Sebring Saga – The Story of Two Bizzarrini Iso Grifos at the 1965 Sebring 12 Hour Grand Prix
By Louis Galanos | Photos as credited
In March the Sebring International Raceway (SIR) will celebrate a couple of anniversaries that are part of the significant motorsports history of that legendary track.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first win by BMW with the overall honors going to British driver Brian Redman and Australian Allan Moffat who started the race in their BMW 3.0 CSL. The racing CSL’s were very successful in the European Touring Car Championship as well as the IMSA GT Championship in the 1970’s. With their full aerodynamic package they also went by the nickname “Batmobile”. BMW is planning a celebration of that win at Sebring this year.
2015 is also the 50th anniversary of the overall victory by Texans Jim Hall and Hap Sharp who delivered an unexpected win in their American-made Chaparral 2A. Prior to 1965 the last time an American-made car had won at Sebring was the Cunningham C4R of John Fitch and Phil Walters in 1953.
The 1965 win by a Chaparral with its unorthodox automatic transmission is now part of motorsports history and in the record books. However, one aspect of the race that is often overlooked is the tropical deluge of rain that struck the track half way through the race changing the outcome for many entrants.
One of those entrants that felt the wrath of Sebring weather that year was the two car team of Chevy-powered Bizzarrini Iso Grifo A3C coupes entered by Italian auto manufacturer Giotto Bizzarrini of Livorno, Italy. Bizzarrini was a chief engineer at Ferrari in the 1950s but during the major upheaval at the factory in 1961 he left and eventually formed his own company, Bizzarrini SpA where he built handmade cars for the street and racing. One thing unique about his Italian-made cars was that they were powered by Chevrolet V8 engines.
As a small Italian auto manufacturer Mr. Bizzarrini knew that success in racing usually meant better sales at the showroom. A win or high placement at North America’s premier sports car race would go a long way in promoting sales in the U.S. and Europe.
The Bizzarrini Iso Grifo A3C was the competition version of the A3L super coupe and in 1964 did quite well at Le Mans, Monza, Targa Florio and the one car entered at Sebring managed to finish. A repeat trip to Sebring was needed and plans were made to ship two race cars to the U.S. A good finish at Sebring in 1965 might be just what was needed to boost sales in the U.S. especially in the car crazy culture of Southern California.
Going to Sebring from Italy was a monumental and expensive undertaking for such a small company and Mr. Bizzarrini sought the help of C. Rino Argento who had numerous contacts in the U.S. racing community. A native Italian Mr. Argento had been living in the U.S. and working in the American automotive industry for many years. Racing teams like Ferrari, Maserati and Abarth had enlisted his help in the past with dealing with the myriad of problems associated with shipping race cars from Italy to Sebring for the race.
Mr. Argento told his story about his adventure with the Bizzarrini team at Sebring in 1965 in the Spring 2001 issue of The Griffon (The magazine of the Iso & Bizzarrini Owner’s Club). In that story he told how he arranged for accommodations for the Bizzarrini team, garage space for the cars in Sebring, transportation for the cars when they arrived at the port of Jacksonville, Florida as well as arranging for fuel, tires and other items needed for the race.
With his many contacts in U.S. motorsports Mr. Argento was instrumental in recruiting two American drivers for the Bizzarrini team who would drive the #9 Iso Grifo A3C during the race. The other two drivers were recruited by Mr. Bizzarrini and would be coming over from Europe with him. They were Swiss driver Silvio Moser and Italian Mario Casoni.
The Americans, Charlie Rainville and Mike Gammino, were both highly respected drivers from Rhode Island. Rainville was a Sebring veteran of long standing while Gammino had vast experience driving Ferraris in SCCA club events.
According to Mr. Argento both Rainville and Gammino were willing to drive at Sebring for no compensation. In addition they would bring along their own mechanics and family members to help crew. Rainville’s wife was experienced doing lap charts for her husband and was recruited to do the same for the Bizzarrini team. Getting people to volunteer their services at their own expense was not uncommon during this period. For some going to Sebring was at the top of their “bucket list” and this offer to be part of the action was too good to pass up. By the time the cars arrived from Italy Mr. Argento had a full complement of experienced personnel ready to support the team and at no additional cost to Mr. Bizzarrini and his car company. Such was the draw of being at Sebring in the 1960’s.
