1956 Sebring 12 Hours Grand Prix – Race Profile Page Thirteen
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.