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.
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.