1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – Race Profile

And Then The Rains Came – The 1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance

Story by Louis Galanos. Black and white photos by Dave Nicholas and color photos by Walker Fricks, Jr.

Winning Chaparral 2A of Jim Hall and Hap SharpWhether driver, crew member, race official or spectator, no one who attended the 1965 running of the 12 Hours of Sebring will ever forget that race.

A record crowd of over 50,000 race fans came expecting a race to remember, and the foremost sports car race in this country didn’t disappoint them. The drama that ensued both on the track and off became the stuff of legends and is still talked about and written about today.

This was the era known at the Golden Age of Sports Car Endurance Racing where it was customary that the majority of the cars on the grid would be owned and piloted by what was referred to as “privateers” or gentlemen (and sometimes lady) racers.

These privateers and their cars were very different from today’s drivers and race cars because what you saw on the track and in the pits back then were entrants without the ubiquitous patches, logos and graphics that make today’s race cars and drivers look like moving billboards. It was a simpler time, and perhaps, a better time.

The 1965 Sebring race was not without a bit of controversy even before the starting flag fell. The previous year the U.S. representatives to the sanctioning body for sports car endurance racing (FIA) had convinced that body to repeal its engine size limit of 3000cc’s on prototype cars and allow the creation of an unrestricted sports car category.

Alec Ulmann, the creator and promoter of the 12-hour race, also worked a little magic and got the competition arm of FIA, known as CSI, to allow both prototype cars and large-displacement sports cars to race in the same event (Sebring in particular) even though their own regulations prohibited this. These changes went into effect in January of 1965.

Knowing that these rules changes would allow the popular big-block American sports cars to compete against the best that Europe had to offer, Mr. Ulmann decided to invite Texas oilman Jim Hall to enter his race-winning, Chevrolet powered Chaparral cars to the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Ulmann’s decision to invite the Chaparral team was predicated on the belief that American sports car fans, as well as the media, would flock to Sebring to see Chevy, Ford, and Ferrari duke it out to see who was top dog in the world of endurance racing. He wanted those extra gate receipts and prestige that such a match up would bring and as history shows us he got what he was asking for and then some.

The Chaparrals (Spanish for road runner), were equipped with a 5.4-liter aluminum-block Chevrolet engines and an unorthodox “secret” automatic transmission. In 1964 Chaparrals won the Sports Car Club of America’s United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC). USRRC events were much shorter events (usually 2 hours) than Sebring and there was some question if the Chaparrals could last 12 hours. To find out for himself Jim Hall shipped a car and crew to Sebring in late February and after several days of rigorous testing there and at Rattlesnake Raceway in Texas he was satisfied that the car could take anything that Sebring could throw at it.

Both Ford and Ferrari knew that they were at a weight disadvantage with the much lighter (by 600 pounds) Chaparrals and if they expected to come in first overall at Sebring the “Dark Horse” Chaparrals had to fail. In 1964 the Ford program to beat Ferrari was run out of England. However their attempt to develop a prototype car that would be a Ferrari beater was a miserable failure. At the end of that year Henry Ford II turned over the GT program to Carroll Shelby who had shown great success in 1964 with his Cobra cars. Shelby had five Cobras finish in the top ten at Sebring that year. Ford believed that Shelby knew how to win.

Right out of the starting gate in 1965 a Ford powered Shelby GT40 came in first at the 2000-kilometer Daytona Continental. This was remarkable since the Shelby American organization had only two months to prepare for Daytona after Ford dumped the GT program in their lap.

1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – Pre-race Photos

Two Shelby Ford GT40s on their way to track
Downtown Sebring and locals witness two Shelby Ford GT40’s on their way back to the track after completing tech inspection. In order to get inspected you had to drive, or tow, your unlicensed race car several miles from the track to the downtown fire station.
All American Lotus 19J-Ford driven by Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant
The #23 All American Lotus 19J-Ford driven by Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant. It sported a 4.7 liter Ford Cobra engine.
Gurney/Grant Lotus 19J
The Gurney/Grant Lotus 19J being pushed back to the airport garage in the days preceding the race. The theory about being the ‘rabbit’ never panned out because the car lost its chain drive on the oil pump around lap 43 and had to retire.
Race cars lined up waiting for inspection.
Race cars lined up waiting for inspection. The #17 car is the Shaw Racing Team Shelby Cobra that was driven by Dick Thompson and Graham Shaw. The car finished 19th.
Factory Triumph Spitfires waiting for tech inspection
This odd juxtaposition of images of the two factory Triumph Spitfires waiting for tech inspection while local residents play shuffleboard nearby. The #66 Spitfire was driven by Bob Tullius and Charles Gates and finished 30. The #67 Spitfire was driven by Ed Barker, Duane Feuerhelm and Mike Rothschild and finished 29th.

