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A couple of days before the start of last Saturday's 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance at Sebring, Florida, the boys around a hotel bar were discussing Stirling Moss, the superb English racing driver who had just been signed to handle one of the brand new "bird-cage" Maseratis.
"With Stirling in that new Maser," one of them was saying, "he'll lose the field before the fun begins."
"Yeah," said a skeptic, "if he doesn't lose the Maser's gear box."
For the first eight hours of this longest of all American automobile races, the endurance contest between Stirling Moss and his gear box, to say nothing of the rest of his car, provided a delicious suspense. As most of the 15,000 or so dedicated racing connoisseurs knew, around the twists and turns of a road racing track there is no faster driver in business today than Stirling Moss. But when he is pushing a car to its utmost—as only he can—it is problematical whether his car can survive the pounding of a long grind.
At around six o'clock in the evening, just as it was turning dusk on this ideally warm and sunny day, the predictable happened. Moss drove his white, sway-backed Maserati No. 23 to the pits for the last time. One of the gears in the transmission box was broken beyond repair. At that moment, Moss and Dan Gurney, the young Californian who had been sharing the driving with him, had a good 10-minute lead over the closest of the three Porsches that were trailing them. They had covered more than 700 miles at an average speed of 87.5 miles per hour. Had they continued at that pace to the end, they would have broken by several hundred miles the all-time Sebring record for distance traveled in 12 hours.
It is no reflection on Olivier Gendebien and Hans Hermann, the eventual Sebring winners, that once Moss and Gurney's No. 23 had left the race, the remaining four hours run mostly in darkness were a distinct anticlimax. Three tremendously durable Porsches took over the first three positions, and there was never any doubt that one of them would eventually pull into the victory lane a couple of minutes after the checkered flag was lowered at 10 p.m. The other two Porsches finished second and ninth.
That is not to say that the Porsche victory was anything but popular. As it became inevitable, the regulars around the track were all smiles at the thought that this doughty little plugger of a car was at last to have its innings after so many years as a Sebring also-ran. It was the good old David-and-Goliath situation, for the Porsche's 1.5-liter engine is only half the size of the larger Maseratis and Ferraris which have dominated past races.
While victory was a novelty for the Porsche, it was anything but for its chauffeurs. Last year Gendebien in a Ferrari shared the winning ride with Gurney and those other Californians, Phil Hill and Chuck Daigh. The year before he was one of the drivers in the second-place Ferrari. A tall, brown-haired and personable Belgian with a reputation as one of the surest and most versatile of the European drivers, Gendebien was able to take the customary pandemonium of the victory lane with an understanding smile—waving the gold cup, kissing the beauty queen, donning the wreath of kumquats and swigging the California champagne with modest good humor. Later he told the press that his was no great feat since the Porsche is so much easier to drive than the bigger, heavier cars.
"We had just a little trouble, it is true," Gendebien said in his attractively halting English. "The clutch regulation was not so perfect. But we were driving the car so carefully, and my partner Hans Hermann was so smooth that whenever I got in the car it was as if I had not left it at all."
Hermann stood by all the while, looking delighted. If not so famous a driver as Gendebien, he, too, is experienced, having been on the Mercedes team in the days of Juan Fangio. At 32, he is four years junior to Gendebien, but it was not this so much as the language barrier that kept this native of Stuttgart smilingly quiet throughout the celebration.