1963 12 Hours of Sebring – Race Profile

1963 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – The Second Battle in the Ford-Ferrari War

By Louis Galanos | Photos as credited

1963 Sebring 12 Hours poster
Sebring 1963 cover art by Zito for race poster and souvenir program.

In mid-March of 1963 the small community of Sebring, Florida was getting ready for the annual onslaught of cars and racing fans for the 12th running of the Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance.

Much to the chagrin of race founder and promoter, Alec Ulmann, the local businesses were already planning to jack up their prices for what had become a much-despised annual tradition of price gouging of race fans. No amount of past public criticism of this practice, by newspapers and such notable visitors as British driving ace, Stirling Moss, could dissuade the locals from this practice.

For the international members of the automotive press in attendance that year the race held little significance other than it would be the first race run under FIA’s new Manufacturer’s Championship rules. For American sports car fans making the annual trek to Sebring the significance of the ’63 race was that there would be a large contingent of American cars at Sebring to challenge the supremacy of the European cars. Fans of American sports car racing were hoping that this could be “their year.”

Only in later years did some automotive historians designate 1963 as the first year of what many today refer to as The Ford – Ferrari War which lasted from 1963 to 1967.

The first salvo in that war was fired at Daytona five weeks earlier with the running of only the second Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) sanctioned international endurance race at the Daytona Speedway. Like the inaugural event in 1962 it was a three-hour race called the Daytona Continental.

Former Le Mans winner (’59) and Sports Illustrated Driver of the Year (’56-’57), Texan Carroll Shelby, had three of his new 4.7-liter (289 c.i.) Ford-Powered AC Cobras entered at Daytona with one of them finishing in 4th place at the hands of Dave MacDonald. Coming in first and second were two 3-liter Ferrari 250 GTO’s driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Roger Penske.

However, coming in third was one of the ten Chevrolet Corvette Sting Rays entered and this one was driven by Dick Thompson. Having a Chevy-powered sports car beating a Ford-powered sports car did not sit well with Henry Ford, II who wanted a car that could beat the much loved and successful two-seat Corvette of General Motors and possibly beat the legendary Ferrari GT cars. As a result Ford would provide financial support for Carroll Shelby’s Cobra racing efforts from 1962 to 1965 and then support for Shelby American’s GT40 racing efforts from 1964 to 1967.

Carroll Shelby, 1963 Sebring 12 Hours
Carroll Shelby in his signature “lucky” overalls and Stetson at Sebring. He entered four cars at Sebring in ‘63 with a crew of 23. This reflected the support he was getting from Ford Motor Company. (Tom Bigelow photo)

At Sebring in 1963 the war got a little hotter with six Ford-powered Cobras on the grid with four from Shelby’s stables and one from Ford’s performance specialist, Holman Moody. There was also a basically stock Cobra entered by George Reed. The four Shelby cars were equipped with the latest high performance 350-hp 289’s provided by Ford plus 4-speed close-ratio transmissions and wide magnesium wheels. Also at Sebring was a crew of 23 support personnel whose sole job was to guarantee a Ford victory in the GT class. Ford’s “deep pockets” were evident in this attempt to win at Sebring.

Phil Hill, 1963 Sebring 12 Hours
Phil Hill looking over the Shelby Cobra that he and Dan Gurney would drive in practice. (Tom Bigelow photo)
Holman Moody Shelby Cobra, Jocko Maggiacomo, 1963 12 Hours of Sebring
Holman Moody Shelby Cobra of Jocko Maggiacomo (in the car) and Peter Jopp was a DNF. At Sebring in 1964 Maggiacomo would perform the heroic fete of saving a driver’s life by rescuing him from a burning car after it was hit from behind. Both received burns from the accident. (Levetto Bros. photo)
Carroll Shelby, Phil Hill, 1963 12 Hours of Sebring
Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill in the pits during practice. In 1963 they didn’t qualify cars. (Tom Bigelow photo)
1963 Sebring 12 Hours
The #15 Shelby Cobra 4.7 liter Ford V8 of Dan Gurney and Phil Hill. (Tom Bigelow photo)

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Show Comments (37)

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  1. What a fantastic article and pictures. Brings back lots of memories of racing in the 60’s and how different it was from today.

  2. Well written as usual, Lou. Terrific photos, too. One of my best memories of going to Sebring from the late ’60s to the mid ’80s was not at the track but the early morning hours en route to the race driving through the orange groves with the nearly-intoxicating aroma of the orange blossoms filling the air. I saw a few good races, too.