In 1965 the Sebring 12-Hour Race was the only sports car race in America contributing points to the FIA world manufacturer’s title which was perennially won by Ferrari. Ford was determined to win that much coveted title and dethrone Ferrari. This determination was a direct result of Ford’s failure to buy Ferrari from Enzo Ferrari two years earlier when negotiations collapsed at a very late date and after much money was spent by Ford.

Henry Ford II then embarked on a multimillion dollar program to build a car that could beat Ferrari on its own turf. This much written about battle is today referred to as The Ford – Ferrari Wars and in this war, Ford was determined to win at Sebring.

At the 12-hour event in Florida Shelby had no less than six cars entered and they hoped to repeat the success they had at Daytona a month earlier. At Sebring their stable of cars included two Ford GT40’s and four of the six (Pete Brock designed) Cobra Daytona Coupes in existence at that time. In addition there were 12 drivers, more than 20 pit crew and mechanics plus a cadre of specialists whose sole job was to assist anyone else in the race who was driving a Ford or Cobra product. Ford wanted this win and they were willing to dig deep to pay for it.

The Cobra Daytona Coupes were in the all important Grand Touring Class and this group was the only one eligible for points in the pursuit of the world manufacturer crown. The GT’s were in the prototype class and not eligible for points. However, if they came in first overall they would receive the lion’s share of publicity and some prize money. The total prize purse for Sebring was a modest $40,000 and when the race finally ended the overall winning drivers walked away with the princely sum of $2,000. Obviously the folks back then were not in this game for the prize money.

In a huff over the new rules for 1965 and Ulmann’s decision to allow sports cars to compete for the overall win, Enzo Ferrari did what he had been threatening for months. He “officially” withdrew his factory cars from the Sebring event despite the fact that his cars had won there the previous four years. His displeasure was compounded by the fact that race officials had determined that his new 3.3 liter machines had a ground clearance too low for the prototype class and instead were placed in the new unrestricted sports car class against the much lighter and faster Chaparrals. Ferrari also forbid his U.S. representative Luigi Chinetti and the North American Racing Team to field any cars under the NART or Ferrari banner at Sebring. Even world champion John Surtees was told he couldn’t drive at Sebring because he was under exclusive contract to Ferrari. Hell hath no fury like an Italian scorned.

Ferrari later relented and turned over a couple of his fastest machines, plus factory drivers and mechanics to run at Sebring under the guise of being private entries. Even John Surtees was allowed to attend the race but only as a “consultant.” One of Enzo’s best cars at Sebring was the #30 blue-and-white 330P with a 4-liter Super America engine. It was “loaned” to wealthy oilman John Mecom, Jr. of Houston, Texas to race as a “private entry” with Graham Hill and Pedro Rodriguez driving.

In addition to the 330P, Mecom Racing had two other cars entered at Sebring that year. The #22 Lola T70 Mk.1-Ford driven by John Cannon and Jack Saunders. The Lola was making its international debut at Sebring. They also fielded the #29 Ferrari 250 LM co-driven by Mark Donohue (in his first professional race) and Walt Hansgen. It must be noted that Mecom mechanics serviced the Lola and 250 LM but factory Ferrari mechanics worked on the 330P. A bit obvious don’t you think?

Lola T70 Mk.1 of Mecom Racing Team
The Lola T70 Mk I of Mecom Racing Team getting ready for Tech Inspection. The car was driven by John Cannon and Jack Saunders. It failed to finish due to oil cooler problems.
The Mecom garage at the Sebring Raceway on Friday night.
The Mecom garage at the Sebring Raceway on Friday night. The mechanics are putting the finishing touches on the #22 Lola T70 Mk.1 and the #29 Ferrari 250 LM that will be driven by Walt Hansgen and Mark Donohue.
Working on the Zerex Special
A mechanic hard at work on the Mecom Lola T70 Mk. 1 of John Cannon and Jack Saunders. The car was known as the Zerex Special and sported a 4.7 liter Ford engine.
Lola T70 Mk. 1 of John Cannon and Jack Saunders
Lola T70 Mk. 1 of John Cannon and Jack Saunders failed to finish due to oil cooler problems.
Mecom Lola T70 Mk. 1
The Mecom Lola T70 Mk. 1 was fast but only lasted 55 laps with John Cannon and Jack Saunders at the wheel.

