Coming out of turn 12 is the Rodriguez brothers Ferrari about to overtake the Gregory/Casner/Moss Maserati as they head down the front straight. (Photo: FlaGator)
Coming out of turn 12 is the Rodriguez brothers Ferrari about to overtake the Gregory/Casner/Moss Maserati as they head down the front straight. (Photo: FlaGator)

1961 Sebring 12 Hours – Race Profile

1961 Sebring 12 Hours – Race Profile Page Thirteen

After just over five hours (3 p.m.) of racing Ricardo Rodriguez could be seen relaxing in the pits as brother Pedro kept their blood-red NART Ferrari in the lead. They had already led three of the last five hours losing first place only when they had to pit for tires and gas.

Talk about the brothers and their car had made the rounds in the pits and many had concluded that the private entry with the Mexicans brothers at the wheel were there to be the “rabbit” that was supposed to tempt their rivals into overextending their cars and possibly retiring early. At some point in the race the tremendous pace set by the brothers would be their undoing and they too would have to withdraw from the race. It was assumed that all of this was part of the Ferrari racing strategy to have their factory cars come home overall winners at Sebring in 1961.

But instead the Rodriguez Ferrari was still in the lead and one lap ahead of the Hill/Gendebien factory Ferrari 250 TR/61. It became apparent that Ferrari team manager Tavoni had underestimated the reliability of the older 250 TR/60 and the driving abilities of the Rodriguez brothers. The average speed at this point was a very quick 92.19 m.p.h.

The next two hours were more of the same with the Rodriguez brothers maintaining the lead and the Hill/Gendebien Ferrari solidly in second. For a while the McLaren/Hansgen Tipo 63 was in third but Hansgen had to pit saying he was choking on exhaust fumes. The Tipo had a great expanse of Plexiglas that limited fresh air into the cockpit to the detriment of the drivers. McLaren also had other issues with the big sloping windshield that made it difficult to see the track. He had to sit on cushions to see properly and only when he braked hard and the nose dipped did he get what he thought was a good view of the track. More than one sports writer made critical comments about the new Maserati Type 63 with one describing it as “esthetically unattractive” which was an apt description in the minds of many at Sebring in 1961. Before Hansgen and McLaren returned to the race the mechanics broke out some tools to cut holes in the windshield of the car in order to provide better ventilation.

The car was back on the track with McLaren at the wheel when at 3:33 p.m. smoke was noticed coming from the rear of the car then flames. McLaren stopped the car on the circuit and with the help of corner workers extinguished the flames. Later inspection would show that the gearbox had cracked and fluid began to leak. As the failing gearbox began to heat up the leaking lubricant began to smoke then ignite. McLaren was forced to leave the car where it rested on the back airport straight. This was the fifth of six Maseratis to retire and the race was not half over. One, the Briggs Cunningham – William Kimberly Tipo 60, did manage to finish and in 19th spot. They also came in second in the Sports 2000 Class.

The Hansgen - McLaren Tipo 63 retired after experiencing a fire on the course. (Photo: www.barcboys.com)
The Hansgen – McLaren Tipo 63 retired after experiencing a fire on the course. (Photo: www.barcboys.com)

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At the half-way point (4 p.m.) the pace had not slackened for big and small cars alike. To the amazement of many the small Austin-Healey Sprites were running like trains on tracks and outpacing larger equipment on the straights and in the corners. One Arnolt-Bristol driver was asked by his pit why he couldn’t stay ahead of the Sprites. He responded, “Keep ahead, hell! I couldn’t even keep the damn things in sight!” Remarkable when you consider that the Bristol powered cars had a 1971 c.c. engine compared to the 994 c.c. engine for the Sprites. The top finishing Sprite came in 15th overall while the best the Bristol powered cars could do was 21st.

