My Visit To Sebring

by Rob Walker
(Continued from the June issue)
We arrived just in time for lunch at our hotel, Harder Hall, which is situated on the edge of Sebring, between two lakes and the golf course, and it has the most delightful surroundings. Everybody interested in the race seemed to be staying at the hotel, and the first to greet us was that great character Wacky Arnold, who, amongst other things, is the Chicago agent for Astons. Wacky always wears high-heeled cowboy boots, usually has a cigar up, and has rather long curly hair down his neck. His main business is not cars and, when asked how he got into the motor trade, be said that he had been very keen on buying cars for himself as a hobby, but one day he counted them and found be had 500, so he said: “Say Wacky, this is no hobby, it’s getting to be quite a business.” Many other notables were staying at the hotel, amongst whom were Harry Schell and his Ferrari partner the Marquis de Portago, thrice European Steeplechase Champion, Donald Healy and his team of Lance Macklin and Morris Goodall; later they were joined by Tommy Wisdom. The whole Lancia team were there, with such well-known names as Ascari, Fangio, Taruffi and Manson; also Rubirosa.

Just before luncheon one day I was standing near the desk when a reporter rushed up and said to me, “Say, can you tell me where I can find Rubirosa.” Not being well versed in “multiple marriage makers” this type had escaped my attention until after this race, when he mixed motors with matrimony. So I replied to the reporter: “I am afraid not, I have never heard of him.” Whereupon he took one look at me, his eyes came out on organ stops, and he raced off in the opposite direction as if he thought that he had arrived in a mad house.

I believe the Lancia team were a bit dissatisfied with their bill, which came to 2,000 pounds for the week, but I am not altogether surprised at its size because each morning Taruffi left the water running in his bath until it flowed all over the tiled floor, as they do in Italy, but this floor was not designed for this sort of thing and it immediately dripped through the dining-room ceiling onto the people having breakfast below — always onto the same party. On the first day the management were somewhat annoyed, but on the third day there was a real fury, but Taruffi always asked, in Italian, well what were the tiles for if not to hold water. The Italians always conveniently lose all knowledge of English in a crisis. It was noticeable that the American staff are much more familiar than those in England. Whenever I chose anything on the menu, our waitress would say, “You can’t have that — you wouldn’t like it,” and as a matter of fact, if it was anything like the rest of the food she was dead right, I wouldn’t like it. As Reg Parnell put it, the only thing they make in this country with any taste in it is the Worcester sauce. To show what one might expect from the lift boys a friend of mine was paying his first visit to the States and when he got into a lift the boy said, “Say Bud, have you got a light?”, so my friend replied “Yes, thanks,” which terminated that conversation somewhat abruptly.

After landing and settling in at the hotel we then had to find out how the cars were after their journey from Buenos Aires, where they had been; being prepared after the Sports-Car Race there, in which one of them finished second. They had arrived more or less undamaged, with their 10 large packing cases of spares and about 140 tyres, which Dicky Day, of Avons, was looking after. The third car arrived while we were at the garage, and we went to the at station to unload it, using the platform as a ramp to drive it onto. This car was to be driven by two Americans, but as the two originally asked had had to refuse, owing to business commitments, John Wyer now had the problem of choosing two who could handle the car to its full ability, also being fast and reliable, out of the numerous applications, many of whom he had never heard of. As usual, he made a wonderful choice, selecting Carol Shelby and Chuck Wallace; they were both good although not very well known, and Carol proved quite exceptional, being very steady, and in the end his lap times were not far off the maestros Reg Parnell and Peter Collins, which is a very creditable effort for one’s first drive in a car. Drivers now being settled, we next all had to get Florida driving licences so that we could float around town in our luxurious limousines. Getting the licences was easier than one might expect because Peter Collins had made a very careful choice of his girl friend for this particular town, and he had settled for the “‘de D.A.’s assistant,” which proved to be a most wise choice in every way. Not only were licences forthcoming immediately, but complaints for carving people up were successfully repressed. Of course, they were unfounded anyway. The girl friend turned out to be a most efficient lap-scorer as well, and withal a delightful person. For any further details, please apply to Peter Collins.

