1956 Sebring 12 Hours Grand Prix – Race Profile Page Four
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 The cars were withdrawn from the race, much to the disappointment of the drivers.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.