Briggs Cunningham

Full Name:
Briggs Swift Cunningham
Born:
19th January 1907
Cincinnati, Ohio
Died:
2nd July 2003 (Aged 96)
Las Vegas, Nevada
Nationality:
American
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

Briggs Cunningham is one of the iconic sports car figures of the 1950s – the father of road racing in America and the country’s heartbeat at Le Mans at the time. His cars never won the race but his patriotic white and blue colours competed with great distinction.

Administrator and entrant

Born into an ultra-wealthy Cincinnati family, Cunningham always had the funds to indulge his hobbies. Taken street racing by an uncle in his early years, his passion for road racing was cemented by his friendship with Miles and Sam Collier while at Yale University. But he respected his mother’s wishes not to race so he became a successful entrant instead. He also represented his country successfully in sailing.

In partnership with the Colliers, he formed Automobile Racing Club of America and sanctioned events from 1934 to 1940. Cunningham’s first foray as a constructor was in 1940, when he mated a Buick chassis and engine with Mercedes bodywork to create the BuMerc Special. It raced in the last ARCA race before the sport was suspended due to World War II.

Motor racing debut and Le Mans

His mother passed away during the war and with maternal wishes no longer to be observed, Cunningham raced the BuMerc at the inaugural SCCA meeting at Watkins Glen in 1948 – finishing second.

With Cunningham’s love of sports car racing, he inevitably turned his attention to Le Mans and entered a cumbersome Cadillac Special in 1950. It was the most photographed car in the field – the odd shape saw to that – and his cars finished 10th (a conventional Cadillac) and 11th.

John Fitch scored Cunningham’s first victory as a manufacturer at the original Elkhart Lake in 1951 and won that year’s SCCA National Sportscar Championship for the marque. A three-car assault at Le Mans in 1952 came close but did not win. Running as high as second early in the morning, Cunningham shared the fourth-placed C4R-Chrysler with Bill Spear. Fitch and Phil Waters went one better in 1953 (when three Cunninghams finished in the top 10) but victory continued to elude the team.

Cunningham won the 1954 SCCA ‘F’ Modified Championship and also finished fifth at Le Mans with John Benett. His exploits were big news on both sides of the Atlantic and he appeared on the front cover of Time on April 26 1954. Sailing was not forgotten either for he captained his country’s successful 1958 America’s Cup campaign against Great Britain. He remained a sports car entrant until 1965 before leaving racing.

"He epitomised the definition of the American sportsman," Sam Posey later said, "he embodied the spirit of the true gentleman racer."