At this point in the race several cars were in the pits for lengthy repairs including two Corvettes. One had a blown piston and mechanics would replace the piston only to have the car retire later with the same problem. Another Corvette was getting the frame welded after hitting the sandbank in the infamous Hairpin turn. As with this race and others to come mechanics would affect repairs to cars in hours or even minutes that might take a day or a week under normal circumstances.

Cars go through the "Esses on the old 5.2 mile circuit. (Photo: www.barcboys.com)
Cars go through the “Esses” on the old 5.2 mile circuit. (Photo: www.barcboys.com)
The Peter Ryan, Francis Bradley, Ludwig Heimrath Porsche 718 that finished 9th overall. (Photo: www.barcboys.com)
The Peter Ryan, Francis Bradley, Ludwig Heimrath Porsche 718 that finished 9th overall. (Photo: www.barcboys.com)
The Corvette of George Robertson, Jr., Ben Burroughs and William Warren finished but didnt cover enough laps to be classified. (Photo: www.barcboys.com)
The Corvette of George Robertson, Jr., Ben Burroughs and William Warren finished but didn’t cover enough laps to be classified. (Photo: www.barcboys.com)

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Show Comments (44)

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  1. Thank you a great read in to the history of 1961. It bought back memories I have of the Springbok series in South Africa and Rhodesia when I was a young lad. I would get excited weeks before the event as you would see the trickle of internationals cars and teams arrive and set up in local garages. In those days you would see ferraris, Lola’s and others on open trailers out side hotels over night. Try to imagine that happening to day!

  2. What a great early Christmas present from Mr. Galanos and the team at Sports Car Digest. Thanks for this excellent read, so wonderfully paired with images that stir the heart. Thanks to all.

  3. Another great Louie Galanos gem. Great photos to illustrate his detailed research and stories. You can get a lot of photos of east coast races from Lime Rock to Sebring at barcboys.com. As Galanos said, 1961 was a fantastic year. I was there and his story brought back many a memory. Can’t wait for more.

  4. masterful work. thank you for another great look at a moment of history with beautiful people and automobiles.

  5. Another extremely insightful Sebring story from Lou with many little known details supplemented with great BARC Boys and Florida Archive photos.
    As a former SAAB racer loved the photo of the SAAB on the track and mention that they were the “Official” track cars for the race (front wheel drive though not four wheel drive).
    Would like to see all of Lou’s Sebring articles in a book some day.

  6. Lou – you’ve done the calendar, and the calls keep coming for the book. How many treasures remain to see print? Thanks for these historical views of sports car racing in Florida – masterful. Doug Seeley

  7. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story and those great photos. I’m honored to have met both you and Dave N. (BARC Boy) – when you share your stories it is like touching history. I spied one pair of Suixtil pants, of course in one of Dave’s photos. Randy has a great idea, a book of all Lou’s stories!

  8. Fabulous photos and a great story. Here in the Uk we don’t hear enough about the great days of Sebring. Thanks.

  9. Another fantastic and detailed Florida racing story with lots of great (now us old farts must admit “historic”) photos.
    Thanks Lou.

  10. Excellent Excellent Excellent ! Much is written about LeMans and Indy but back in the 50’s and 60’s Sebring had that special mix of ingredients that was magnetic. Old southern charm,warmth, extremely talented drivers from around the world and an unbelievable array of manufacturers ! Did I mention the girls ?

  11. Blast from the past, having grown up in a racing car family, my uncle Rafael Rosales from San Juan Puerto Rico entered several of these races, ended up co-piloting with Strirling Moss at LeMans in 1962 and 63 with a DNF and a 5th place. Great memories and excellent photos, still a huge fan and vintage BMC collector.
    Thank you

    1. Thanks Alec and I appreciate the praise especially from you. Your father was a very special man who not only founded Sebring but contributed greatly to the
      golden age of endurance racing in America.

