1956 Sebring 12 Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – Sebring Comes of Age, With Difficulty
By Louis Galanos | Photos as credited
The 1956 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance was a sign to many in the automotive community that this race had definitely become North America’s premier sports car race and from an international standpoint second only to the 24-Hours of Le Mans.
However, events eight months earlier at that same 24 Hours of Le Mans would conspire to cast a dark shadow not only on Sebring but on all racing world-wide in 1956.Two-and-a-half hours into the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race Pierre Levegh, driving a very fast factory Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, hit the rear end of the slower moving Austin-Healey 100S of Lance Macklin. Macklin was trying to avoid the leading Jaguar D-type of Mike Hawthorn who had unexpectedly braked right in front of the pits. Macklin swerved to avoid Hawthorn and Levegh hit him when the Healey crossed his path.
The Levegh Mercedes became airborne at great speed and struck an earthen embankment across the narrow track that was the only protection for thousands of spectators watching the race. The car struck with tremendous force, killing Levegh outright, and large parts of the car, including the engine, separated from the car flying through a packed group of spectators killing 83 and injuring 120. Today it is considered the most catastrophic accident in the history of motorsports.
Throughout Europe the reaction to this disaster was very strong. The countries of France, Germany and Switzerland immediately instituted a moratorium on all motor sports events until all tracks were studied for safety flaws and improvements were made. The press at home and abroad “decried it (automobile racing) as a sensational, useless sport that was akin to murder.”
The United States was not immune to the fallout from the disaster in France and mindful of the spreading public outcry against motor racing the American Automobile Association or “Triple-A” (AAA) decided to withdraw from all participation in racing events.
Most Americans know AAA as those friendly folks who show up with a wrecker when their jalopy leaves them stranded on the side of the road. However, from 1902 to 1955 the AAA, through their contest board, was the premier sanctioning body in the United States for such motorsports events as the Indianapolis 500, The Vanderbilt Cup, Sebring 12 Hour GP, stock cars, midgets and sprint cars. Mindful of their public image the AAA was well aware of the hue and cry coming from the public and press following the Le Mans disaster. Fearing an impact on their “bottom line” the AAA elected to abandon its 53 years of involvement in motorsports and thus leave American racing promoters in the lurch.
One of those promoters was Sebring founder, Alec Ulmann, and he was in a particularly bad position because in order for his event to receive international recognition he had to find a U.S. sanctioning body for the Sebring race that could be approved by the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) headquartered in Paris, France. This approval by the FIA would also give the U.S. sanctioning body the authority to issue FIA racing licenses to American drivers wishing to compete at Sebring. It was very simple; no FIA approved sanctioning body, no international race.
When Ulmann got the news about the withdrawal of AAA from racing he knew he had to quickly find such an organization so he contacted Jim Kimberly who was the newly elected president of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). Kimberly was the grandson of one of the four founders of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the makers of Kleenex. In racing circles he was a wealthy “gentleman racer” and a strong proponent of amateur road racing.
Since its creation in 1944 SCCA had a policy of amateurism and non-involvement in professional contests and Kimberly continued this policy by declining to help Ulmann. However, he did announce to the membership in February of 1956 that they could compete in the March 24 Sebring classic, provided they sign agreements not to accept cash prizes. In that way SCCA members could maintain their amateur status.
When asked what a SCCA member was to do if he did win a cash prize at Sebring Kimberly suggested that the driver donate the money to the hospital in Le Mans that was still treating the many who were injured in the catastrophic accident the previous June. This was the first time in the history of Sebring that a cash purse was offered. In previous years trophies were the only prizes awarded to winning drivers, now the prize was a share of $10,000. Sebring was now officially a professional racing event.
With SCCA out of the picture Ulmann was not about to throw in the towel and cancel Sebring. He called on his wealth of contacts at home and abroad to get “special permission” from the FIA to allow him to process and issue international licenses for the Sebring event as well as approval to run the event through Ulmann’s creation, the Automobile Racing Club of Florida (ARCF). Ulmann appointed himself as president and his good friend, Reggie Smith, as vice president.
While much of the hullabaloo surrounding the Le Mans tragedy had subsided by January of 1956 those in the international racing business were still contending with the fallout. The Le Mans 24-hour race had been removed from the FIA World Sportscar Championship (WSC) series which was in its fourth year. Le Mans would return to the schedule after the required safety improvements to the track were made.
Although it did run as a non-championship event the Targa Florio was removed from the 1956 WSC calendar amid concerns over safety. This would leave only five events for the ’56 season: Buenos Aires, Sebring, the Mille Miglia, Nurburgring and the Swedish Grand Prix. It would be the shortest season in the history of the World Sportscar Championship.
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American interest in automotive racing began to recover over the winter of ’55-’56 and some were looking for a return to normalcy. Stimulating that interest was the fact that both General Motors Chevrolet division and Ford were developing and building two-seat sports cars. Chevrolet got a head start by introducing their Corvette in 1953. Ford countered this with the Thunderbird in 1955 and a private entry T-Bird was raced at Sebring that year finishing 37th.
Adding to the build-up to the ’56 Sebring race was the announcement that for the very first time in Sebring history five European factory teams were planning an assault on Sebring. Those teams included Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche, Jaguar and Maserati.
Ulmann and U.S. racing fans were overjoyed that Scuderia Ferrari was making its first factory team appearance at Sebring. Ferrari was determined to recapture the manufacturer’s championship they lost to Mercedes-Benz in 1955. The fact that Mercedes-Benz had withdrawn from the series following the tragedy at Le Mans just might make it easier for Ferrari to accomplish that goal.
Accompanying those teams from Europe were some of the best drivers in the world. They included three-time and reigning world champion, Juan Manuel Fangio, also Eugenio Castellotti, Luigi Musso, Harry Schell, Alfonso de Portago and Oliver Gendebien all driving for factory Ferrari.
England’s Mike Hawthorn won Sebring in 1955 and he would return driving a new factory D-type Jaguar along with Desmond Titterington, Duncan Hamilton, Ivor Bueb, Bill Spear, Briggs Cunningham and Indy 500 winner Bob Sweikert who was making his first appearance at Sebring. A total of nine D-Jaguars would start the race with the newer ones equipped with an experimental fuel injection that emitted a much clearer sound as compared to the normally aspirated older Jags.