During the race Mr. Bizzarrini would supervise the #8 car and their European drivers while Mr. Argento would supervise the Americans in the #9 car. This led to some conflict when Mr. Argento advised Mr. Bizzarrini to use Castrol brake fluid for the #8 car like he was using in the #9 car. It had a much higher boiling point than the Dunlop fluid recommended by the brake manufacturer. Mr. Bizzarrini dismissed the advice.
Because they were on a shoe string budget the four drivers were admonished not to push too hard during practice and qualifying. Regardless, the cars were very quick and the Chevy V8 engines held the promise of a lot of extra power if needed during the race. The #8 car was gridded 24th and the #9 car was gridded 25th out of the 66 cars that started the race. On the pole was the eventual winning Chaparral 2A with a mind-boggling time of 2:57.6 while the best time for the Bizzarrini team was 3:20 flat. This time didn’t reflect the true potential of the cars but the strategy was to finish and not break anything getting there. They fully expected that the early “hard chargers” would fall by the way side and one or both team cars would steadily move up the ranks.
The morning of Saturday, March 27 dawned with some ground fog blanketing the nearby orange groves. Weather predictions for race day were for temperatures in the 70-to-80 degree range and clearing. However, by 8:30 a.m. it was already approaching an uncomfortable 90 degrees with high humidity.
The previous day there were weather reports, on distant radio stations, about a line of severe thunderstorms scheduled to move across the peninsula of Florida bringing strong winds and heavy rain. Unfortunately local radio updates to that weather report were next to impossible to find on the radio during race day because both the U.S. government and the Communist government of Cuba were blocking radio transmissions to and from the south Florida area. This had been going on for years following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Out at the front gate of the track there was already a traffic jam that at one time extended up to 12 miles. In the heat of the morning disabled cars were being pushed onto the grass along the entrance road with hoods up and steam pouring from radiators. Some race fans would not get into the track until three hours after the start of the race.
By 9:30 a.m. almost all of the race cars were in place on the grid in preparation for the start. Temperatures were now 94 degrees in the spectator area and a blistering 130 degrees on the track. The governor of Florida was given the privilege of dropping the starting flag at 10 a.m. and the 66 drivers sprinted 25 feet across the track to their cars in what was referred to in those days as the Le Mans-style start.
First away was the Corvette Grand Sport of Delmo Johnson. As others buckled up their seat belts Delmo did not and got away in a hurry. Films show the car leaving the grid with the driver door swinging open as he raced down the front straight. For the first two laps he had to grip the steering wheel tightly to prevent being thrown around inside the car. While on the back straight during lap two he took a moment to buckle up.
On that first lap Rainville ran into trouble when two cars ahead of him made contact. To avoid them he went off the pavement spinning on the grass and going through the flimsy snow fencing used to restrain the crowds. Two race fans were struck and injured. He returned to the track to continue the race while emergency personnel tended to the injured.
This would not be the last he would hear about the accident because after the race a personal injury lawsuit was filed against him. According to Rainville’s son, Paul, the legal action seemed to drag on for years until it was finally settled.
The decision by Mr. Bizzarrini to go with the brake fluid recommended by Dunlop was beginning to tell because by lap 12 the #8 car was experiencing severe brake fade as the brake fluid began to boil and evaporate in the extreme heat. With slightly more than an hour of racing on the clock the Bizzarrini’s brakes were totally gone and when driver Silvio Moser approached the infamous Hairpin turn he had no brakes. He headed for the escape road but managed to plunge into the crowd near the turn hitting a VW microbus. One report indicated that no one was injured but another report indicated that two occupants of the bus sustained minor injuries. The severely damaged race car was moved away from the crowd lest souvenir hunters strip it. The #8 Bizzarrini was officially retired on lap 16. The car’s co-driver, Mario Casoni, never got a chance to drive the car.
The Bizzarrini team was not the only ones who suffered from problems early in the race. Dan Gurney led for several laps in his All-American Lotus 19J-Ford but had to retire on lap 43 when the chain drive on the oil pump failed. Cars were entering the pits for unscheduled pit stops on a regular basis due to overheating. When the hoods were lifted on those cars and the radiator caps removed geysers of steam would erupt into the air. One mechanic was slightly scalded and had to be treated at the hospital tent at the end of pit road. The third place #4 Bruce Jennings, Ronnie Hissom Chaparral had to pit with battery problems that some said was related to the heat. It took 45 minutes to resolve before the car was able to reenter the race.
The #9 Bizzarrini continued on a steady pace and it was beginning to pay off as their class competition pitted or retired with a variety of ailments. This included a couple of Shelby Cobras, Ferraris and the Richie Ginther – Phil Hill Ford GT40 which retired after 37 laps with a broken suspension. These retirements allowed the Rainville/Gammino car to move up the overall standings and higher in the Sports Racing class.
