Juan Manuel Fangio in Maserati at Sebring
Juan Manuel Fangio in Maserati at Sebring

1957 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix – Race Profile

1957 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix Race Profile – “El Chueco” Rides A Hot Seat

Story by Louis Galanos

In 1957 Sebring was holding only its sixth installment of the 12-hour race. With the growing popularity of sports car racing in post World War II America, the event was finally coming into its own since its creation by impresario Alec Ulmann in 1952.

To many sports car fans in America at that time the Sebring race was second only to the 24-Hours of Le Mans. The fact that it was the only event in North America that qualified for points toward the Federation Internationale de l’automobile (FIA) World Sportscar Championship (WSC) didn’t hurt. As a result, Sebring became the premier sports car event in the U.S. and a must-attend if you were an aficionado of sports car racing.

Always on the look out to help promote Florida, and tourism, the then governor of Florida, Leroy Collins, proclaimed March 18-23, 1957 as International Sports Car Race Week thus gaining additional media attention for the event at Sebring.

Not everyone in Florida was thrilled with all the hoopla surrounding the Sebring event. Bernard Kahn, sports editor for the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, had a few choice words in his regular newspaper column about the Sebring 12 hour race and the folks who raced there.

In his writings Mr. Kahn did recognize the obvious talents of driving “artists” like four-time world driving champion Juan Manuel Fangio (affectionately known as “El Chueco” or knock-kneed by his fans) and British driving ace Stirling Moss. However, Mr. Kahn referred to many of the lesser known drivers at the Sebring event as that “nameless number of café society snobs trying to get their kicks by being ‘sportsmen’ for a day.”

This “snobbish” remark was obviously designed to appeal to the large numbers of NASCAR fans who lived and worked in the Daytona area and may have resented anyone who drove a “furrin” automobile.

Besides the governor of Florida, the folks in New York and Detroit were also well aware of the significance of this race. For weeks national newspapers, magazines and wire-services fed the public’s interest by reporting on the international celebrities who would attend the Sebring race in 1957 or drive in it, like the Marquis de Portago of Spain and Count Wolfgang von Tripps of Germany.

Of the several media stories making the rounds about this year’s race was that General Motors Chevrolet Division would challenge the European dominance of this event by entering four Corvette sports cars (two modified & two production). In this group would be a radically new car made of lightweight materials.

General Motors interest in the Sebring race was purely business. There was a mantra taking hold in Detroit back then that went something like this, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” With that in mind the folks at GM arrived at the track in early March for some testing. One of those cars undergoing tests and a shakedown was a magnesium-alloy bodied Chevrolet Corvette Super Sport (SS.) It was equipped with a 4,638 c.c. engine with lightweight aluminum heads that produced 30 more horsepower (315) than the production Corvette and with 1000 fewer pounds. The power plant on the SS would have the largest displacement of any car to race at Sebring that year.

Paul O’Shey, who was scheduled to drive one of the GM team Corvettes in the race, commented that the power-to-weight ratio on the Corvette Super Sport or “space-frame Vette” was such that you could burn rubber in all four gears.

This ‘concept car’ was the brainchild of Chevy competition director Zora Arkus-Duntov who was now the Director of Performance for General Motors. History would later refer to Duntov as the “Father of The Corvette”.

Zora Arkus Duntov drives the lightweight Corvette Super Sport at Sebring
Zora Arkus Duntov drives his creation, the lightweight Corvette Super Sport, during the days prior to the 1957 12-Hours of Sebring. Photo courtesy of Gene Bussian
John Fitch and Zora Duntov pose for press photos prior to the 1957 12-Hours of Sebring.
John Fitch and Zora Duntov pose for press photos prior to the 1957 12-Hours of Sebring. Photo courtesy of Gene Bussian
John Fitch and Zora Duntov prior to the 1957 12-Hours of Sebring.
John Fitch and Zora Duntov prior to the 1957 12-Hours of Sebring.

