Patriot games

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Briggs Swift Cunningham was an Ivy Leaguer with a sense of adventure and duty. Preston Lerner charts his bids to win Le Mans in an American sportscar

Has the United States ever produced a greater sportsman than Briggs Cunningham? Never mind the quintessentially American sports-racers he built out of a sense of patriotic duty. Never mind the countless national championships earned by his drivers, the three Sebring victories and the three Le Mans defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. Never mind his own fourth-place finish at Le Mans after driving 20 hours in a car of his own manufacture, or his winning of the America’s Cup in a 12-metre yacht. No, what set Cunningham apart from his peers wasn’t merely the quantity of his accomplishments but the quality of his character.

“He was a noble anachronism,” says AutoWeek columnist Denise McCluggage, who raced for and with Cunningham. “He loved competition in the truest sense of the term. It was medieval almost, like knights going around looking for other knights to compete with in an honourable fashion. When Briggs was winning the America’s Cup, he actually suggested that the [two] teams switch boats so there would be more competition. He was a dear man, the purest person I ever knew. For him, everything was about the sport.”

Cunningham’s death in July, aged 96, broke one of the last remaining links to the pre-war era when a small group of Northeastern blue bloods staged America’s first sportscar races on private estates. After the war, Cunningham helped nurture the sport in the States, and it wasn’t long before he invaded France with his home-built creations. In the 1960s, he continued to campaign a large fleet of eclectic racing cars, ranging from Maserati Tipo 151s and E-type Jaguars to Cooper-Buicks and Fiat Abarths, all painted in the colours he popularised — white with two blue stripes. In 1964, aged 57, he was still quick enough to score a class victory at Sebring in a Porsche 904.

But Cunningham is less famous for the races he won than for the three that got away — back-to-back-to-back Le Mans defeats that were the product of bad planning, bad timing, bad advice and plain bad luck. In 1951, a Cunningham C-2R could have won the race. In ’52, the C-4RK should have won the race. And in ’53, the C-5R would have won the race were it not for… well, maybe a little background is in order.

The scion of a wealthy family, Cunningham befriended former Indy 500 winner Ralph DePalma while attending Yale. He was associated later with the Automobile Racing Club of America, which began running members-only sportscar races in 1934. Out of deference to his mother, Cunningham didn’t race himself. But he did enter his Bu-Merc special — a Mercedes-Benz SSK body on a Buick frame — in the ARCA’s last and most celebrated event, the New York World’s Fair Grand Prix in 1940.

After World War II, through Luigi Chinetti, Cunningham bought the first Ferrari exported to the United States. After finishing a close second in the inaugural Watkins Glen Grand Prix in his colossal Bu-Merc, he hooked up with Phil Walters, aka Ted Tappett, a prominent midget driver idolised by none other than Dan Gurney. From Walters, Cunningham bought a Fordillac — a Ford sedan hot-rodded with a Cadillac V8 — and embarked on what would become his magnificent obsession with Le Mans.

In later years, Cunningham ran Jaguars and Maseratis in the 24-hour classic (he was an American distributor for both marques). There was also a foray with a team of factory-backed Corvettes in 1960, by which time Cunningham was considered an honorary Frenchman. Team driver Dick Thompson recalls: “We could go any place in Le Mans and buy gas or food and say, ‘Charge Briggs Cunningham’. And they’d do it! Then, after the race, Briggs would have a man go around and pay all the bills.”

Cunningham’s love affair with Le Mans dated back to 1950, when he tried to enter his Fordillac. “He was a great patriot,” says John Fitch, who drove for Cunningham for more than a decade. “He wanted American cars, with American drivers and mechanics, to win Le Mans.” Unfortunately, the mongrel was rejected, so Cunningham showed up with a pair of Cadillacs — an essentially stock coupé and a roadster clothed in an ingenious but hideous body fashioned by moonlighting Grumman aerodynamicists. Dubbed Le Monstre by the French, this slab-sided car finished 11th despite various problems, while the standard Caddy was a creditable 10th.

Emboldened by this performance, Cunningham set up shop in West Palm Beach, Florida, and began tilting at windmills. At the time, remember, there wasn’t anything remotely resembling a sportscar being built in the States. “We used whatever we could get,” Cunningham recalled many years later. “We didn’t have many choices regarding engines, gear ratios, brakes or whatever. When the Korean War came along, we couldn’t even get a lot of the materials we needed. I remember having to buy steel on the black market in Miami when the ships came over from France.”

But Cunningham caught one enormous break: Chrysler had just introduced a 5.4-litre V8 fitted with a hemispherical cylinder head. Rated at 180 horsepower by the factory, the soon-to-be-legendary Hemi was dishing out 220bhp by the time the Cunningham equipe reached Le Mans with a trio of brand-new C-2Rs. The cars were way too heavy, and two of them crashed at night. But the third, driven by Fitch and Walters, was second to the last remaining C-type on Sunday morning.