Another Ferrari from Modena at Sebring was the #33 Ferrari 275P. It was conveniently loaned to Kleiner Racing Enterprises of Austin, Texas along with Ferrari factory drivers Umberto Maglioli and Giancarlo Baghetti. Both of these so-called “private entry” teams were also allowed to use the factory mechanics and several vans full of spare parts. Enzo Ferrari knew that his cars might not be as fast or as powerful as the American machines but they had a reputation for durability and more than once had outlasted the competition.

In another fruitless attempt to say that both the Mecom and Kleiner organizations were privateers they became part of the hastily created Ferrari Owners Racing Association or FORA. Under this association all Ferrari entrants, not just Mecom and Kleiner, would be allowed to help each other.

1965 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance – Race Profile Continued

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  1. If anyone gives awards for the best vintage/historic story and photographic telling of a race this piece will be in the running. The best I have seen this year and for years past. Keep this stuff coming. Boy it makes me wish I was there like few stories have. From one old photographer to these two shooters wonderful images. Hard to put into words how good this piece is. Jamie lets get more stories and image collections like this.

    1. I was sitting on my amy bunk at Ft. Belvoir, VA listening to a live radio report of the race. One bunk over my buddy Ron (whom I met last week-end at the Watkins Glen Vintage GP) was routing for Chevy (by way of the Chaparrals). My favorite was Ferrari first, then maybe Shelby. Ron won!

  2. it was indeed a heroic race. One of the most magnificent little engined sportscars in this race was not mentioned, although it did beat most of its more powerful, more expensive cars in the race. I am talking about the Austin-Healey Sprite. This little 1300cc streamlined car came in 15th position. It was raced by Clive Baker and Raano Altonen, 2 rally pilots who could use their rally experience very well during the rain hours. Having narrow Dunlop racing tires helped to avoid aquaplanning. Still amazing that a car with only 1300 cc was clocked at 157 MpH. It won its prototype class and showed once again the genius of Donald Healey and its crew!

    1. You are correct Bruno. Because of their extensive rallying experience coupled with the narrow tires they found the wet pavement to their liking. At one point during the storm they passed one of the leading cars four times.

      1. Dear Lou, I have quite some original pictures of the Sebring Sprite “at Battle”. If you want I can share them with you! Kindest regards, Bruno

    2. As a Sprite owner and long-time fan of Sprite racers of all kinds, I too was looking for pics or a mention of the little alloy GT Sprites.

    3. Actually, I looked again and the Sprites were mentioned. The other car was driven by Paddy Hopkirk and Timo Makinen (sp?). That car finished 18th. Great Stuff.

  3. I went to most of the Sebring races in the ’60’s , but not in 1965.
    After reading and viewing the photos, I can say that I attended the 1965 Sebring 12 Hrs.
    Fantastic job, Lou.

  4. Great story and photos! I was there, but was more interested in a girl I was dating at the time. Now I know what happened during the race. Loved the pictures of the Don Yenko ’63 Vette. Thanks Lou!

  5. Lou,

    What a wonderful recounting of Sebring 1965 in word and image. It is good to know these memories will be preserved for future enthusiasts and of course some of us “old guys” who loved the era, the cars and the competition.


  6. I was there and spent the rain storm under the drive over bridge to the pits. No one came to run us off and it made for a great viewing area of the “pit river”. Watching drivers open their doors on the main straight to let water run out was an interesting sight.

  7. I was a sophomore in high school in 1965, and a big ChaparraL fan, and sitting on my desk right now is a model of the 2D, that won at the Nurburgring in 1966. I was not at the race, but I listened to it on the radio, and it was a very memorable day. Thanks for the great article and photos, bringing back some great memories.