In addition to this elegant metallic-blue Corvette SS there was a practice SS built that was equipped with the less powerful standard Corvette engine and painted with a large letter “P” on the body. Also, the body was plastic and not magnesium and looked so shabby, when compared to the other car, that it got the dubious moniker of “mule”. However, it was very fast and in the days prior to the race other drivers were constantly peppering Duntov for a chance to drive one of the SS’s.

Not wanting to risk having another driver wreck the one-of-a-kind magnesium-bodied concept Vette he allowed a selected few to drive the “mule”. After finishing practice in their Maserati team cars both Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss were allowed by Duntov to take a courtesy run in the practice car.

Fangio got into a car he has never driven before and on his first two laps broke the course record of 3:29.7 set the previous year by Mike Hawthorn of England in a Jaguar. On the third lap Fangio broke the course record by almost three seconds (3:27.4). Not to be outdone by his team-mate, Stirling Moss also broke the 1956 record with a time of 3:28 in the Corvette. When John Fitch, who was the designated SS driver for the race, took the “mule” out for a run the best he could do was get a couple of seconds closer to the course record but not break it.

When Fangio returned to the pits he was ecstatic. He claimed he could have gone at least two seconds faster “if he had tried.” This was an obvious testament to the driving skill of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, driver who ever lived. Note: According to Sports Illustrated magazine, General Motors representatives had been in negotiations with Fangio to drive the new Corvette SS at Sebring up to a week before the race. They were offering what some say was a “huge” amount of money. However, Fangio felt the car was too new and untested and he decided to stay with Maserati. GM also had similar talks with Moss.

The Duntov folks tried to keep quiet the news that an American car had broken the track record so resoundingly. But the word got out and as both the foreign and domestic drivers were arriving at the track for practice the next day the main topic was that an American Corvette had broken the track record. The press descended on the Corvette pits but both the drivers and crew were uncharacteristically mum with no one willing to comment. It was assumed that Duntov had ordered everyone to keep quiet until he was ready to go public with the news.

This didn’t stop the media from reporting it as an “unconfirmed story” and this fueled speculation that an American car had a chance to end European dominance of the premier sports car racing event in America. This might have encouraged undecided race fans to attend and possibly witness history in the making. Besides watching the new Corvette in action was reason enough to attend.

John Fitch in the Corvette SS during tech inspection at 1957 Sebring 12 Hours
John Fitch in the Corvette SS during tech inspection. The bubble top was required to pass inspection but not required for the race. Photo courtesy of Gene Bussian
John Fitch drives the practice 'P' Corvette SS.
John Fitch drives the practice 'P' Corvette SS. Fangio took a spin in the car and broke the track record. Photo courtesy of Gene Bussian
Stirling Moss talks with Corvette designer Zora Arkus-Duntov
A young and rather muscular Stirling Moss talks with Corvette designer Zora Arkus-Duntov in the pits at the 1957 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix. Moss was a Maserati factory team driver and despite this Duntov allowed Moss to take out the Corvette SS practice "P" car (in foreground) for a spin. Photo by Tom Burnside and courtesy of Suixtil, Ltd.
General Motors had four Corvettes entered in the 1957 Sebring race.
General Motors had four Corvettes entered in the 1957 Sebring race. Two were production and two were modified. In this photo the white car is one of the production cars and the red one, with fin, is one of the modified and known as an SR-2. It finished 16th being driven by Paul O’Shea and Pete Lovely. Photo courtesy of Gene Bussian

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Show Comments (42)

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  1. Louis – You’ve done it again mate!

    Thanks much for bringing this wonderful era of racing back to life. The days of Fangio, Moss…Maserati…oh my, what an era. And so well written too. I knew who won in advance, but I was still on the edge of my seat. Brilliant.

  2. Louis
    Wonderful report. Could you do another one in a couple of weeks on the 2011 Sebring race?
    Please.

  3. I can remember these images from the time. They are the images that inspired me to first take a camera to the track. Good writing combined with marvelous images. Hope to see more of both soon.

