In 1961 at Sebring your place on the starting grid was determined by engine size and not your qualification speed. However, all entrants were required to practice a minimum number of laps with some of those coming during night practice. One car showing up for practice was a Ferrari GT with racing numbers on the hood and both doors. Some astute observer checked the entry list and found that the car was an illegal entry and the driver and car were escorted from the track. Interesting enough the fellow who did this pulled the same stunt in 1960 by parking his little Fiat at the end of the grid then joined the race until the folks in timing and scoring realized he wasn’t on their entry lists and the car was black flagged and escorted from the track.
Before or after official practice times the area in front of the start finish was often quiet as teams worked on their cars or set up their pit area with tires, tools and other equipment needed for the race. It was during these times that one could see some of the drivers practicing their Le Mans style run to their car and the tricky leap into the cockpit of the open racers.
During a lull in the night practice Ferrari driver Olivier Gendebien could be seen pacing off the distance to where the drivers would stand then he would dash to his car carefully placing his hand on the hood before leaping over the high expanse of Plexiglas surrounding the cockpit of his Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa 61.
His first try resulted in a not too graceful landing so he went back for another try. This time his landing was even worse and he had injured himself. When Ferrari team manager Romolo Tavoni came over to check the situation Gendebien told him that he had badly twisted his ankle and wouldn’t be able to continue the practice session. Tavoni was not pleased and, in typical Italian fashion, showed it. A pit crew member was then dispatched to get some ice for Gendebien’s rapidly swelling ankle. The injury would not stop Gendebien from driving on race day but he would be in constant pain throughout the race. On race day Gendebien exhibited a noticeable limp when walking around the pit and paddock.
An early indication of what kind of fan turnout the track might have in ’61 was the number of early arrivals with some showing up a week before the race which was becoming a tradition at the track. They were there to stake out their favorite viewing spots and set up their tents and viewing scaffolds. Since the airport property had a working environment, with many businesses and warehouses, there was no one to sell the early arrivals entry tickets. Only later in the week would Sebring personnel enter the spectator areas to collect the required entry fee and some remembered seeing race fans scramble for hiding spots in order to avoid paying for their ticket.
Some of the early Sebring arrivals were talking about not going out to the Webster turn bleachers near the warehouses along the Warehouse Straight. These buildings housed a variety of businesses and in a previous year one of the warehouses was full of “…dead whales, or at least ground-up portions of them possibly to be used as fertilizer or pet food.” On a hot day the rather unique smell could be detected at a great distance and the race track was just feet from the warehouses. According to some drivers back then they would hold their breaths when passing the buildings because the smell was strong enough to make you gag. Fortunately in ’61 the winds were favorable and race fans could actually sit in the bleachers without holding their noses or needing a gas mask.
For college students, on spring break, Sebring had become a much anticipated stop going to or coming back from the beaches in Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. The Sebring race had a reputation for being a place where students could party without being hassled too much by the local authorities. In later years a Miami Herald columnist would describe the Sebring environment as bacchanalian replete with “topless bimbos” dancing on car hoods. Needless to say that reports like that didn’t discourage people from attending the race.
The early arrivals were in luck this year because the Sebring promoters had the most active program planned since its inception. The normal Friday race schedule for Sebring was usually very relaxed with a concours d’ elegance and an antique car parade with the big fan draw being the 12-hour race on Saturday. Much to the delight of race fans already at the track the race promoters scheduled a full day of racing on Friday with a four-hour enduro for GT cars (under 1000 cc) along with a brand new 100-mile event for Formula Juniors and a one-hour event for go-karts which would be run on the 2.2 mile short course. As an added special attraction British ace Stirling Moss and his rally-champion-sister Pat would be driving Austin-Healey Sprites in the GT race along with Dan Gurney in an Abarth 1000 and Bruce McLaren in a Sprite.
The race for small GT cars started early on Friday at 9 a.m. with 27 drivers doing the Le Mans dash to their cars. Since it was only four hours long some expected a hard fought sprint to the finish but since some of the cars were also entered in the 23-hour a few of the drivers made effort to not push too hard. The winning trophy went to the Fiat-Abarth of Harry Washburn followed by the Donald Healey entered Sprite of Walt Hansgen.