By 4 p.m. the Rainville/Gammino Bizzarrini Iso Grifo A3C was in the top ten overall standings. As the traffic had thinned over the 5.2 mile circuit both Bizzarrini drivers were able to establish a set pace that they hoped would continue to move them up the ranks.
The Hall/Sharp Chaparral continued to lead at this time with the Graham Hill, Pedro Rodriguez Ferrari 330P second and the Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren Ford GT40 third. Positions had not changed for the top three by 5 p.m. but very dark clouds were approaching from the northwest and a storm was imminent. It became so dark that a few racers found it necessary to turn on their driving lights.
Charlie Rainville brought in the car for the scheduled 5 p.m. pit stop and driver change. Mike Gammino was delayed in taking over the car because mechanics found that, due to the extreme heat on the track, the brake calipers had become distorted. Changing the brake pads would need extra time.
Twenty-five minutes later the storm hit with surprising force. The initial winds exceeded 50 mph and causing the Good Year blimp, Mayflower, to stand straight up on its nose. The ground crew rushed to secure the air ship lest it break free from its mooring. A few of the tents and temporary structures in the spectator area were either blown away or blown over. One tent ended up in the branches of a nearby tree with its tie-down ropes and tent stakes still attached.
Then the rains descended like a gray wall of water on the track cutting visibility almost to zero. By most accounts at least 5 inches of rain fell during the early stages of the storm totally overwhelming the track’s drainage system.
Under these conditions race cars lap times began to double, then triple as the cars plowed through standing water on the track. Water levels reached eight inches or more in some areas. More than one car stopped on the track or sputtered into the pits with soaked ignitions and didn’t get going until their distributor and electrics were dried out.
Because of the newly constructed protective pit wall the pit lane was awash and looked like a canal to everyone. Spare tires and other items were seen floating around in the pit enclosures and tools disappeared in the water. Drivers, crew and race officials waded in water approaching eight or more inches. Some will always remember the comical sight of Carroll Shelby with the brim of his soaked black Stetson down around his ears standing in water up to his ankles.
On the race course the cars with wide race tires began to aquaplane and lose traction and handling. Some drivers and crew said later they were waiting for the race officials to red flag the race because conditions were too dangerous. That decision was never made and the rains and the race continued unabated.
In the Bizzarrini pits the brakes had been repaired and Mike Gammino jumped into the car and tore out of the pit and into the storm. He was going to try to make up for the time lost due to the long brake repair but the heavy rain complicated things for him and everyone else on the track.
The water rose steadily in the Bizzarrini pits and Mr. Bizzarrini took off his expensive Italian shoes and socks and placed them on a box in the corner of the pit stall. He then rolled up his pants legs and went back to work managing the one car they had left in the race.
In the meantime the water rose even higher and spare tires and other flotsam and jetsam began floating around with some making an exit out the back door of the pit and into the flooded paddock. Bizzarrini’s shoes went that route never to be seen again. The next day, when he boarded his plane back to Italy, he was in his stocking feet.
When Mike Gammino got into the #9 Iso Grifo A3C, after the brakes had been repaired, it was raining very hard and in his haste to return to the contest he neglected to buckle his seat belt. Three laps later the car came around turn twelve and onto the front straight. Gammino accelerated as he passed the start-finish and the car began to hydroplane and lose control. The car struck a support for the Mercedes-Benz pedestrian bridge broadside cutting the car in two pieces with the split coming right behind the driver’s door.
When the corner workers arrived to render assistance they found Mike Gammino in his seat in the front half of the car. His hands were still on the steering wheel. The driver’s seat was still firmly affixed to the floor. His firmly affixed seat belts were with the back half of the car which was now twenty-plus feet distant. It was sheer luck that neither piece of the car ended up in the nearby spectator enclosure.
It was still raining heavily when Gammino exited the wrecked car and in his shocked state didn’t take note of the condition of the car. After the corner workers determined that he didn’t suffer any serious injuries he was allowed to walk back to the pits where he met up with his father and some of the Bizzarrini crew. He was approached by co-driver Charlie Rainville, who asked , “…how bad’s the car?” Mike replied, “don’t know.” Charlie said, “Well, let’s go see.”