  4. Merci pour ce beau texte et ces aventures qui rappellent une si bonne époque. Comme vous le savez je suis un passionné de l’histoire Ferrari mais je ne suis pas insensible à ces beaux reportages.
    On en redemande.
    Cordialement.
    Mr Grangeon.

  5. I believe Mr. Grangeon has said:
    ‘Thank you for this beautiful text and the adventures that recall such a good time. As you know I’m a fan of Ferrari’s history but I am not insensitive to these beautiful stories. We want more. Regards. Grangeon mr.’

    Courtesy of Google Translate.

  6. Lou,

    Another great story. This was my first Sebring race which I attended during Spring Break. It brings back fond memories. I’m looking forward to your next one.

    Bill

  7. Lou,

    Thanks for this great piece. For a guy that was too young to have been there, your words do a great job of putting the reader right there as it happened.

    Thanks too for all the Corvette SS insight. Very cool to read.

    Cheers!

    Will Silk

  8. Come on Will, you can’t be that young. Jamie keeps referring to you as “that old goat.” 🙂

    1. HAHA! Let’s just say that Mario Andretti was driving for Lotus at the time my feet hit the tarmac.

  9. Fantastic! A perfect mix of talent, passion, dedication, preparation, skill, and hard work.
    Another great article, Lou.
    I really enjoyed seeing and reading …and remembering what I saw many years ago along with some additional details that I never knew. The Corvette SS surely had the best paint job, but the Maserati’s were faster and reliable.

  10. Wonderful article and photos! I had no idea the Corvette SS had that much potential….shame it wasn’t given another chance.

  11. I attended that Sebring 12 Hour race in 1957.
    Your account and pictures are masterful with so many informative points that were not really so well publicized at the time.
    I had always wondered about Fangio’s change over to Maserati since he had won the previous year(1956,the year of my first Sebring visit-55 years ago-whew!)in a Ferrari.
    Fangio’s hospital visit to his friend and competitor following the race is quite touching.
    Your presentation brings back countless nice memories from my visits to Sebring.
    Thank You!
    I love Sports Car Digest and am glad I subscribe.

  12. I’m a bit too young to have been there, but what a thoroughly enjoyable trip back in time. No one brings this to life like you do. Someone should do a film on Fangio. The cars and drivers of that time where incredible.

  13. Many thanks for the wonderful insight to the past! What photos!

    As a clarification of the Corvette SS’s non-performance:

    Neither Fangio nor Moss had a chance to drive the actual racing Vette because it had not yet arrived. It was completed at the last moment and trucked to Sebring while GM technicians were polishing it to GM “show standards.” The car had not yet been race tested.

    Fitch persuaded GM to hire Pierro Taruffi to co-drive as he was a very good developmental “driver” and he flew in at the last moment.

    The brake problem was due to a mercury-filed switch that was supposed to modulate brake bias. It worked fine on the mule, but not on the actual race car. It’s braking in the race was eratic at best.

    Finally, the SS left the race with a suspension problem: technicians building the chassis had cracked the trailing arms in the rear suspension ever so slightly so that the bushed worked loose to let the rear ride on the tires.

    The Corvette could clearly have been the fastest at Sebring that year with Fangio or Moss driving if it had been thoroughly tested and developed. Which, of course, never happend.

    Thanks for those wonderful shots of the SS!

    Robb

  14. This era, and those cars, and those drivers WERE Motorsport.
    The cars were our national pride in the patriotic livery colors.
    The news was of course only bulletins and not real time, and
    the photography except for these was grainy monochromatic
    but the anticipation was lengthy and the attainment not just
    fleeting.