    2. Dear Alec, As a student at Princeton in about 1965, I had the pleasure on one occasion of hearing your father speak to a small, informal group of us young sportscar enthusiasts in a small classroom one evening. It was an extremely exciting experience for us! In 1970, while serving as a timer in the pits of #30 Ford GT40, I saw that fine gentleman from a distance. Years later, in 1986 I attended his funeral in Brick Church on Park Avenue, and, as sad an occasion as that was, I was fascinated to recognize in the congregation a number of greats from the world of racing paying their respects, including Luigi Chinetti and the Dreyfus brothers, Rene and Maurice.

  12. I was there as a student. A wonderful recounting of all that I saw and that which I missed. What wonderful times!

  13. Thank you, Mr. Galanos for this wonderful story with so many interesting details that bring back those golden years of racing.

  14. Another great retelling of an epic vintage racing event. If only to invent a time machine and go back to see it first hand. This is the next best thing available. Love the photos.

  15. Thanks for reminding me of what was the best time for racing (except for the awful lack of safety equipment).
    Today it is too corporate and far too aero dependent. Not to mention expensive.
    I had not seen the picture of the AC Bristol my father, James, flipped in the race. He should have stuck with the Ferrari he raced the year before!
    Dixon Johnston

  16. Good evening Louis,

    Very good story and narration, thank you very much for bringing insight and details from those great racing times !

    You mention one of the races previous to the 12 Hours of 1961, and you made a comment on a race driver who raced on the Formula Junior race, named Lollobrigida, who some claimed was a cousin of Gina Lollobrigida.

    In fact, he really was cousin to Gina. !

    He lived and raced In Venezuela for many years, before moving back to Italy. He made and directed several movies in Venezuela.

    We have a spanish forum of Races in Venezuela, where we have a thread about him, and there is one photo of him with the Stanguellini:

    http://www.pasionalavelocidad.com/foro/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=223&p=9337&hilit=guido#p9337

    (Hope you can access the forum, we are having some problems on this last week)

    Unfortunately, he passed away recently on January 2014, I am sure he would have been very happy of your mention of him.

    Best Regards,

    Eduardo Muñoz

  17. Regarding one of the comments — well-meaning, no doubt — “Southern charm” in 1961 was great for some but horrible for others because of racial segregation. Just as we should remember our racing history, we should also keep the lessons of our social history in mind.

  18. Louis I always enjoy your postings, the photos and stories are outstanding. Thanx for posting this great account of the ’61 race. “Race” doesn’t really seem like a big enough word to describe what Sebring is all about. Sixty one was supposed to be my first time there but I couldn’t put it together. Now because of you I feel like I really was there. I did make it in ’62 and from that time on have only missed a few. I live in Sebring now so no excuses for missing an event.

  19. Louis:
    I remember the bad smell past turn one. It was not a pet food factory. It was a scew worm sterile male breeding operation. See http://www.fao.org/docrep/u4220t/u4220T0a.htm

    A new rearing facility was constructed near Sebring, Florida and initiated operations in July 1958. Within three months the weekly production of sterile flies from this new facility was in excess of 50 million per week, with an average of 50 to 75 million per week for the duration of the eradication programme (Smith, 1960). Sterile flies were packaged in boxes, with 400 flies per box, which were dispersed at the rate of 76 to 304 sterile flies per square kilometre from single-engine planes flying about 500 m above the terrain. Planes flew over treatment areas in Florida, southern Georgia and southern Alabama each week on 3.2 km-wide swaths on a grid pattern.”

  20. My fellow classmates and I were heading south from Northern NJ to Fort Lauderdale to become part of the trouble that would eventually happen that year. Someone got the bright idea of stopping off for some kind of sports car race in a town on rt 27 called Sebring which just happened to be in the direction we were heading. It was at this event that one eighteen year old clueless young man became hopelessly addicted for life on the extraordinary world of endurance racing. To say the world’s best pictures do not do this race justice is an understatement only appreciated by those luckily enough to have been in attendance on that day in March 1961. It’s so true, those years, regardless of money or technology, cannot replicate the originality and naked drama from a time given to almost zero technology and low budget entries. It truly was the age of the unpretentious driver and his crudely assembled machine racing on casually designed tracks with safety as an afterthought.

