfill the promise of the men's room wall.
That success—and sugar sweet it was—went to the blue and orange Ford GT-40 of John Wyer, the cool, can-do Englishman whose cars won the International Manufacturers' Championship last year. In the welter and swelter of Sebring doings last week, Wyer's team had gone almost unnoticed in prerace activity—just as he wished. Sebring, after all, is as much show as go—a lot of motorcar noise in a customarily quiet mid- Florida town that both relishes and resents the car people's intrusion.
Going to Sebring is like stepping into a time machine and emerging in 1946. It's all dumbbell-shaped telephones and cuffed trousers and canasta games. Even the racecourse, a converted World War II air base, carries out the motif. According to some of the Porsche drivers, whose cars took the worst beating, the roadbed is worse than the Caucasus was when the Panzerkorps went out of Russia in '43.
Even so, Sebring enjoyed its hottest, closest race since 1955, when Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill ran a Ferrari down to the wire against the D-Jaguar of Mike Hawthorn and Phil Walters. It also attracted kids in helmet liners that read "Born To Raise Hell" and ski bums and lissome chicks in leopard-patterned miniskirts.
And it brought Ferrari back onto the circuit after a year's absence. That alone was enough to guarantee a record turnout well over the 50,000 high of 1966. The car itself was out of the traditional Ferrari mold—a brutish wedge of automotive power, guttural as a rutting stag. The drivers were New Zealand's quick young Chris Amon, 25, darling of the road and formula circuits, and Nazareth, Pa.'s own Mario Andretti, 29, the gimlet-eyed go-getter of Indy and the lonesome roads. Italy's "other" car company, Alfa Romeo, entered a full team for the first time this year, headed by England's former world champion, John Surtees, and Sicily's Nino Vaccarella, a seasoned endurance man.
And if that wasn't enough, last year's Sebring winner, Porsche, had transformed the long-tailed, fully roofed sedans of 1968 (and Daytona) into open coupes. They sacrificed a bit of speed on the straights but handled easily in Sebring's washboard corners and provided more "driver comfort" than at Daytona, where leaky exhausts turned the drivers blue every few laps.
Practice and qualifying revealed that all the major contenders were faster than anything Sebring had seen before. Even the Alfas, which looked a bit tinny on the rough spots approaching the infamous Esses and the Hairpin, were turning the course in close to the record lap time of 111.032 mph set by the late Mike Spence. Penske's Lola zipped around in 116 mph, only to be topped by Amon in the Ferrari. Those who watched Amon negotiate the Esses claim that he cheated a bit—he went straight across rather than wiggling through, but the steam coming from the Ferrari, which was overheating, might have clouded their vision. The Porsches played it safe, driving a good two seconds slower than their chief competitors in order to save the engines and the frailer chassis of the new Spyder coupes. As for the Ford GT-40s, hardly anyone noticed them as they chugged just fast enough to be respectable but not so quickly as to be menacing.
Everyone studied the skies on race-day morning, for rain would have required the installation of bilge pumps in the Porsches and the open-top Ferrari, and neither team was so equipped. Rain also would have turned the race into a regatta (the drainage of the Sebring course is about as effective as that of the Gulf Stream).
Blissfully, the day broke clear, calm and concordant with everyone's wishes. There were a few foul-ups, to be sure. Alfa's John Surtees suddenly withdrew, possibly because of conflicting tire contracts (he's a Firestone guy, and the Alfas were wearing Dunlops), or maybe because he could see what was coming. Alfa's mechanics failed to tighten the left rear wheel lugs on one of their cars, with the result that the wheel came off after one lap.