“Two of the Jaguars had already had engine failures and, of course, we were waiting for the third car to drop out,” Fitch recalls. “Instead, it turned the other way and we had engine problems. If we hadn’t, and we’d won on our first time out, that would have been the greatest upset in history.”

In 1952, Cunningham brought a pair of C-4R roadsters and a lone C-4RK coupé to Le Mans. The team, though, was sabotaged by bad advice. Warned that Phil Hill was too excitable to lap at a conservative pace, Cunningham paired Walters with Indycar veteran Duane Carter. Walters set the fastest lap of the race on lap two, and was running third, just loafing along, when he traded places with Carter. On his first lap, Carter stuffed the coupé deep into a sandbank. The roadsters, meanwhile, were slowed by various mechanical maladies.

Despite this Le Mans debacle, the brawny C-4Rs went on to become the most successful cars in the Cunningham stable and among the most iconic racers in American history. Not only did they crush the opposition in national competition, Fitch and Walters drove one to victory at Sebring in 1953, and a three-year-old roadster was third at Le Mans in 1954. Even so, it’s the forgotten Cunningham — the C-5R — that had the potential to be the best of the breed thanks to bodywork that prompted the French to call it ‘The Shark’.

“In designing the body, we looked at everything that was streamlined on an airplane and tried to take the same approach with the car,” Walters recalled before his death in 2000. Unfortunately, as Fitch points out: “We didn’t understand aerodynamics in those days, so just did it by eye pointing the ends and rounding the corners. As it turned out, the C-5 made a very nice aerofoil. And when the air hit it just the right way the front end lifted and the car went airborne.” Coincidentally, both Fitch and Walters had served as WWII pilots; the experience was to come in handy with the C-5Rs.

Walters got his first rude indication that something was seriously amiss while testing the car on a Florida dual carriageway. “At around 160 mph,” he said, “it started to lift on one side and then lift on the other side. Pretty soon, it was going from side to side.” And not long after that, it was swapping ends.

“The C-5 was clocked at 186 at Reims,” he added, “but you had to stay on your toes to keep it going straight. It was a hairy car. It gave you practically no warning that you were reaching its limit. Everything was fine and then, all of a sudden, you were out of control. After a couple of hours in it, not only were you exhausted, but you had thrilled yourself a lot more often than you wanted.”

Unaware that the flawed shape was causing the car’s high-speed instability, the Cunningham brains trust assumed that the beam-axle front suspension was at fault. Walters had decided to go this seemingly retrograde route because Frank Kurtis had demonstrated that solid axles were sufficient to win at Indianapolis, and Walters was convinced that they would work just as well on the smooth pavement of Le Mans. Besides cutting 30lb of unsprung weight, this arrangement also reduced understeer and tyre-scrubbing, leading to superlative low-speed handling characteristics.

Despite reservations about the car, the team was convinced that the C-5R was fast enough to win Le Mans in 1953. “We had examined the winning cars’ average speed for the past few races,” Walters said. “We established that there had been a trend of speed increases of 3-4 mph each year; we designed the C-5 to go 6-8 mph faster than the victorious Merc had run the previous year. But we hadn’t counted on the Jaguars being as fast as they were. We said to ourselves, ‘Their disc brakes are brand new and they won’t last.’ But they did.” Adds Fitch: “We were faster than the Jaguars. But they’d go flying by us on the straight, full bore, while we were slowing down for the turn.”

The C-5R ended up averaging nearly 8mph more than the winning 300SL of 1952, but the Jaguars went faster still, and Walters and Fitch finished a disappointing third. Although the Cunningham was fastest through the official speed trap — 154.81 mph — it could have exceeded 170 had it not been for team orders. By the same token, the 17-inch inboard drum brakes could have been used much harder. “We ran the race at too conservative a pace,” Fitch says now.

Two weeks later, the C-5R was destroyed in a hellacious wreck while leading the 12-hour race at Reims. Fitch says he crashed so hard that, when he came to, “I didn’t even know what country I was in. [Ferrari driver Umberto] Maglioli was behind me. He told me later that he’d just written me off.” Said Cunningham: “John was darned lucky he wasn’t hurt more seriously. The car went flying through the air and landed in a cornfield. The corn was awfully high there, and since there was no path going into the field, we had a terrible time finding him.”

Back in the US, a C-5R led but failed to finish a couple of airfield events. After that, Cunningham withdrew it from competition.

“I think it was because we never figured out why the car did what it did at Reims,” Fitch explains. “Briggs was always considerate to his people, and I don’t think he wanted to put any of us at risk.” In all his years with Cunningham, Fitch doesn’t ever remember being shown a ‘Go Faster’ sign. Briggs went racing, after all, not to make money or stroke his ego but to have fun.

McCluggage: “He just naturally assumed that everybody else loved it as much as he did. He was remarkably naive. Some people didn’t believe it was true because they’d never seen anything like it before. But that purity was real.”

Briggs Cunningham stopped building cars in 1955 without ever having won Le Mans. But that didn’t make him a loser, just a throwback — a sportsman who honestly believed that the only thing that mattered was how the game was played.

We won’t see his kind again anytime soon.

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