The following morning was spent at the garage with the cars and seeing to odd details, but our important engagement was in the afternoon, when the team were to make a broadcast at Tampa, which is 100 miles away. We were told to be at the Broadcasting House at 6 p.m. and the advertising agent, who was leading in his car and showing us the way; elected to start at 4.20 p.m. on a fairly busy highway. None of us wanted to do the driving, and I shall not mention the Italian-sounding name of the lucky boy who was eventually elected, but, anyway, he made a very creditable effort against insurmountable odds, and I can only remember one car pushed completely off the road, two stop signs ignored, besides the fact that we never managed to get down to the speed limit, but we always had de D.A.’s assistant to look after our interests. We arrived for the broadcast at 6.10, and it was due to start at 6.15, so there was no time for rehearsal.

We were ushered into the studio and the show was on; from that moment I was transported into Filmland, and convulsions. I just could not believe that this really happened in real life, and there it was going on in front of my very eyes. I will try to put down a short resumé of how it went, but everyone who has ever been to the pictures knows the form. It went something like this: “This is C.B.S. Network broadcasting through stations ABC, ABX, etc. We now have for you your favourite sportscaster, Sol Solomons, brought to you by courtesy of the Quick Check Food Stores. Say, Sol, what’ve you got for us tonight?” ” Wal, I’ve got a couple of National Baseball players here, and, what do yer know, I’ve got that world-famous Austin-Martin motor-racing team right here in the studio.” I never quite found out whether Sol was in the pay of B.M.C. or whether Austin-Martin was a real genuine mistake, because just at that moment, and at every succeeding moment when anything important is going to be said, a small guy leaps up to the microphone and starts off “Say, folks, don’t forget when you’re doing your down-town shopping, do it at the Quick Check Food Stores. It is quicker, better, cheaper and, remember this, there is a 5 Cent reduction on every 100 dollars you spend.” I can’t remember whether he said a 5 cent or five per cent, reduction, but probably the former I should think. Then all the team were interviewed and I was brought happily back to reality seeing the solid British form of Reg Parnell giving his views on the forthcoming race, and looking as if he would like to tell them what would happen if they did not quick check his food stores in Derby. Afterwards they told us that Sol’s Sportscast was the most popular programme of the week and was listened to by two million people, at a cost of £400 to the sponsor. So you too can be a radio star and have your own programme if you so desire for a mere 1,000 bucks.

The following day I was asked to go to the airport and pick up our chairman, David Brown, who was arriving from England. John Wyer and Reg Parnell were to go down in the Studillac to greet him if he arrived on time, but if he was on a later aircraft I was to wait for him with the Hudson, as John and Reg had to get back, it being a matter of some 270 miles from Sebring to the airport and back! We arrived in Palm Beach just in time to check up that the aircraft was on time, and then we went and had lunch at the restaurant on the pier. We could see several people on the beach bathing and t hey all looked very brown. We arrived back at the aerodrome just in time to see the New York aircraft coming in but David Brown was not on it, and the next one in was not until 9 p.m., so John and Reg returned to Sebring, leaving me with the Hudson to meet the evening aircraft. I sat around sunbathing and sending off exotic postcards all the afternoon, then fixed myself up with a meal and an hotel if necessary. After getting back to the aerodrome and finding no chairman on the 9 p.m. plane, I received a message from John Wyer to say that David Brown would not arrive until 2 p.m. the following day and that I was to leave the car at the aerodrome for him to pick up, and if I rang Briggs Cunningham I could probably get a lift up with him, but I must be at Sebring in time for 3, p.m. practice. I rang Briggs and he kindly said he would pick me up at the airport at 9.30 in the morning.

We were only a party of seven going up to Sebring with Briggs, so nothing very much in the way of cars was needed. We only had two Continental Bentleys, a Vignole-bodied Cunningham, and one of the very latest Ghia V8 Fiat coupés. Mrs. Cunningham drove one of the Continental Bentleys, with Bill Spear and Phil Hill in the other, whilst Briggs drove the Cunningham with Laurence Pomeroy as his passenger, and I was allotted to the Ghia Fiat with John Gordon Bennet of Jersey fame as my coachman. John, who, of course, partnered Briggs Cunningham at Le Mans last year, and will again this year, had the worst possible luck in the actual race at Sebring. He was driving as partner to McKenna in a C-type, and when McKenna was due to come in at the end of his first spell he saw somebody already in at the adjacent pit to his own, so he decided to do one more lap, in the course of which he spun off the course, of course, and it took three hours to dig the car out, whilst John was cooling his heels in the pit. They did in the end get going and I think might have done very well but for this. John and I had not actually met before this trip, but we got on very well, having many friends in common. He told me that at the time, besides being the New York Jaguar agent, he was also agent for the 300SL Mercédès, one of which he was taking across America the following week; he said that delivery was not beginning until June, but they had sold every model that was to be produced until the end of October, and looked like selling more. The price in America was only 6,800 dollars, and a speed of 126 m.p.h. on third and 170 m.p.h. on top was claimed.