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The top driver for Aston Martin would be British ace, Stirling Moss. He and Aston Martin co-driver Carlos Menditeguy won the first race of the 1956 WSC series in Argentina in January. Moss’s team mates at Sebring included Peter Collins, Roy Salvadori, Texan Carroll Shelby, Tony Brooks, and Reg Parnell with John Wyer managing the team.
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Maserati planned to send two of their new 3-liter cars and had recruited Jean Behra and Piero Taruffi driving one car while Carlos Menditeguy and Cesare Perdisa drove the other. Porsche would be represented by two factory 1.5 liter cars with Hans Herrmann and Count Wolfgang von Trips driving one car and Ed Crawford and Herbert Linge in the other. A private entry 550 Spyder was entered by John Edgar of California with Jack McAfee and Pete Lovely driving. McAfee seemed overwhelmed by what he called “The Show” when he said, “These were the big guys, Pete and I were two kids from California with just a stock 550…” As it would turn out both McAfee and Lovely would put on quite a show for “two kids from California.”
While Mercedes-Benz had officially dropped out of the WSC series due to the tragedy at Le Mans it was represented by private entries such as the three 300 SLs entered by George Tilp of Short Hills, New Jersey. Unfortunately all three cars experienced oil surge problems during practice. Tilp even had a specialist flown in from Stuttgart to help diagnose and correct the problem but it was to no avail. The cars were withdrawn from the race, much to the disappointment of the drivers.
To many in the racing community this assemblage of top notch cars and driving talent by Alec Ulmann and the ARCF was proof positive that Sebring had come of age and was worthy of the international ranking and all the prestige, glamour, glitz and glory that came with it.
Taking note of the national and international press surrounding the event General Motors, in February of 1956, dispatched John Fitch to Sebring with a huge retinue of Corvette race cars, drivers, mechanics and officials in order to get the team of Corvettes sorted out in time for the 12-hour race.
Originally it was supposed to be GM engineer Zora Arkus Duntov taking the Corvette racing team to Sebring that year. Most Corvette fans know Duntov as the “Father of the Corvette” because of the contribution he made to the development of that American automotive icon.
Because of competition from Ford’s T-Bird project, sales of the Corvette were languishing and Duntov came up with the idea of entering their two-seat sports car in speed contests like the Daytona Speed Weeks and the Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix. Both he and the GM brass hoped that the publicity garnered at those events would stimulate sales.
In January of 1956 Duntov, driving a prototype Corvette, achieved a record two-way average speed on the sands of Daytona Beach of 150.58 mph for the Flying Mile. The best the Ford Thunderbird could do was 134.404 mph and based on their success at Daytona General Motors announced that they would give factory support to anyone planning to enter a GM product at the Sebring 12-Hour GP race in March.
Racing on the sands of Daytona showed Duntov that the car needed better brakes for Sebring like Halibrand Sport disc brakes. To him it was a safety issue for anyone driving the car. Unfortunately his request was turned down and when he pressed the issue his bosses reassigned him and turned the Sebring project over to Fitch.
At Sebring Ulmann did his best to assist the folks from Detroit by providing a building on the Sebring course large enough to accommodate the race cars and trucks filled with spare parts.
In the words of Alec Ulmann, “(The) logistic support…was way beyond anything we had ever seen.”
Much to Fitch’s dismay the supposedly factory prepared “race cars” were totally unsuited for the notoriously rough Sebring airport course. Once that fact settled in Fitch and his people were faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding those race cars from the ground up in a short period of time if they had any hope of winning or even finishing Sebring’s 12-hour grind.
You couldn’t keep the news about the Corvettes at Sebring quiet for long and when the story broke about General Motors first foray into the world of international endurance racing Sebring experienced a better than expected request for tickets to the 12-hour classic. Many American racing fans hoped to see history in the making if Corvette won at Sebring.
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Besides the big European factories and Detroit iron coming to Sebring in 1956 there were smaller car makers like England’s Lotus, Morgan, MG and Austin-Healey in attendance. Added to that list of smaller car makers was the American car company Arnolt-Bristol.
The Arnolt-Bristol was the brainchild of Stanley “Wacky” Arnolt who mated a BMW-derived Bristol 404 engine to an Italian Bertone-designed body to produce a true hybrid car with British mechanicals and Italian bodywork. It was considered an American creation because in many cases the final preparation and fitting of options were done in the United States.
Arnolt sent four race cars to Sebring in 1956 shipping them from their company headquarters in Warsaw, Indiana. Unfortunately someone forgot to drain all the water from the engine blocks before the cars were put on the transporter. The transporter passed through a fierce winter storm on the way to Florida and when they arrived at Sebring all four engine blocks had cracks in them. The Arnolt team had to rustle up a local welder in Sebring in an attempt to repair the damaged engine blocks. Coincidentally the lone factory Alfa-Romeo entry at Sebring that year was on an Italian cargo ship in the Atlantic when that same winter storm hit. The vessel went aground in the storm and the new Alfa, sporting a 1300 cc Guilietta Sprint engine, never made it to the race.
Arnolt would personally drive one of his cars at Sebring in 1956 along with friend Bob Goldich. Tragically Goldich would die the following year driving another Arnolt-Bristol when he hit one of the dreaded oil drums used to outline the course. Goldich had the dubious distinction of becoming the first driver fatality in the history of the Sebring race.
On the Friday before the race the new English 1500 cc Lotus Mk. XI of Colin Chapman and Len Bastrup caught fire during a practice session. Bastrup was driving and was coming off the sweeping left hand turn, where the concrete airport runway joined up with the asphalt paved road course. The Lotus he was driving went way too wide in the turn, hit several hay bales flipping the car with Bastrup trapped underneath. Spectators nearby rushed to right the car and did so with Bastrup still in his seat. Seconds later smoke, then fire erupted from underneath the hood. Bastrup was helped from the car and the only injury he suffered was a scratched and dented helmet and busted driving goggles. However, the fire put the car out of the line up for good and Chapman was not happy when he saw what had happened.