    The schedule overload today, the cars that cannot be road
    licensed and lusted for, the largely irrelevant graphics on all
    cars and just the vast subsequent history of the industry has
    only diminished what we experience today. Maybe I am just
    an old doting and anacronistic fuddy duddy…

    Geo. Gallo

  15. Regarding the photo of Doc Wyllie pushing the Lotus Eleven (which I have owned since 1971), He was not disqualified for getting assistance on the course — he was the assistance on the course. Car entrant Charles Moran Jr. was driving when it ran out of gas. I don’t know how far from the pits it was, but in the Amoco film Twelve to Go, it shows Wyllie pushing at the head of the back straight, which is quite a long way from the pit area. Wyllie apparently went out to assist the exhausted Moran and since the driver “change” did not occur in the pit area, the car was disqualified.

    It also ran in the 1958 and 1959 Sebring races being entered and driven by Moran.

  16. Louis,

    Another outstanding piece of work on a race, the outcome of which determined the entire future of Corvette racing. Now 57 years later in some respects it is not all that bad. Could have been much better if the SS won and if GM stayed in racing. The Corvette is one of the few marques from that race that is still being produced and racing.

    Thanks, best regards and keep it up.

    Jan Hyde, Registry of Corvette race cars. com

  17. Great article. Fantastic pictures. I am reading “A race against death and time” by Brock Yates, which I heartily recommend to all. It deals with the racing season of 1955 and is very well written, as Brock’s books are. Mitch.

  18. Great job Louis! You not only described the race very well, but set the tone of that era with great behind the scene stories.

  19. I, too was at this race and greatly appreciated this report. As an adventuresome teenager, I quickly took advantage of where someone had breached the fence and gained access to the paddock area. With my $4 Brownie camera, I recorded several pictures during the race. One of my pictures of the Maserati pit during one of Behra’s early pit stops ended up on the wall behind the winning #19 450 at the Rolex exhibit at Monterey at its 50th anniversary, much to my surprise and delight. Once again, a great article. Thank you.

  20. Wonderful article, Lou, in both your fine words and story-telling talent, and selection of photographs, to bring back that 1957 Sebring with its historic 1-2 finish for Maserati. My father was supposed to get the 450S V8 right after the race, in his deal with Officine Alfieri Maserati in Modena, but the factory decided to keep that four-five to win more races with it, and instead temporarily assigned the 2nd place 300S to the John Edgar Enterprises team. The 3-liter Inline6 was spirited away to California in the 100-mph Edgar transporter just in time to run Palm Springs in Carroll Shelby’s hands, where he practiced the car still wearing the #20 Moss number, then won the preliminary in it, only to lose to Phil Hill (Ferrari 121LM) in Sunday’s main. It was not until August 1957 that we finally got our promised 450S, though not the same one that won Sebring. I’ve written the story (“Maser Mia”) of the Edgar 450S (chassis number 4506) in the May/June 2009 issue of Vintage Motorsport magazine. My article about the chassis number 3071 Maserati 300S (“The Return of the Maser”) appeared in the Jan/Feb 2004 Vintage Motorsport. Your own contribution here in Sports Car Digest is a great addition to Sebring history and these two iconic Maseratis. Thank you for your excellent work.

  21. Well written as usual, Lou. This makes a good companion piece for the recording you noted in your article. The photos complete the deal. Being about the same vintage as you I wasn’t aware of this great stuff. My first was nearly 10 years later at the second Daytona 24 hour race. I’ve been an addict ever since as you know. See you next week.

  22. I was there. Before Sebring in 57, I had been to Pebble Beach, Golden Gate, Torrey Pines, Madera, etc while in college in California. Joined the Marines, went to flight school, and was a brand new 2/LT in my first squadron at New River NC when I picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated that featured the Corvette SS. Decided I had to go. Went into the XO, Major Bucky Harris (Emmy Lou;s dad) and asked for a day off. I told him I would be back on Monday. He said OK and off I went in my 56 Chevy. I did not know where Sebring was, but I got there, watched it all. Best memory is standing right at the edge of the long backstretch at night with the 4.5 Maserati howling by about a foot away. Got in my Chevy and was back at work Monday AM in NC. Never slept. Wish I had that endurance and strength now at 78 young years. Have had lots of great and not so great cars since then, but the best might be my brand new Jeep Cherokee SRT8, a great compromise for somebody who can’t fold into a Porsche anymore, Semper Fi. John

  23. Very good history.
    Other times, when Formula One stars raced in another kind of race cars.

  24. I was Assistant Chief Pit Steward at the 57 and 66 races. Your stories bring back old memories as they are so well written.