By comparison our Ghia-bodied Fiat — I believe it cost about 8,500 dollars — did not do too well. It had a very beautiful body, incredibly low for a hard top; if anything, too low, as John and I both wished we had had crash helmets on after a long stretch of bumpy road, although I have my doubts if we would have had room to wear them. The engine had bags of poke for a 2-litre, and would motor up to about 110 m.p.h. with goodish acceleration, but for a new car it really was as rough as a bear’s posterior, especially the gearbox, which whined terribly in the lower gears.

We arrived at the hotel at Sebring for lunch and then we drove out to the course for the first practice with the three team cars in line astern of the Studillac. Unfortunately, troubles fairly soon developed with the cars, and these were never entirely to leave us. It was quite obvious that throughout this meeting we suffered from one thing that in normal circumstances would not arise. After the race in Buenos Aires the cars were prepared there, but the big snag was that there was no opportunity of testing them at all and this was the first time they had been tried. Consequently certain minor faults showed up which had not been suspected, the most important one being the distributor which failed in B.A. was not cured just by fitting a new one; the fault lay deeper. All the drivers managed to complete their practice and the team drivers were all about the same time, Peter Collins actually being fastest, and the two Americans being rather slower, but doing very well for their first time ever in the car. When the time came for night practice we were down to one car as the others had been sent back to the garage to be worked on for the morrow, but everybody managed to do four or five night laps and they seemed quite happy about it. The most striking thing about the practice to me was that the Americans, who, after all, are in the amateur status, were considerably faster in their privately-entered 4.5 Ferraris than the works Lancia team, who had professional drivers of the highest class, including two world champions. I had expected the Lancias to be quite unassailable, although they had a smaller engine, but the 4.5 Ferraris were 5 sec. a lap faster, which speaks very highly for the cars and the driving of Bill Spear and Phil Walters.

On Saturday there was to be some unofficial practice, but it poured with rain all day, which did not help our chances of getting any proper testing in. We sent one car up with Roy Salvadori in it, as he dislikes getting wet more than anyone, and he lapped pretty fast for over an hour. Then Reg brought his car up to try the ignition again but it was still rough. Eventually, it was, decided to put this engine in the worst chassis and the drivers volunteered to work through the night changing the engines, as the mechanics were busily engaged in other jobs on the cars. Reg Parnell led the drivers and did most of the work himself, and with his very considerable experience they finished the job by 2 a.m. and, not only that, they found the fault with the distributor to be worn driving gears, which they changed. This made it the best engine of the lot, so it really turned out to be unfortunate that they put it in the worst chassis in the end.

The evening before the race, Gerald Lascelles and his wife flew in from his sugar plantation in Barbados; this caused great excitement and the papers had been full of the arrival of the Queen’s cousin, Lord Lascelles — the latter was, of course, confusing him with his brother. (Our waitress came rushing up to us at dinner, wanting to know if that man was the Queen’s cousin. On our replying in the affirmative, she said, “Oh, isn’t he lovely.” Actually, we had not sort or looked at him in this light, so we were stumped for an answer. Gerald and his wife had volunteered to keep the race chart and after dinner I showed him the formidable chart with 65 cars going for 12 hours, that John and I had prepared for him. He seemed undaunted at the task, although we had little help for him, but in the end Roy and Pat Griffith volunteered to assist. Pat has terrific energy and is always willing to help when not driving; in fact at Le Mans he managed the pit signals and danced the Le Mans Samba on the counter throughout the whole night. Actually, I have found the secret of this vitality — he likes at least four plates of eggs, bacon and sausage for breakfast, and other timings, of course.

The race day dawned bright and sunny, with an ice-cold strong wind, and I could not see the temperature rising to the eighties or nineties that day, although we did get very burnt by the wind. The mechanics rolled up to 7.30 breakfast, looking rather tired, having been working all night, but the drivers were remarkably fresh after their 2-a.m. engine change.