  3. Gosh, Lou. This is staggeringly good work. I’ve always been a fan of your work at Sports Car Digest, but you’ve out-done yourself this time.

  4. Thank you Louis, once again you have captured perfectly the spirit and feeling of Sebring. Great to read your text, and also see some photographs of some of the “back markers”. Cars like the Morgan, Osca, Sabra, MG, Sunbeam Alpine, Lotus, plus more. It is not always about the “BIG Boys ” running at the front, rather about everyone that faced the starters orders… Can you top this one? looking forward to seeing if you can…Cheers Graham.

  5. Always learn more, nobody tells early Sebring better than Louis. Has a real passion. Also great collection of photos. Material for a book to complement Harry Hurst’s. Wonder if Ken Bresslaur would like to post in Sebring archives. Very very enjoyable. Jan Hyde, Registry of Corvette Race Cars.

  6. It is a really fascinating story Louis…It couldn’t be more detailed. 1963, it’s a long way off but thanks to your report it is very close! A true pleasure indeed… (and not “olesue”?). Sorry for the keyboard error!

  7. Another fine first-hand account by Lou, accompanied by some priceless period photos. These stories are pure gold for a sports car/endurance fan! I hope Mr. Galanos is working on more material.

  8. Thanks again Lou for the contributions you continue to make to those of us who wish they could have been there. An amazing collection of pics and writing that makes me feel I was in the corner station with Roger! Nice work, yet again.

  9. It’s always a pleasure to read Lou’s racing stories and looking at the relative photos. Lou provides details/facts that I never knew and revives memories that had faded. I do remember that at the time of Ferrari’s rejection of the Ford offer, some press reports suggested that the real problem was when Enzo Ferrari discovered that any major decisions that involved capital expenditures had to be authorized at corporate level – this was , for him – totally unacceptable. And, Lou, I see that you’re a very busy guy ! I see tha April issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Cars photo essay story using your photos from the 1970 Sebring race !

  10. What a marvellous account of a fantastic event. So good to see Morgans taking part too. Louis Galanos is a mine of interesting information which he coveys with infectious enthusiasm.

  11. Lou, thank you for the descriptive commentary. It really brought back memories from years gone by. Actually every time I read one of your articles it reminds me of my regrets of not having attended one of the Sebring 12 hour races when I was in college. So much insightful detail!

  12. Great story and incredible photos Louis! As usual, the insight and background you bring to your stories is truly amazing! I also enjoyed your photo story in the April issue of Hemmings Sports and Exotic Car on the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours. Keep up your excellent work!
    Harry Kennison

  13. I was there for every race from 61 through 67, and can honestly say that it was the most exciting thing a young guy could experience except sex. The cars were beautiful and real. The competition was fierce, fierce, fierce. The track was rough. And it was “practically perfect in every way”. The next year, I think it was, Shelby put 427s in the Cobra roadsters and they were the absolute bomb. I will never forget watching Dan Gurney, I think it was, fighting the monster torque as he came out of the old Webster turn and onto the back straight. Amazing!

  14. Definitely a nice article with lots of great photos. I was however valiantly & fruitlessly looking for a photo of the #49 Art Riley/Nick Cone Volvo P1800. Twenty-third overall & Third place in GT3 – Not too shabby.

    1. @ Dave F. re: No Art Riley photo: They’re out there, Dave; see Bill Stowe’s shot, going down to the hairpin, I believe, @ http://www.racingsportscars.com/photo/1963/Sebring-1963-03-23-049.jpg That’s Arthur at the wheel, characteristically head tilted up to better see over the right fender crown to the apex for a crisp turn-in. We had the great fun to re-live this event, albeit at Coronado (North Island Naval Air Station) in 2003, on the concrete runways chasing down the (ex-factory) Porsche Abarth Carrera which finished 2nd in class on the Sebring runways in 1963, with the ex-Art Riley VIN #14 P1800 which, as you note, finished 3rd. Rick Hayden

  15. Lou Galanos does it again, bringing Sebring’s early days back in sharp focus in both narrative and photos. Speaking of which, I love Sir Stirling homing in on the chick, and note that his personal choice in cameras is Canon… And would someone explain the Ferrari badge on the #55 Sunbeam Alpine?

  16. I finally had the time to read this. Lou, this is great story telling.. Not just with your well crafted writing, but also with the awesome selection of photos. Thank you.