While the Lotus Mk. XI was entered in the race as a factory Lotus with Colin Chapman as owner and driver it was in reality the property of well-known American racer and car builder Briggs Cunningham who transported the cars to Florida when they arrived in New York from England.
Cunningham was from Palm Beach, Florida and for the previous three years cars he entered at Sebring had won. He would be driving a D-Jag at Sebring in ’56 with John Gordon Bennett. Cunningham even had his own hanger at the raceway where his crews worked on his cars and he was kind enough to let Colin Chapman and his people share the building with him.
Cunningham had already negotiated to buy the Lotus Mk. XI from Chapman and was scheduled to take possession after the race. However, Chapman’s sales philosophy about his race cars was that you might buy them, but during the race they are factory Lotus cars and they become your property only after the race is concluded. In some cases buyers, like Cunningham, went home from races with a pile of junk.
A large photo of the burning Lotus appeared in the New York Times the following day with an article about the race. Sebring officials felt that this was another example of press sensationalism in the post-Le Mans accident era. While not the kind of publicity Alec Ulmann wanted for his race, it did foster interest in the event.
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Race day, March 24, 1956, dawned clear with predictions that it would be a warm one. Already spectator cars were lined up at the front entrance gate with early arrivals hoping to avoid the traffic jam that was to come in an hour or two. Many hoped to get inside the track and set up in a good viewing spot before the 10 a.m. start.
Because the wind was very light that morning a noticeable pall of wood smoke from spectator campfires hung over the track. Added to the smell of smoke was the sweet smell of orange blossoms from the hundreds of acres of orange trees surrounding the track. Into that mix of smells on race day spectators driving to the track would have their nostrils assailed with the smell of animals coming from a rodeo set up at the air terminal. The rodeo was sponsored by Highlands County’s Bronze Saddle Club. They hoped to siphon off a few dollars from spectators who might become bored with watching cars go round and round for twelve hours.
Many of the best viewing spots in the spectator enclosure were already taken that Saturday morning by early arrivals and viewing scaffolds were beginning to make their appearance more and more each year. Some would get to ridiculously high levels in the years to come.
It was not uncommon for some hardy spectators to risk life and limb by climbing atop the roofs of the many warehouses around the course to get better viewing positions. From its early beginnings Sebring had a very casual approach to spectator safety and behavior. It became part of the charm and legend of Sebring and stories abounded for years about drunken fans falling off scaffolding, roofs and fences.
Sebring in ’56 had seen little precipitation during the month of March and the grass in the spectator enclosure was tinder dry. All it would take was an errant cigarette or untended campfire and a brushfire could sweep the area, which it did in the early going of the race.
In the remote areas of the track the grass along the unlighted back airport straight was so high that a small car, like a DB or MG-A, could go off course during the night time hours and not be found in the high grass until daylight. Even going off course in daylight held unforeseen dangers in that tall grass. The drivers referred to those dangers as “land mines.” No, not explosives but hidden in that tall grass were the concrete foundation remnants from the old World War II barracks used to house pilots and crew training to fly B-17 bombers. Hitting one of those hidden concrete pillars could ruin your day.
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In the racing paddock that Saturday morning many of the drivers, crews and mechanics were hard at work getting ready. Already a few of the factory European teams, including the Corvette contingent, had breakfast set up on folding tables for their people. In those early hours a steady stream of race fans, drivers, crew and race cars made their way into the track from hotels and garages outside the raceway. The Ferrari factory team was headquartered in the Pontiac garage in the heart of Sebring some seven miles from the track while the Aston Martin team had everyone in Avon Park some seventeen miles from the track. It was not unknown for police to escort competitors and cars to the track in order to make the start on time.
“Doc” Wyllie, driving a Lotus Mk. IX, was driving his car at high speed on the paddock road trying to clear up an ignition problem at high rpms. His co-driver would be his wife, Peggy. Along with the sounds of Wyllie’s Lotus in the paddock were the sounds of dozens of cars getting warmed up or doing some last-minute tuning.
Getting around the paddock was becoming a challenge on race day due to the crowds. The official paid attendance, announced later in the day, was 25,754. But for some it seemed that most of them were in the paddock making life difficult for all.
Sebring had a history of handing out “all access” passes to many locals and their families. Passes were also distributed to the people who owned or leased warehouses on the race course as a way of compensating them for the use of their warehouse by the racing teams or the loss of business due to the races. End result, a very crowded paddock and pits.
By 9:30 a.m. many of the 59 cars that would actually start the race were on the starting grid with 14 factory entries and at least 10 nations represented. The previous year 80 cars started the race but that number was deemed too unwieldy for 1956 so only 65 entries were accepted. Adding to that crowd of 80 in 1955 were six cars that did not make the cut. Their drivers felt that they should be allowed to race and after the start they entered the course causing great confusion in the timing shack when the six mystery cars passed by. When it was realized what was happening the cars were quickly black flagged off the course. One can only assume that Ulmann and company were ready in 1956 for anyone trying to do a repeat.
Because they didn’t have qualifying for starting positions in those days the cars were placed on the grid according to engine size with the 5.2 liter Corvette of John Fitch and Walt Hansgen in first position. Next was the 5-liter Ferrari of Troy Ruttman and Howard Hively. In third position was supposed to be the 4.4-liter Ferrari 121 LM of Jim Kimberly and Ed Lunken. The car had thrown a flywheel more than once in practice and a disgusted Kimberly withdrew the car at the last minute. The Ferrari team allowed him to drive with Alfonso de Portago in the factory 857 Monza. Next in line came three 4.3-liter Corvettes then eight 3.4-liter Jaguars and so on. Last on the grid were three tiny 745 cc French-made Deutsch-Bonnets (DB).
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The drivers were beginning to make their appearances in the pits and the more famous and flamboyant among them attracted fans and photographers alike. The most famous of all, Juan Fangio, almost went unnoticed in the crowd due to his quiet demeanor.
Driving for Aston Martin was 26-year-old Stirling Moss. He won at Sebring in 1954 and this would be his first race in the new 3-liter car having practiced with it only in England. Co-driving with Moss would be Peter Collins. Collins was very vocal about his disdain for the use of 55-gallon oil drums used to outline the Sebring course. He thought they were very dangerous especially when they were used in the curves.