As far as the race is concerned, as a timekeeper I just don’t know what goes on with the rest of the field, so it is no use writing about it — anyway it is all past history, but I would like to mention one or two things of interest after giving a brief account of our own misfortunes. Reg Parnell got away to a bad start for him, and was last of the trio, whilst Peter Collins was well up in about seventh spot (American!) and Carol Shelby was mid-field. It was very soon seen that Reg had adopted that well-known crouch and a broad grin, which always spells trouble for someone, and he began moving up through the field with some rapidity, shortly to pass Carol and go to the aid of Peter, who was trying to sort out Harry Schell’s Ferrari, chief rival in the 3-litre class. Whilst Schell was busy with Peter, Reg came tearing up and passed them both and then drew away rapidly; this was too much for the Ferrari, which withdrew with back axle trouble. Things looked quite bright. Reg was going well and had just done our fastest lap when a bearing went, seizing the rod; his oil pressure had never been of the brightest from the start. Reg hopefully pushed it for about a mile, as if he had not had about enough exercise after his engine change for one day; anyway, this was greatly appreciated by the Americans, with whom Reg is very popular. Meanwhile, Peter Collins was going well, and then the second blow arrived — he came in with a back brake seized and nothing could be done about this unless both back brakes were disconnected, which would be very dangerous for the driver, although under the circumstances we might have done well if this had been done. Through all this, John Wyer was superb; the greater the crisis, the calmer he becomes. He surely is one of the greatest of team managers, and if ever England has a national team I hope he is asked to manage it.

Meanwhile our American drivers were circulating steadily and coming up in position. After five hours they were fourth and then in the sixth hour trouble again, the same back brake seized, and there was nothing to do but retire it. Our hopes were dashed. Incidentally, it really was brake trouble that put them out, not like my Delage in the British Grand Prix which was officially retired with gearbox trouble — several people told me they could not understand it when so much steam and water were pouring out of the exhaust pipe!

One of the most striking sights in the race was the Lancia teamwork; down all the straights all three cars were abreast, passing and re-passing each other, making it quite impossible for Bill Spear in the faster Ferrari to get through, but he hung on doggedly and once slipped into third place, only to lose it again. No doubt his pressure was the undoing of the Lancias and, anyway, he was not to be denied because whilst the Lancias refuelled he got into first place, only to have to retire later.

I was quite staggered at how slowly some of the drivers cornered, in fact they were taking one particular make of car around without any sound from the tyres at all, and before this I did not know it was possible to corner this car without squealing. In comparison, Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin were hurling their cars through the corners, and no doubt the Aston boys were too, but I could not watch these whilst they were still running.

It was very hard on Taruffi after leading so long and then pushing the car so far, to be disqualified, but it was good to see the Americans, unlike so many International organisers, stick to the rules laid down, no matter to whom they applied. In this instance, they were twice violated through no fault of the Italians, but through necessit y. First , the car having been pushed to the pit and worked on did not leave the pit having started on the starter, and secondly the car did not cross the finishing line under its own power, it was pushed, so the Americans, quite rightly, disqualified it, and thus Lance Macklin got into third place on three cylinders.

I think the Moss-Lloyd win in an Osca was generally popular. It ought to have been anyway, as it should have satisfied and consoled all participants. It was an American entrant, with a British and an American driver in an Italian car. What more could you want? I know — an all-British win. It is interesting to note that Stirling’s contract with Jaguars forbade him to drive the 4.5 Ferrari, or any car of comparable size to the Jaguar, and that is why he drove the Osca, which only goes to show you can’t keep a good man down.

The outcome of the race must have been something of a disappointment to David Brown, after all he had put into it. but if it was, he certainly did not show it, and was in fact as cheerful as if he had won it. He and John Wyer were immediately discussing how best they could profit for the next race from the faults found, and before the Sebring event had finished telegrams were already flashing to Feltham. The morning after the race John Wyer and the drivers went to the prizegiving, and to their great surprise Reg Parnell was presented with the Dunlop Gold Cup for Sportsmanship. Whether this was an individual award, or to David Brown and his team, I don’t know, but in either case, I think it well deserved. I said to John Wyer by way of consolation, “Well, I think that is the nicest possible cup to win,” and he replied, “I don’t know about that, but in the circumstances it is the only possible one we could have had.” Meanwhile, I had been designated to go with David Brown and Gerald Lascelles and his wife to Tampa, a hundred miles from Sebring, where they were to catch an aircraft for San Francisco. My job was to bring the Studillac back when they had left, and I had a most delightful run, when I had got used to the hydromatic gears, and I clocked over 110 m.p.h. several times.