    1. Thank you Robert for those well written and eloquent words from someone who was there. Happy Holidays to all who have commented on my story.

  21. Thank You Louis. You’ve taken me to another race. I could see it, hear it, even smell racing fuel and wood fires. In my opinion, you have become the preeminent writer of what to many of us were the Golden years of competition. I could feel the political setup and each stage of the race. I’ve read twice now. Lifelong associations like Bob Holbert and Roger Penske, the emergence of the Rodriquez brothers. The freedom of engineering development that led to so many variations on the grid. Your stories expand my horizon of Motorsports and Sebring and again, I thank you and Sports Car Digest for that.

    1. Thanks Burt and thanks for all the help you and your late brother gave me for several stories I have had published in Sports Car Digest. Merry Christmas.

  22. What a wonderful Christmas gift to receive early, early this Xmas morning while doing a nostalgic perusal of the web seaching for info about the Sebring races. Something reminded me of my dream car (1959 Ferrari 250 GT California) which then led to thinking about the great time I had as a high school senior at the 1972 race, and I was just reminiscing with a big smile on my face seeing Mario Andretti’s Ferrari again! I couldn’t turn off my tablet to hit the sack!

    Thank you so much, Mr. Galanos, for this fascinating and exhaustive report on one of the earlier race days at Sebring. Outstanding!

    Merry Christmas.

  23. Wonderful photographs. Those tall windscreens had been imposed by the FIA, and the drivers hated them because they could not see through them, due to the reflections, scratches etc. and they they tried to sit higher so they could see over the top of them. An other great FIA idea|

  24. Louis: What a great story/pictures of the events at Sebring. You make one feel that you are there in the “golden Age of racing” and the great names of the time. Even the pictures of the fans cars bring back memories. Keep up the great work.
    Jim Beebe Dec 28, 2015

  25. Louis: Thanks for another great story showing the talent of the Rodriguez brothers, I wonder where did you get the comment of Don Pedro Rodriguez celebrating at the local bar, but it was absolutely true (and a common practice by Don Pedro). He was another remarkable person behind the scenes supporting Pedro and Ricardo at all times.
    And for the records, Pedro’s female friend on one of your pictures is Angelina Dammy de Rodriguez, Pedro’s wife.

    1. Thanks Corey, I have also had that idea in the back of my mind. Unfortunately books today generally don’t sell well and as a result many bookstores have closed. If I publish it will have to be self-published and I am not sure if I am ready for that.

  26. Thank you Louis: I notice that you are a fellow Floridian. My late brother George and I came over from Ft. Lauderdale with a couple of friends for that race, and the next four after that. It was the first any of us had ever attended. I was a half-crazed sports car nut, starting in 1957 when I spent the day with a pile of Road & Track magazines found on a family visit to my uncle’s home in Ohio. I especially remember the front-engine Ferarri TRs, watching them for hours howling down the pit straight in the early evening. The bizarre Maserati T63 was…well, fascinating. I also fell in love with Porsche Spyders. I was fired up, seeing my fantasy cars with motion and sound after only being able to read about them for so long. Years later, I serially owned four ’60s V12 Ferraris (and raced one!), a 1957 Porsche 550A, a Formula 1 Brabham BT-26A that I watched finish 2nd to David Hobbs at the Sebring Continental in December 1969; and some other race cars of that ilk that I drove in vintage races. Wish I still had them, but I sure enjoyed living my dreams.

  27. I’m looking for materials for the 1961 Sebring 4 Hour race,particularly photos and other information of Abarth 1000 who participated in this race. Because I own the same type of Abarth 1000, which is totally unknown, but it may be one of the cars in this race.