When team Aston Martin arrived in Florida they had brought along one crew member with the title of practical physicist. Supposedly he could, using a slide rule, calculate within a two-lap margin when a racing tire might blow. No idea if he was successful in doing so.
Moss was considered one of the best drivers in the world at the start of the 1956 racing season. This was a direct result of having a very successful 1955 season, winning the British Grand Prix, Mille Miglia, Targa Florio and Ulster Tourist Trophy.
While Moss was considered one of the greats in motorsports in 1956 he was second only to three time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio who at the advanced age (for endurance racers) of 44 years would be Ferrari’s hope at Sebring in 1956. He would drive a 3.4 liter 4-cylinder 860 Monza with co-driver Eugenio Castellotti. Fangio was recruited personally by Enzo Ferrari to be part of the factory’s effort to reclaim the manufacturer’s title.
Much to Enzo Ferrari’s consternation Juan Fangio almost didn’t arrive at Sebring that year. Under the Presidency of Juan Peron of Argentina Juan Fangio was allowed, as a national hero of Argentina, to import European racing cars duty-free. When Peron left office in September of 1955 the incoming government insisted that Fangio pay back all import duties for those years he was exempted by Peron. The Argentine government confiscated Fangio’s passport until that bill was paid. Arrangements were eventually made and Fangio was able to fly to Florida for the race.
Considered America’s greatest sports car driver, 28-year-old Phil Hill would pilot a 3.5-liter Ferrari but the car was already giving him headaches having swallowed two valves during practice and his mechanics had to burn some midnight oil in order to get the car ready for the start. According to Hill the top speed for his car on the back airport straight was 155 mph.
Other drivers of note included “Playboy” Purfirio Rubirosa of the Dominican Republic driving a Ferrari and Juan Fangio’s good friend, Carlos Menditeguy, of Argentina who would be driving a Maserati 300S. Interestingly enough Menditeguy would be wearing woven straw sandals during the race. No doubt a big price difference from the hand-made leather loafers that Jim Kimberly was wearing.
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The required driver’s meeting took place near the AMOCO Bridge and Alec Ulmann made his usual request for slower cars to give way to faster cars and a plea for sportsmanship all of which was almost drowned out by the sounds of the combined Lake Placid – Sebring High School marching bands. After the meeting ended some of the drivers crossed the track to take their position for the Le Mans-style start.
Whether at Sebring or Le Mans the Le Mans-style start is very interesting to watch in the few minutes before the flag drops. Drivers exhibit all manner of behavior from nervous agitation, pacing up and down, joking with fellow drivers to casual indifference. All of these were on display at Sebring in 1956.
With one minute to go it got very quiet in the pit and paddock area as everyone, especially the drivers, strained to hear the countdown from the starter. Superb athlete that he was, Stirling Moss actually got into a stance akin to a runner in the starting blocks.
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When the countdown ended the flag dropped and 59 drivers made the mad dash to their cars with some drivers of open cars not bothering with the door leaping right into the driver’s seat. Those few who had seat belts either took the time to hook them up or waited until they were cruising down the back airport straight to do so. The sight of those cars coming down the wide front straight six and sometimes eight abreast was something to behold.
Since his car was gridded first John Fitch’s 5-liter Corvette was the first to cross the start line at the AMOCO Bridge but before he could get to the first turn, 300 yards down the track, he was passed by the fuel injected Jaguar D-type of Mike Hawthorn. Amazingly Hawthorn’s car was gridded in eighth position but he blasted through the pack and passed Fitch’s car easily.
To some observers Stirling Moss was the first away from the starting grid but since he was twenty-sixth in line he had his work cut out for him if he was going to position himself among the early leaders. Position himself he did because at the end of the first lap he was running second behind Hawthorn by ten seconds. He did this with some all-out aggressive driving sliding his car through the turns literally on the edge but never losing control of the car. Fangio was six seconds behind Moss and his driving style was just the opposite of Moss’s. Fangio looked to some as if he was out for a Sunday drive. There was just a hint of a turn of the steering wheel going into the turns and his car responded as if they were one. He was in his element as he casually tooled along. Carroll Shelby was fourth, twelve seconds behind Fangio.
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The dubious distinction of being the first to retire from the race fell to the factory Chevrolet Corvette of Dale Duncan when the axle broke after only three laps. By then the rest of the race cars were strung out along the 5.2 mile course with the some of the small displacement cars beginning to be lapped.
Year after year there was a controversy over whether or not small displacement cars should be allowed at Sebring. Some drivers, like the Aston Martin drivers in 1956, said they should be banned. The closing speeds between the slowest and fastest cars were a safety issue especially at night. The little 750 cc DB might have a top speed of 80 mph while the fastest Ferrari could do 160 mph. The running joke among the drivers was that the faster drivers spent most of the race looking ahead with only a glance behind while the slower drivers spent the race looking behind with only a glance ahead once in a while.
In the end it was money that decided the issue. Limiting the race to the fastest cars might produce a grid with 20 or 30 cars. After twelve hours of racing you might have fewer than ten cars there for the finish. Race fans wouldn’t want to attend a race with so few cars starting and so few finishing. In this case money was talking and talking loudly.
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At the end of the first hour Hawthorn’s Jaguar D-type still held the lead followed by Moss in an Aston Martin, Fangio and Musso in Ferraris and Duncan Hamilton in another D-type Jaguar. As it would turn out a close fought battle between the factory D-Jags and factory 860 Monzas would ensue for almost eight grueling hours. There would be at least nine lead changes as a leader would pit and almost immediately give up the lead to a competitor and then regain the lead when that car had to pit. It was endurance racing at its best.
At noon Fangio was in the pits after running a lap of more than five minutes. Hawthorn was also in the pits and Moss briefly took over the lead only to hand it to Fangio when at the next pit stop. Taking over second place was Musso’s Ferrari with Jean Behra’s Maserati now in third. Bill Spear in his D-Jag was now in fourth and Duncan Hamilton in another D-Jag was fifth.