They turned around and walked the few yards to the accident scene. Gammino took one look at the car, cut in two with the pieces over twenty feet apart, and promptly fainted. As you can imagine, if he had buckled his seat belt he might have been cut in two when the two pieces of the car separated. It was indeed a lucky day for Mike Gammino. However, for Giotto Bizzarrini, C. Rino Argento and all the others who had worked so hard for the team their luck had run out. Not only were their two cars out of the race but both were wrecked beyond repair. Fortunately there were no serious injuries to any of the drivers involved in the accidents.
The race continued without the Bizzarrini team. The skies began to clear and the rain dissipated. The soft porous sands of South Florida quickly absorbed the flood and the lap times began to improve for the cars remaining in the race.
Over at the timing and scoring shed the standings after the rain storm showed some dramatic changes. The small displacement cars running on narrow tires knifed their way through the standing water while the big displacement cars with wide tires were lucky to stay on the track at 30 m.p.h. The #61 Sebring Sprite of Clive Baker and Rauno Aaltonen passed a Ford GT40 three times in a short period of time while the #62 Sebring Sprite of Paddy Hopkirk and Timo Makinen passed the leading Chaparral four times in the rain. At the end of the race both Sprites were in the top 20 which was unusual for them. It was all due to the rain.
Having been passed four times by a Sprite the leading Hall/Sharp Chaparral decided to pit at 5:50 p.m. and wait out the storm. This stop lasted for approximately for 15 minutes according to the official time charts. When they returned to the race they were still in first place.
And that is the way it stayed until the checker flag at 10 p.m. The Jim Hall, Hap Sharp Chaparral was first with 197 laps completed and 1,019.2 miles covered with an average speed of 84.723 m.p.h. Not a record and you can blame the deluge for that.
In second place and four laps down was the Ford GT40 of Ken Miles and Bruce McLaren. David Piper and Tony Maggs finished third and first in class in their British racing green Ferrari 250 LM. Fourth place went to Bob Bondurant and Jo Schlesser in their Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe while coming in fifth overall was the Porsche 904 of Gunther Klass and Lake Underwood.
Early the next day a wrecker was summoned to the Sebring track to pick up what was left of the #9 Iso Grifo A3C. It was then transported to the Pontiac garage in the heart of Sebring where the Bizzarrini team had its headquarters and those that still remained of the team stood around commiserating with each other about what happened the day before.
In that group was a southern California automotive legend by the name of Max Balchowsky. In the 1950s and ’60s he was the go-to person if you wanted a hot rod built or sports car modified for racing. Max was in line to be a Bizzarrini dealer and had attended the Sebring race to provide support for Mr. Bizzarrini. Max had agreed to take the two severely damaged cars back to his shop in California and reconstruct one serviceable and salable car from the undamaged parts.
The two wrecked cars eventually made their way to Balchowsky’s shop, Hollywood Motors, in Hollywood, California. Eventually the project became too much work and expense for him and he sold the unfinished car to Ferrari collector Ed Niles who later sold it to Ralph Brouett, an expert in automotive paint and body work, who finished the project. After little more than a year it was sold to an unknown person and from that point has not been seen again. Today at least two people in Europe claim they have the reconstructed Bizzarrini made from the two Sebring cars but reports indicate that both are fakes made in shops known for replica vintage autos.
While the Bizzarrini foray into Sebring in 1965 was an unmitigated disaster they fared better at Le Mans in 1965 with a class win and coming in ninth overall. Like at Sebring that year the entry of a Bizzarrini Iso Grifo A3C at Le Mans was done with minimal help from the factory and lots of help from volunteers. A3Cs were widely raced in Europe and America in the mid-1960s and in ’64 & ’65 were clocked as one of the fastest cars on the Le Mans Mulsanne straight. The Bizzarrini factory closed production in 1969 but was revived at the turn of this century under new ownership and producing limited production concept cars. Giotto Bizzarrini will turn 89 this year but is still active with private consulting activities in his native Italy. C. Rino Argento passed away in 2014 at the age of 84.
For Additional Reading
“Sebring 1965”, by Steve Smith, Car & Driver Magazine, June 1965, p. 28 – 34
Sebring: The Official History of America’s Great Sports Car Race, by Ken Breslauer, David Bull Publishing, 1995
“Texans Strike Oil In Sebring”, by Gregor Grant. Autosport Magazine, April 2, 1965, p. 500-506
The Sebring Story, by Alec Ulmann, Chilton Publishing, 1969
“The 12-Hours of Sebring”, New York Times, March 28, 1965
Two Crashed Iso Grifo/Bizzarrini Race Cars Are Still Missing – Sebring 12 Hours 1965, by Mike Gulett, www.mycarquest.com