  8. Louis
    Another great article. And another great race. These articles bring back so many on-rushing memories. I was there and the rains and wind were just tremendous. The travel trailer we were huddled in lifted up off the ground!
    Thanks for another great trip down the corridors of my mind.
    All the best

  9. I’m in complete agreement with all of my fellow ‘posters’ – amazing work and I very much look forward to more from Lou.
    Many thanks, Chris

  10. I almost attended this event. Myself and a friend hitchhiked across country from California and made it as far as Sarasota, Florida. There we were “detained” by local law enforcement and assigned to the County work gang.

    As an innocent 17 year old I had no problems from older, tougher inmates because I became pals with ex-boxing champion Tony DeMarco, in jail for an alcohol related offense.

    I did manage to listen to the race, along with other incarcerated race fans, on the radio. I don’t recall any static interference.

    After serving a short sentence for “vagrancy” I hitchhiked back to Monterey, CA. I missed Sebring but had one hell of an adventure.

  11. Really, really great pictures. Fantastic.

    One minor point. That picture of Carroll Shelby’s hands and a sheet of paper. I think he is checking tire temperatures and not pressures.

  12. Wow, Maybe one of the best fields of race cars and drivers ever assembled? Some months later I saw the Peter Clarke, Ferrari GTO for sale in Kensington, Maryland for 5K. Terrific article.

  13. I was a senior in high school and drove over with my buddies in a beetle. We watched the race from the straight before the hairpin. When the heavy rains came, the crowd lifted my VW up onto one of the old concrete foundations left from WWII. We stayed dry during the monsoon but everyone was intent on leaving after the race and we had no one to help get the car back on the ground. I backed it off using two 2x 4’s for a ramp. The crowd at the hairpin was wild – sitting up in the metal scaffolding during the lightning storm, cheering the little dayglo orange Sprite as it passed the GT 40s and Chaparral. I also have the Chaparral model on my desk -what a race and what memories. Thanks for the great article.

  14. Hi Lou:
    What a great in depth article and photos and comments on the cars and drivers!!!
    While I never attended any events at Sebring I remember articles and pictures appearing in Sports Car magazines at the time.
    A couple recollections of Sebring,I believe,was someone cutting a fairly large hole with tin snips in the top of a Daytona Coupe to vent the heat from the cockpit.
    The other was Sterling Moss interviewing Ken Miles after Ken had a shunt with his Cobra.Apparently Ken had warned the Cobra drivers about damaging their cars during practice.Sterling’s comment to ken was since he crashed first were the other drivers “Exonerated”if they crashed?Somehow that gave a new meaning to the word for me.
    Again superb article and pictures!!!!!!

  15. En ese entonces Tenia 11 años de edad y con mi primo eramos emfermos de fanaticos de los sport-prototipos Teniamos una pista de carreras donde sacabamos la escala 1/32 a nuestros amados autos y los corriamos 2 hrs!¡sabiamos de autos por las revistas americanas “cars racing”y Sport’s Ilustrade”ademas de L’omovile …Toda esta muestra de las 12 hrs sebring me llevo a ese entonces de mi juventud ¡Gracias Lou ! Por esta gran muestra con fotos y acontecimientos de esa epoca ,donde yo era fanatico de los Chaparral.Tambien Gracias a tu equipo y demas personas que laboran contigo !

    1. Muchas gracias Julian. Me alegra que la historia trajo cariño a la memoria del pasado. Al igual que usted creo que este fue un período maravilloso e histórico en el deporte de carreras de coches de la historia.

  16. Great story and pics louis , i can’t believe it could rain that much in 1 race. Good to hear from you again keep in touch.

  17. This story as portrayed by you Lou, captures the feeling of being there. Couple the story with the photos creates an experience that should be shared with every fledgling motorsport enthusiast. This will light the fire that will continue to burn the rest of their life.
    Well Done!

  18. Fantastically narrated, detailed story Lou! The photos are top-notch and really convey what the event was like. I can’t believe all that water!

  19. Hi Lou,
    I’ve lost track of how many times I have read your story now. Every time I do I remember something else of that week. Even the smell of Castrol R and orange blossoms comes through. There was a lighter side to things though; like when Bizzarrini removed his shoes when it began to rain and placed them at the back of the pit box near the drainage ditch. I’ll never forget how much time we spent, in vain, looking for his shoes. I can only imaging the look on people’s faces when he boarded the plane Sunday in his stocking feet. Great work Lou!