Just after the start of the third hour of racing Carlos Menditeguy of Argentina, driving a 3-liter Maserati, hit hay bales in the Esses and flipped. He suffered serious injuries with skull fractures and deep lacerations of the face and arm. After a short delay while he lay bleeding on the track Menditeguy was finally rushed to the American Red Cross mobile hospital unit brought up from Miami for the race. There they stabilized him before he was transported to Weems Hospital in Sebring. His co-driver Cesare Perdisa would transfer to the Behra – Taruffi Maserati 300S.
Around this time Stirling Moss pulled into the pits. When out of the car he expressed doubts if the car could last the race. The mechanics did what they could for the car and co-driver Peter Collins took a turn at the wheel. Already the hot day, punishing pace and rough Sebring track had taken their toll with seventeen cars having withdrawn from the race. Hawthorn was still first at this hour with Behra second, Fangio third, Collins fourth and the 3.5 liter Ferrari of Alfonso de Portago moving into fifth.
For the next couple of hours the lead changed several times between Hawthorn and Fangio with Behra, Collins, Hamilton, Portago and Shelby competing for a spot in the top five.
Around 3 p.m. the Duncan Hamilton-Ivor Bueb Jaguar suffered an exploded brake cylinder and retired. The Moss-Collins Aston Martin was parked on the course with a frozen gearbox. Collins had been driving and he managed to park his car under the wing of an old World War II military plane to get some shade and get the car out of harm’s way.
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When the leaders pitted the crews went into action with the Ferrari pit crew getting their car out in one minute and forty-five seconds while the Jaguar pit crew took almost three minutes. That lost time would mean pushing the Jaguar harder to recapture the lead.
At the half-way point (4 p.m.) the Hawthorn/Titterington Jag regained the lead when the Fangio/Castellotti Ferrari pitted. Wacky Arnolt had to retire his Arnolt-Bristol when he hit an oil drum, damaging his steering. Troy Ruttman was also out with a seized gearbox in his 5-liter Ferrari. At this point more than a third of the cars that started the race had retired.
At 5 p.m. Hawthorn, Fangio, Musso, Spear and Portago made up the top five. Minutes later Portago’s Ferrari, with Kimberly driving retired with a swallowed valve. It became the first factory Ferrari to retire. Following them behind the pit wall was the Bill Spear-Sherwood Johnson Jaguar which also suffered a valve problem.
Between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. the top three positions changed frequently between the Fangio/Castellotti Ferrari, Hawthorn/Titterington Jaguar and the Musso/Schell Ferrari. At 6:30 p.m. the chief steward gave the signal to turn on car lights. The pit lights, such as they were, also came on. In 1956 there were no permanent pits. For the race the pits consisted of nailed together two-by-fours with a single light bulb for each pit strung along the length of the pits. There was no pit road wall just hay bales used to differentiate the pit road from the race track. Out on the track there were parts of the course that were pitch black at night with few landmarks and a first-time Sebring driver might get confused and turn into one of the side roads or aircraft parking pads or literally get lost on the wide concrete runways and miss a turn. Such was the charm of driving at Sebring in the ‘50s.
As more and more cars retired the likes of the Jean Behra/Piero Taruffi Maserati 300S broke into the top ten. Joining them were the two Porsche 550 Spyders that were also leading in the Index of Performance. In the Index of Performance, cars with either small or large engines would be equalized by imposing a lower average speed, or a shorter distance to travel for the smaller engines as compared to the more powerful cars.
Finally the pace for the leading Hawthorn – Titterington Jaguar was too much and it retired on lap 162 with just over ninety minutes to go in the race. That car either led or was in second place for most of the race until the very last pit stop. When Hawthorn pulled into the pits for the last time the brakes were useless. They had locked up on him going into one of the turns and then stopped working. It seems that a brake piston gave way and he lost all brake fluid. The Jaguar mechanics worked on the car for more than fifteen minutes but by then it was too late. Having lost too many laps to the Ferrari of Fangio and Castellotti, they withdrew the car.
Eugenio Castellotti was at the wheel of the leading car when it was called in for the very last pit stop about 45 minutes before the checkered flag was to fall. It was the custom for team leader and World Champion Fangio to start but also to finish the race and hopefully take the checkered flag for his team.
Mr. Gene Bussian, currently of Henderson, Nevada, was a pit steward at Sebring in 1956 and witnessed that last pit stop. According to Mr. Bussian:
Right before the last drivers change Fangio was sitting there in the pits under a single light bulb looking like a man selling popcorn. He seemed to be very relaxed but you could hear the Ferrari mechanics yelling that they were going to have a pit stop and activity increased as they readied themselves.
I was watching Fangio since it was too dark to take photos. I was fascinated by what I saw happening in the Ferrari pits. Fangio casually reached over to get a clean towel and began wiping his racing goggles which he then placed on his helmet. After that he proceeded to put on his driving gloves.
Pretty soon you could not only hear but see the #17 Ferrari from where I was standing as the car came down the back straight and into the last turn with brakes glowing red.
I then walked over to the pit railing and watched the Ferrari come down pit road. At about 40 feet from the Ferrari pit Castellotti set the car’s brake and began climbing out of the car with one hand on the wheel. It was something to see as the car slid into the spot where it was supposed to. Of course there was plenty of room to do so since many of the other race cars had already retired.
Castellotti was already out of the driver’s seat when the car finally stopped and he jumped over the two-by-four railing and went immediately up to Fangio and started talking to him.
I found out later he was begging Fangio to let him finish the race. He wanted to be the first Italian driver to win Sebring driving an Italian car. He was hoping that Fangio would let him.
Fangio said something to Castellotti which I could not hear. I didn’t speak their language so I probably wouldn’t have understood what they said. After hearing what Fangio had asked him Castellotti did a little jig or dance. I found out later that Fangio was worried about Castellotti’s physical condition and wanted to know if he was tired after doing his turn at the wheel. That little jig was Castellotti’s way of telling Fangio that he had plenty of energy left to finish the race.
After Castellotti finished his little dance he stared at Fangio for a response. Fangio didn’t say a word as far as I could tell. All he did was start taking off his driving gloves. That was the answer that Castellotti was looking for and he turned and ran for the car. The Ferrari mechanics had to physically restrain him since the car was not ready and they didn’t want the car to get disqualified if Castellotti prematurely entered the car. When the car was ready he jumped in and drove it away for Ferrari’s first ever Sebring win.