  25. Sebring 57 was my first race of any kind. Was down from FSU with 3fraternity brothers, volunteered to drive an ambulance in order to get in free, spent entire race inside the hairpin, saw Cahier hand Moss the Coke (took him 2 tries), wow! Thanks Louis and SCD, great work. Dean Donley

  26. Enjoyed reading about 57 Sebring – I own a ’57 Morgan +4 built to race Sebring in ’57 S/N 3604 – built with factory modifications,painted white with blue stripe – for John Weitz to race atSebring. Car was lost for fifty years- I found it in Cleveland in 2011. Restored it to original colors. Still has original modified engine and trannie. Looks great,fun to drive. Richard Flasck

  27. Sports Car Digest decided to republish your article and I couldn’t help but re-read it and again relive that fantastic race. Your race descriptions and photos are too good to pass up.

  28. I went to Sebring once,all the factories were there and it was magic. In Chicago we had Elkhart Lake or a little place called Meadowdale raceway. I saw the team Cobras ,Scarabs, Sadlers ,all sorts of machines. That time was the best. Banlon shirts tiny Bell helmets and very big stones. Zoltan (Chicago)

  29. I attended the 1957 race, driving solo nonstop from Houston and back to do it. En route to the track I saw a beautiful C-Jaguar in bright metallic green. In those days news of racing in the US was hard to come by and until I read this article I was unaware of much that was going on. I remember being very impressed by Briggs Cunningham’s team of four D-Jaguars each arriving on trailers pulled by Lincoln Continentals.

    I was living in Argentina and saw the 1960 GP. I remember seeing Carlos Menditguy in front of the Hotel Continental. That weekend was unforgettable as I got to chat with the now-retired Fangio in front of his Mercedes dealership in Buenos Aires. He was very cordial and asked me if I “knew” Allan Guiberson or Carroll Shelby since I was in the oil business and from Texas.

    During F1 practice I tried to enter the paddock with no credentials. I told the guard I was a friend of Phil Hill’s and wanted to pay him a visit. The guard, duly suspicious, accompanied me while we looked for Phil. When we found him, Phil gave me a hard time about my even being in the paddock but finally relented when I agreed to just walk through and not hang around.

  30. I saw a sports car magazine in military school in 1955,and I knew what I had to do.In 1957,I left a note for my folks,and took a bus to the Miami train station,and got on the train to “Sebring”,the holy grail for me. I was 14 yrs. old. I hitched out to the track,and with my sleeping bag,and poncho,made myself at home. This race was a virtual dream come true for me.Sadly,I was at the “esses” when the Arnolt Bristol crashed,and later learned that the driver died.I made some friends from the Miami Sports car Club,and when old enough I joined.By 1964 I was driving in S.C.C.A.,and made my mark in a modest way in the first year of I.M.S.A.,in a Formula I-100 class. Mr. Galanos,you have given me back some of my boyhood. Thank you sir! William Baros

  31. I was there. I was a brand new Marine 2/Lt aviator stationed at New River NC. Saw an magazine article about the Corvettes. Asked the squadron XO, Major Bucky Harris (Emmy Lou’s dad) for 2 days off. He responded: “Wish I could go with you.” Drove my 57 Chevy straight thru to Sebring, watched the 12 hours, and drove back to NC, no rest and on time for work Monday. A few years earlier had watched Phil Hill beat Bill Pollack at Pebble Beach. That hooked me and have been a fan since. Many Sebrings and Petits since with my sons. Many great cars; 1956 Chrysler 300B, 1959 Porsche Convertible D, Three Supras, 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT . Now my 87 years puts me in a Mercedes E 300. John Van Nortwick, El Paso, TX