  20. Fabulous writing and truly great photos! I’ve seen your Flickr album and know you have a great number of special photos, but your writing here is another level. Thank you for your work on this, a treasure!
    LD71 😀

  21. Louis, I just got around to reading your published story yesterday. What a fascinating visit back to the good old days. When I look back on my life and things that I wanted to do and did not do. Attending a Sebring race is at the top of that list. Over the years I have looked back and regretted not having attending it when I could have. I still have a fascination with race cars from that era, especially the Shelby Cobra, (the replicas now). Thank you for putting me there through you’re in depth and captivating story.

  22. Absolutely amazing writing backed by equally stunning photos. I am too young to remember those days but this is a very insightful story, Thanks so much for sharing this Louis.

  23. My Dad and I drove from NC to Sebring in a brand new Camero RS. I had just gotten my learners permit. Will never forget the sound of the Ferrari engines and fell in love with one called the GTO. At the time, I had no idea of what I was attending, but my love for that GTO, now owned by Rick Mason and probably valued at 10’s of millions of $$$ still lives on.

    1. That had to be a special car, since Chevrolet didn’t start selling them until the 1967 model year.


  25. Great read. My wife was at that race.(her last one) I had classes and couldn’t get away. My Father-in-law built the MG bridge pictured, and a couple more things at the old course. I sneaked onto the course many times to wring out my Volvo on visits to Sebring. Brings back great memories.

  26. I was at this race! It was my first big race and I didn’t know what to expect. The story is quite accurate and captures the feeling of the day, especially the storm. We spent most of the day at the hairpin and had a great view of the incoming and outgoing cars. Highlight of the day was an Austin-Healy Sprite passing the Chaparral leaving the hairpin. The water was so deep the Chaparral had to tip toe away while the smaller Sprite just gave it the usual floorboard!

  27. We had gone down for the entire race week. Bike races then too. Night before the race crowd when crazy, we had camped on the outside of the big curve before the start finish straight. People driving through the snow fences, doing donuts with tents all around, seriously scary. Who could forget the topless bimbos dancing on car roofs. Heat and sun were so bad, that 2 days before we had wandered into Webster’s garage to get out of the sun. They told us we could watch the race from there. Wise choice, When the rains came the crowd broke the fences and ran across the track for the warehouse. Team managers ordered all the doors locked. We had people beating on the doors. It was Like that scene from Key Largo with the indians wanting to get out of the hurricane.! Stayed dry though. When we got back to our tent, it had been flattened and looted.

  28. Fantastic race and a great article of the event. Keep up the good work. When I was fifteen I went to Bridgehampton and saw jim Hall’s Number 65 and 66 race and blow off the entire fleet. I still have some brownie camera images that I took in the pits.

    Now is the author going to cover the 1952 Sebring race. My uncle had a buddy that came in second place overall in a Cunningham? I met him at my Uncles wedding His name is Harry Price.

  29. My first read since my new subscribed, and I have already forwarded it to a friend.  Very good read, “thanks” for all your hard work and background into the articles.

  30. I grew up near the track and love the grand old track that keeps on challenging the best cars money can build. Lou is an extraordinary gentleman. Had the pleasure of meeting him in Sebring at the Kenilworth to pick up DVD’s I purchased. Great racing historian and love you writing sir. All the best! Go Gators!

  31. Your articles are always a great read and the pictures are wonderful. This is the second time I’ve read this one and I found something I’m not sure is accurate: “The last time an American car with an American driver won a major international sports car race was at the 1921 French Grand Prix when Duesenberg came in first.”

    A great win by a great American driver Jimmy Murphy. Though the French weren’t very happy about it.

    However, Phil Walters and John Fitch won Sebring in 1953 in a Cunningham C4R Chrysler and Sebring was one of the FIA championship races that year. I’m not old enough to remember that one but I did see the car a couple years ago at the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia.

  32. I was there having hitch hiked down from U of F in Gainsville. You could stand along the highway with a sign “Sebring” and get a ride to the track (180 miles) in 10-20 minutes tops. I remember wandering the pits and makeshift team shops the night before the race and finding the Chaparral in a quonset hut and other teams variously housed. It was truly the golden era of sports car racing and a unique blend of international flavor in sleepy small town.

  33. There was also a motorcycle race at Sebring in 1965, but not at the same date as the 12-hr race. There were several categories depending on piston displacement, from 500 cc to to 125 cc, maybe more. I was there and took pictures, but I do not know the date, organizer, or any other data. Can anyone provide data?