It was the greatest thing I have ever seen in all the years I worked as a pit steward at Sebring.
1956 Sebring 12 Hours Grand Prix – Race Profile Page Fourteen
Castellotti’s joy at being allowed to finish the race and take the checkered flag didn’t cloud his judgment because he began driving at a slower pace now that the threat of the Hawthorn / Titterington Jaguar D-type was gone. He was determined that the car would finish and during one lap his time was 3 minutes, 55 seconds which was slower than most of the cars left in the race. However, he made sure not to slow down enough to give the second place Ferrari of Luigi Musso and Harry Schell any chance of catching his car.
With just a few minutes left in the race there was an announcement that the official finish line would be in front of the timing shack in the last turn. At 10 p.m. Castellotti took the checkered flag with the number seventeen Ferrari 860 Monza completing 194 laps and a record 1,008.8 miles at an average speed of 84.07 mph. It was the first time that the thousand mile mark had been achieved at the Sebring 12-Hour GP.
Coming in second was the factory Ferrari 860 Monza of Luigi Musso and Harry Schell with 192 laps completed. It was the first one-two sweep ever by a manufacturer. Salvaging Great Britain’s honor with a third-place finish were Americans Bob Sweikert and Jack Ensley in a Jaguar D-type. Coming in fourth and also a class winner was the Aston Martin of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby. Fifth was the Behra, Taruffi, Perdisa Maserati 300S. Interestingly enough it was Perdisa who set what was reported as the lap record for the race at 3 minutes, 29 seconds. When Behra came in for a pit stop and driver change Piero Taruffi was nowhere to be found. They had no choice but to let Perdisa take over for Taruffi. Later it was determined that Mike Hawthorn had actually set the lap record at 3 minutes, 27.2 seconds in his D-Jag. Eventually Taruffi was found asleep in the back of a truck behind the pit. Sixth place went to Hans Herrmann and Wolfgang von Trips in their class-winning Porsche 550 Spyder followed by Jack McAfee and Pete Lovely in the second Porsche 550 Spyder. Amazingly the McAfee – Lovely Porsche ran the entire distance without a brake adjustment or tire change. The Porsches swept first, second and third in their class. In eighth place was the D-Jaguar of Alfonso Mena and Santiago Gonzales, ninth was the John Fitch – Walt Hansgen Corvette and tenth the 2-liter Ferrari of Porfirio Rubirosa and Jim Pauley. Only 24 of the original 59 cars that started the race were there for the finish.
As overall winners Fangio and Castellotti were awarded $3,000 with an additional $500 for finishing third in the Index of Performance. Musso and Schell took home $1,500 for their second place finish while the sixth place Hermann-von Trips Porsche got $3,000 for winning the Index of Performance. Bob Sweikert and Jack Ensley were awarded $500 for coming in third overall. Third was not a bad result when you consider that Sweikert had never driven in this type of race before and only got his hands on the D-Jag one week prior to the race. Coles Phinizy’s report on the race for Sports Illustrated intimated one reason for Sweikert’s good showing at Sebring was: “…Fangio found the time to take Sweikert over the course in prerace practice and give him a few pointers on the light-footed handling of brake and accelerator pedals which Sebring demands.” On a sad note, Sweikert would die three months after Sebring in a sprint race in Salem, Indiana. He was only thirty years old.
The next day, Sunday, Fangio went to the hospital in Sebring to see his good friend and fellow countryman, Carlos Menditeguy. Carlos was in bad shape and by today’s standards his condition might be considered critical. A message had been sent to his family members in Argentina about his condition and prognosis, which wasn’t good.
All day Sunday many of the factory race cars were being readied for the trip back to Europe for the Mille Miglia in late April. Fangio stayed at the bedside of Carlos Menditeguy from Sunday until the following Tuesday when Menditeguy’s brother and sister arrived from Buenos Aires. Later Menditeguy was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach for further treatment.
All during those trying days at the hospital Fangio received numerous and sometimes angry telegrams from Ferrari in Modena requesting his presence to prepare for the next race. It was during this time that the relationship between Fangio and Ferrari began to change and might have been one of the reasons that Fangio decided to drive for Maserati at Sebring in 1957. He won that race.
When Fangio defected to Maserati in 1957 Eugenio Castellotti was elevated to top driver for Ferrari. Tragically one week prior to the 1957 Sebring race Castellotti was killed driving a Ferrari in a private testing session at the Modena Autodrome. He was only 26 years of age. Castellotti was considered the greatest Italian driver since Alberto Ascari who had died testing a Ferrari two years earlier at Monza.
Alec Ulmann was well aware of what Fangio was risking with Ferrari by staying with his friend at Weems Hospital in Sebring and not returning to Europe. He had referred to his actions as, “a remarkable act of sportsmanship.” Carlos Menditeguy eventually recovered from his injuries and raced for several more years. He retired from racing after competing in the Argentine Grand Prix in 1960.
During that first couple of days following the 1956 Sebring race everyone connected with promoting the event waited anxiously to read the reviews from the automotive press. While the newspaper accounts were available almost immediately the magazine reports might take up to three months. They shouldn’t have worried because in general terms they had a hit on their hands. Jeff Cooper, writing for Road & Track magazine, summarized how many in the racing community felt after witnessing the ’56 Sebring race when he said: “Sebring has come a long way in five years….it has developed into a truly great sporting event of intercontinental stature, and the only contest in the U.S. in which we can observe the masters at work.”
For Additional Reading, Viewing and Listening
Adams, Noland, Corvette American Legends: 1956 Racing Success, Cars & Parts Publishing, July 1998.
Breslauer, Ken, Sebring, The Official History…, David Bull Publishing, 1995, pp. 43-45.
Cahier, Bernard and Paul-Henri, The Cahier Archive, www.f1-photo.com.
Colbert, Haines, The Miami News, March 24, 1956, p.56.
Cooper, Jeff, “Sixth Sebring,” Road & Track, June 1956, pp. 13-17.
Edgar, William, “Battle Royale,” Excellence Magazine, November 2006, pp. 94-101.