The following morning we all packed into the two cars, and finally left Sebring for West Palm Beach, where we were to meet Briggs Cunningham at his racing establishment, which is a large hangar on the airport. It is a most beautiful shop where you could quite literally eat off the floor. It has wonderful machinery and ample space, with odd Ferraris dotted around here and there. We saw the new car for Le Mans, and we weighed the 4.5 Ferrari engine which will be used in the new car if the 5-litre is not ready in time. Then Briggs took us all to have a magnificent lunch, and finally came to the airport to see us off on our flight to New York. So as we winged our way westwards, whilst the sun sank slowly beneath the swaying palms, we say farewell to this golden city of tropical splendour. You may wonder why we were going westwards. Well, we did a left-hand circuit for the sake of alliteration.

We arrived at Idlewild, New York airport, at about 9.30 at night, to be met by Nelson Rose of the Esso Petroleum Company, or Standard Oil in America, who had a complete programme mapped out for us for the whole night. I did not know what to expect. I was ready for anything, even to meeting Al Capone but all we met was the most wonderful Alka Zone I have ever known; from the time we met Nelson the stuff just flowed, all at his generous expense. First we went to the Gotham Hotel on Fifth Avenue, where they had booked us the most marvellous suite including reception room. Then, having left our luggage and changed, we went to an Italian restaurant called Astis. Here the waiters, waitresses, barmen, and in fact everybody, are opera singers, and the whole time they are serving you they sing superb Opera, also the food is most excellent: the only really good food I had in America. At about 1 a.m. we moved on to the Gay Nineties, a night club that lived up to its name, playing all the old tunes. Everybody was given a false moustache, and when the party was all wearing them they took a group photo. I seemed to be wearing two, one upside down, or the camera was drunk. We eased out of this joint soon after 4 a.m. or, to be exact, it closed down on us, so we returned to our hotel suite for a little liquid refreshment, and later, much later, bed.

In the morning we all had only one idea, and that was to buy some presents to take back with us. I had had strict instructions not to bring anything that could be bought in England, as it would be waste of dollars, and this was nearly my undoing. I was up somewhat late, not surprisingly, and having packed and fixed everything, time was getting on. John Wyer said we must be back in the hotel at 2 p.m., ready to leave for Idlewild, which is supposed to take an hour from Fifth Avenue, as we had to be at the airport at 3 p.m. for a 4 o’clock take-off. Well, I searched up and down Fifth Avenue, trying to find something I could not get in England, but it seemed impossible, and I was getting frantic with despair. Eventually I picked on an alligator pair of shoes with handbag to match, but by the time I had found the money, they had got the right size and packed them up, it was 3.15, and when got back to the hotel the others had left long ago. Everybody was agreed that it took about an hour to Idlewild Airport, so things looked rather black. I had a quick gin and tonic to give me strength, chose my Jehu with some care, and we were off on our record-breaking run; to encourage him to greater efforts I either threatened to hit him over the head with my box of shoes, or regaled him with stories of how slowly the American traffic went, and had we been going from London to our airport we would have been doing about 100 m.p.h. This treatment definitely had an effect, so I took to watching out of the back window for the cops. They appeared once, but fortunately went off in another direction. We made it with 7 minutes to spare, but then came a mile of corridors, and as I went tearing down the finishing straight the only person I could see was Dunlop Mac; he was just going to get out his tyre gauge to take my pressure, when he looked at the colour of my face and realised his gauge didn’t read that high, so he rushed me to the Pan-American official, who was waiting for me, and got me on board at exactly 4 p.m., and we were off. I had not been through customs, the passport office, or anything.

On leaving America, I think the three things that struck me most were their wonderful National Airlines, running just like our trains, but more frequently: the heavenly smell of the orange blossom everywhere in Florida; and the fact that so many people buy American cars. We really only came away with two accomplishments, the winning of the Dunlop Gold Cup for Sportsmanship, and the breaking of the taxi record from Fifth Avenue to ldlewild, but this is subject to official confirmation; which we hope to get within the next ten years. Unfortunately, I believe there has-been a protest over this, because the passenger was aiding and abetting the driver against the cops, which is contravening the rules. A pity, really.

This story seems to have gone on far longer than I intended; once I start I go on and on. I can’t think what would happen if I got paid for it. I must finish by reminding both my readers that all characters in this story are entirely frictional, as I shall no doubt find out when it is published.