  17. carNo 40 was NOT the TRIUMPH TR3 CONRERO it was an ex LeMans Triumph TRS –the TRIUMPH CONRERO was photographed sitting on a
    trailer at the 1963 Sebring but although the records show it should have raced ,for some reason it was substituted in the actual race .T conrero was a fixed head coupe with a lightweight aluminium body and a much more powerful version of the twin overhead cam engine than in the TRS ,so it should have been much faster !
    Does anybody have any photographs of the Conrero or know the reason why it did not race
    Both cars were owned by Charlie Kolb and entered by KEYMO MOTORS
    I would like to hear from anybody with any imformation .
    Kelvin Smith–kelvin [email protected]

  18. In the early 60s when I was in elementary school, my Dad was part of the volunteer medical staff at Sebring. He used to pull me and my brother out of school and we would head down to Sebring a couple of weeks early. Dad did a lot of the pre-race physicals and a LOT of partying with the people he knew. Dad always had a Porsche or a 289 Cobra. We would drive down with one of us riding with Dad and the other riding in Mom’s station wagon. A fort of mini convoy. So I was at this race in 1963.

    I wish I had paid better attention to some things. That year we stayed at a motel on the edge of town. Also staying there was a team from Italy racing the Alfa Romeos that looked a lot like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfa_Romeo_Giulia_TZ

    They were fun guys. The physicals were on the second floor of the old Sebring fire station. It was pretty fascinating to watch Dad interact with all these race drivers; many of whom were highly temperamental.

    One story: Dad’s Cobra wasn’t running right so he dropped by the Cobra team’s facilities one day during the week before the race (Dad knew somebody who knew somebody). They diagnosed the problem (someone had given it the same timing as you would for a 225 hp 289) and one of the drivers offered to drive it around the track with Dad as a passenger. Dad used to claim it was Ken Miles, but I can’t vouch for that. Anyway, off they went leaving me with a coke and huge candy bar (I was about 7 or 8). After a while Dad’s car came back with the team driver driving it. He got out of the car laughing and told me Dad was walking back. What happened is that the driver proceeded to flog Dad’s Cobra around the track at near racing speed. Dad begged him to stop. Dad got out and walked back. It scared him that badly. He told me years later that he finally understood from that drive exactly what it means to drive on the very edge of control at very high speeds. He said the prospect of instant death was palpable. During that drive at those speeds Dad said he truly didn’t understand how anyone could possibly survive. Dad’s Walter Mitty dreams of being an amateur gentleman racer were thoroughly destroyed that day.

    Another thing that used to fascinate me at the track were those huge old airplanes that Ulmann was parting out as a business venture. There was a long line of those old Flying Boxcars in various states of disassembly. Near those was a truly massive airplane. It was a four-engine transport and it was extremely ratty looking but intact. I remember my Dad and his friends laughing about it, and wondering how such a huge thing had even landed at that small airport. Somebody said that had heard that it had landed some years before and then they discovered that the runway was too short for it to take off. I don’t know. After seeing some really bad, distant pictures of the thing and looking at pictures of air transports from that era and earlier I’d venture to say that that plane might have been one of these: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_R6V_Constitution

    There were only two of those made, so I don’t know. I know one of them ended up in Florida. The stories conflict. My memories of those races are great though. I was already a huge gearhead and it was fascinating. It was the first place too that I had ever seen so many “adults” in full bore party mode.

  19. As usual, pictures are incredible ! fantastic !
    Thanks a lot for this article !
    Congratulations from Paris !!

  20. Does anyone have any photographs of the CONRERO TRIUMPH which Mike Cook took a picture of sitting on a trailer in the carpark at 1963 Sebring
    Car No 40 mentioned in the caption for Tom BIGELOW s photograph is not the Conrero but one of the ex Triumph factory TRS cars that won the team prize at LeMans 24hr race–both cars were owned by CHARLIE KOLB and were entered in the name of KEMO MOTORS
    All the Best
    Kelvin Smith

  21. Fantastic photos and article! This was the first car race I attended when I was 10 years old and I’ve been a sports car racing and Formula One fan ever since. Sports Car Digest is a great magazine, wish I was aware of it sooner.

  22. Great re-reading this ; thanks Sports Car Digest for the reminder that Lou’s stories are classics and are meant to be read and re-read over and over.

  23. Great story and photos, Louis . I went to the 64 race and am hoping to see a similar story on that one.

  24. Found very late, but it’s never too late for a good story and great photos!You brought back that 60’s racing feeling, well done Louis!