Folden, Roy, Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 25, 1956, p.34.
Foster, Barry, “Sebring 1956,” April 2, 2011, www.mistermedia20.com.
Ocala Star Banner, “Ferrari Wins Sebring Test,” March 22, 1956, pp. 6-8.
Phinizy, Coles, “Leadfoot And Lightfoot,” Sports Illustrated, April 2, 1956, pp. 1-3.
Sitz, Jim, “Sebring ’56,” IL Tridente, Issue #46, Spring 2004, pp. 2-5.
Sloane, Jay, “The Tampa Hotshoe,” North American Lotus Eleven Register, Summer 1996
Sounds of Sebring 1956 Grand Prix, Riverside Records, Bill Grauer Productions 1956.
Ulmann, Alec, The Sebring Story, Chilton Books 1969, pp. 88-108.
[Source: Louis Galanos]
Thank you Louis for this superb insight into how it was in 1956 with sports car racing at Sebring. I have raced myself on airport circuits, and know how difficult it can be to find the right line through flat, at times featureless corners. But to do it in the dark, well, one can only take off ones hat, to these racedrivers. What a fantastic part of history you have shared with us… MORE Please. Cheers Graham
Thanks Graham for your comments. Even as late as the 70’s the outer reaches of the Sebring track were sometimes pitch dark. I have actually seen drivers miss turns only having to backtrack searching for the course. Fortunately the wide expanse of airport runways saved the driver from going into the woods and high grass and disappearing until morning. Today both Daytona and Sebring have a lot of lighting making it safer for drivers and course workers who might have to go out on the track. However, memories of those dark and cold March nights on turn 11 watching the lights of cars racing down that mile long North/South runway will always be with me.
THE BASTRUP /CHAPMAN ELEVEN STILL EXISTS HERE IN THE UK IT WAS IMPORTED IN BITS DURING 1986 AND IS UNDER LONG TERM RESTORATION. ANDY BRADSHAW WALES UK
Andrew: Pass on a link to the story to the folks who are doing the restoration. They might be interested in the photos of the car. Also, I would like to follow the progress of the restoration and so would the fellow who took the photos. Might make an interesting future article for publication.
I shall keep you informed as i progress with the restoration. regards andrew bradshaw.
If any one is interested in what happened to the eleven later look up Jay sloan. the lotus eleven. the dark ages. page two chassis number 156 the debut car. andy bradshaw
This is Jay Sloane, and these photos are new to me too. Very impressive. The article Andy Bradshaw refers to is at:
with a little more information about the Sebring Debut Eleven in my interview of Joe Sheppard at:
I have more information from within the Cunningham team about what happened and it has only needed better photos to be complete, something that now appears to be at hand. Can I please be put in contact with the photographer? I’d like to chat or correspond with him about what he remembers from this event. Thanks.
I had the good fortune of being at the 56 Sebring at age 12. I was already a fan of road racing, but this really set the course of the rest of my life. I can remember a great deal of of what is covered in this wonderful account. D-Jags made a real impression on me as did the Morgans.
Another excellent article with so much insight, making it a classic piece of historic racing journalism greatly enhanced by an incredible photo spread. Great work Lou, look forward to your next one.
Louis, thank you for a very entertaining story filled with fascinating detail and terrific images. As much as is possible with words and pictures decades after the fact, I felt like I was there – fantastic. I have been fortunate to photograph some of these race-cars in contemporary historic racing events but to see and them and hear their stories ‘in-period’ has been a real treat, thank you and keep it coming.
Louis: Just FANTASTIC……….everything…photos…comments……..narrative….episodes……just an overall GREAT JOB !
Thanks Louis! What a terrific piece of racing history preserved thanks to you! Your personal insights and perspective on the 1956 combatants brought the race to life. Excellent story coupled with an incredible array of historic photos!
Well done! Harry Kennison
Louis, an excellent story, with really great photographs and memories….I’ve taken the liberty of sending copy to Sir Stirling.
1970, Mario’s drive was of course really superb, and the finish of Biblical proportions!
In fact, our Gulf Wyer 917K’s were very competitive and led many times, only to be continuously sidelined with problems.
Since Daytona, many changes had been made, including: front rims from 10.5″ to 12″. Rear from 15″ to 17″. Single 120 liter fuel tank. Thicker
windshield. Aeroquip braided steel brake lines. New front hubs (to try and reduce pad “knock-off”).
Three hours before the start, Porsche engineer Helmut Flegl approached John Wyer and John Horsman to tell them to change the front hubs back to the old ones, as in a 20 hour 917K test at Weissach, the new front hubs had failed at 18 hours. There was not time to change.
3 (61 laps) hours after the start, our left front hub broke. It took 30 min. to change.
At lap 84 the top mounted cooling fan came off and disappeared into the crowd! 4 mins 31 seconds lost!
At 10 hours 39 mins our right front upright broke.
And so it went!
Don’t suppose anyone is interested, but here are the average lap times for the 4 Gulf drivers:
917-009: Siffert: 2.38.3 – Redman: 2.37.9 – Kinnunen: 2.44.0
917-013: Rodriguez: 2.41.5 – Kinnunen: 2.39.2 – Siffert: 2.41.7
Kind regards, Brian
Thanks Brian. Comments from you are always appreciated and thanks for that bit of history concerning the 917’s at Sebring in 1970. I was there and we were kept on our toes until the last seconds. In my mind it was the best Sebring of all. Thanks for making it so.
Another great story from Lou Galanos. I wish I had known about those archives when I did my Portago and Collins books! That is a superb visual account of an important race….evidence that there is still room for a really good Sebring history book Lou!!! Maybe Sebring in the 50s and 60s. That photo of Fangio with the cigarette should be credited to Skip Eveleth I think…he did some great stuff that year. I’m so impressed with the detail…great job.
Thank you again for this superb story and beautiful images: Christmas came early this year. I will certainly make sure to share this with all our friends too! All should be able to enjoy this vivid account (another great one, though I remain stuck on your epic rendition of the 65 edition as a personal favorite) of racing history. Cannot wait for your next piece and am already holding my breath. Thank you very much.
Great story Louis! Superbly written, with many interesting little nuggets in it. Love the impressive collection of pictures.
