Michael Keyser and Bruce Jennings bit the dust on lap 23 when their Toad Hall Racing Porsche 911S expired. I communicated with Keyser about his remembrances of the race and he responded with this:
“I don’t remember much about the race. I do remember we stayed at a motel on the right side of Route 27 headed south and right across from Lake Jackson.
It was my first time driving at Sebring and I was surprised how rough it was. At night practice I followed a car ahead of me who had gone off the circuit, thinking he knew where he was going…wrong. In the same practice, coming out of the Green Park Chicane, I guess I held up Jacky Ickx in the Ferrari 312P because he pulled alongside and slowed and shook his fist. A few years later when I got to know him I “reminded” him about that. “Who? Me??? I’d never do anything like that.” Right.
I started the race and on the first lap I had so much adrenaline pumping that my foot was jumping off the accelerator going down one of the runways. I had to hold my leg down with my right hand! I remember fighting with the #29 914/6 and then there was a big bang and I lost power. When I got back to the pits, there was a hole in the block and a lot of oil…and a badly bent titanium rod. End of story.”
Keyser and Jennings were soon followed behind the pit wall by the MGB of Jim Gammon and Dean Donley after their engine died. Before the checkered flag would be waved 22 more cars would suffer mechanical issues and fail to finish.
As the first hour of racing came to an end pit crews all along the front straight started getting ready for the first pit stop for their car. In the Gulf pits they had already determined what the fuel limits were on each car and each driver was told when to bring in the car. As a reminder to drivers a pit crew member was usually sent out to the pit wall to signal the driver with one word, “IN”.
Up in the pit box an observer saw the #1 Siffert 917 coming down the back straight and into turn 12. They shouted to the crew member at the pit wall that Siffert was coming so he could put up the signal which Siffert saw and signaled he had seen it.
The low-fuel light was already on and this worried Siffert but less than a lap awaited him. As luck would have it the car died after entering turn 10. For those of you who remember the old 5.2-mile circuit, turn 10 is the furthest point from the pits and at the tip of the almost mile long North/South runway.
Being out in the middle of nowhere was not lost on Siffert. Initially he decided to hoof it back to the pits for a can of fuel. However, at the last second, he decided to hitch a ride on the motorcycle of a corner marshal so off they went arriving at the paddock/pit area in short order.
This decision by Siffert has been second guessed for years because it was well known by all that, under these circumstances, a driver cannot accept assistance of any kind in getting back to the pits. To do so risked disqualification from the race. This is what happened to Stirling Moss in 1959 for doing the same exact thing. While the stewards didn’t disqualify Siffert they did penalize his car four laps. Added to that were the additional 19 laps lost before he got back to the car, now on foot, then fueling the car and driving it back to the pits for a fill-up. The failure of the stewards to disqualify Siffert did not set well with some Sebring veterans and suggestions of favoritism for big name drivers and teams was raised.
Both during and after the race the motoring press was critical of this “stupid mistake” and blamed Siffert for not pitting before he ran out of gas or blamed the pit crew for miscalculating how many laps could be run before refueling. Siffert’s use of a motorcycle to get back to the pits also came under harsh scrutiny. In the minds of many these actions may have cost the Gulf team the win.
In John Horsman’s 2006 book, Racing In The Rain, John Wyer’s chief engineer for the Gulf 917 team tried to explain what happened. According to him they had determined how many laps could be completed on the Sebring 5.2-mile circuit before they had to bring in the two 917s for refueling. These calculations were a result of their vast experience with both cars.
Siffert was told earlier to bring in his car on lap 26 and to remind him he was also signaled to do just that. Unfortunately, the car ran out of fuel after completing half of lap 26 and at the furthest point on the track from the pits.
After the race it was determined, by fuel consumption figures, that Siffert’s 917 consumed quite a bit more fuel per 100 kilometers than the other 917. Somewhere there had to be a leak so they ran numerous tests on the car and found nothing. They could only conclude that there “…was a fault in the metering unit, as no leaks could be found.”