First Class Louis. Also, thank you to the other commenters who were able to add to it (especially Brian Redman).
Good morning Louis,
Thanks for your nice article with superb photos; many of the details behind the scenes are simply fascinating ! What is not well known is that color pictures in those times were a luxury, I understand that most of them were color transparencies (Kodachromes). My late father knew Fangio and he always referred to him as a true gentleman, he also had a very good hand for cars.
Chester Flynn worked at GM Venezuela in the early 50´s and sparked interest with local drivers to participate in the 1955 Sebring race; he had good contacts with Alec Ulmann and made arrangements for entering the team: Two Mercedes 300Sl – Chester Flynn- Eduardo Muñoz and Pancho Pepe Croquer-Julio Pola – Eliott Dobbins and a Ferrari that had an accident prior to the race. The 300Sl from Flynn-Muñoz arrived 35 general, the other 300Sl DNF.
For the 1956 Sebring race a team from Venezuela was sent to improve the results of the 1955 race. The 1956 team consisted of an Osca MT4 driven by Mauricio Marcotulli and Eduardo Muñoz and a Ferrari 500TR driven by Julio Pola and Enrique Muro. Unfortunately the Osca had a problem with the differential after 15 laps and DNF, and the Ferrari driven by Julio Pola spun into one of the sand embankments and DNF after Julio spent much time trying to dig the car out. The Osca was similar to the car that had won the 1954 Sebring race, driven by Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd.
You can see more information and pictures of the Venezuelan Teams in this Forum:
1955 Sebring Race: http://www.pasionalavelocidad.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=108
1956 Sebring Race: http://www.pasionalavelocidad.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=842
The Forum is in Spanish, but as one of the co-administrators, we would welcome your comments or any contributions that you want to make.
Hi, Lou. Sebring sure was raw in the early days. My first trip was ’69, and Jim Garner’s Lolas stick in my mind. A friend and I were on the way to Palm Beach, and we hit Sebring in the middle of the night, then left before daylight. I have since rediscovered Sebring, and that’s where I met Lou at the Legends of Motorsports event in 2007. His articles on the early days of racing at Sebring snap everything back into sharp focus, and we’re all wondering if there’s not a Galanos compilation or even a book in the offing… Thanks for the memories, Lou, see you at Sebring. Doug Seeley
Thanks Doug and thanks to all who have made comments. I will be there at Sebring in March and if you didn’t know already the raceway is going to have a 40th anniversary celebration of the very first IMSA Sebring. That was the 1973 Sebring that was won by Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood in their Brumos Porsche Carrera RSR. Should be fun seeing some of those old cars that raced that year.
Another fantastic article and the pictures are just outstanding and what memories of those wondeful days of racing…Thanks again for your great work…
Jorge Cristobal (427fan)
I was assistant Chief Pit Stewart at the 56 Sebring and briefly in charge of the Italian Pits. The J2X Allard that is shown herein belonged to Tex Asche the Chief Pit Stewart. We drove it from Dallas to Sebring and back. With exception of Sterling Moss and me, most every one else has passed on.
Bill: You might remember Gene Bussian who was the Porsche pit steward during the ’56 race and provided many of the photos for my story. He is still with us and living in Nevada. Send me your email and I will put you in touch with him. You can contact me at: email@example.com
Terrific article, Friend Jim Kimberly offered to sponsor my 1980 ferrari 512 BBLM # 31589 @ 81 Le Mans.Jim Kimberly and Betty McMahon were to attend race but cancelled at the last minute. Jim was co-Team manager and introduced me to my second X-wife Lin Berlitz Hilton that got pg knowing her only two months. T.I.D.E. pozzi ferrari France, 5th. O.A. IMSA class winner. Last ferrari class winner to finish in top five at Le Mans. Erin Profita, please help save the MIAMI Marine Stadium & old palm beach !
tom I. davis T.I.D.E. ferrari racing. This is tom davis racing in his 61 th.year. T.I.D.E. pozzi ferrari France 512 BBLM # 31589. 81 Le Mans 5 th. O.A. IMSA class winner. Tom Davis last ferrari car owner / Team owner to finish in top 5 @ Le Mans & win class. Owned, raced car 9 years. Stareted racing in Miami Palmetto High School. Raced since 1959. Hydroplanes, APBA, FIRC, HSR, SVRA, VSCCA, IMSA, FIA, SCCA. Raced intge super series @ David & Craig HINTONS CARETTE BANKS SPORTS CAR SERIES, NO ENTRY FEES. RACED @ IMSA & INDY car support races. Miami Street Races 3 years. The best !!! Anna Marshall, yachts, fluent Russian 24 / 7.
I was at Sebring in 1956. Very nice photos, Louis, bringing fond memories. Sports Car Digest was, and still is, “Top Notch” with excellent race and event coverage, pleasing motorheads everywhere. Thank You.
Recently I managed to find a copy in VHS format of this race, done by Alex Xidias, which I had misplaced, and had it saved in digital format. It was uploaded it in You Tube.
Please take a look here:
I really enjoyed getting a great insight into the racing during the ’50s. What a great tribute for Fangio staying with his friend at the hospital; I have always thought of him as one of the great of the greatest drivers and humanitarian. I do enjoy the racing history and comments involving sports cars during the ’30s, ’50s, and ’60s. The period was certainly “The Golden Age of Sports Car Racing”. Thanks for the memories.
The gentleman wearing a red polo (image 53), is not A.de Portago.
Correction, pg 9, I took the picture. In the sunglasses, is Ed “Eddie” Crawford, Chicago Region SCCA, talking to Porsche manager “Huschke” von Hanstein. He was to co-drive with Linge or Hermann (not sure which is seen here) in the #42 blue Porsche, which was his own car sponsored by Porsche for this race.
Ray Crawford drove for Corvette.
Correction of correction-Ray Crawford was entered in a Kurtis, not a Corvette.
Correction, pg 2. I took the picture. The person standing to the right of Bob Sweikert is not Masten Gregory. Somebody associated with the Corvette team judging by his T-shirt.
I want to add that Louis Galanos has generously given me credit for a couple of the black and white pictures he used in this classic article. I was fourteen at the time with a Brownie box camera.