Sebring 1953 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Barry Foster   
Saturday, 02 April 2011 03:24


The 1953 Sebring race was run on March 8th, and carried the monniker "The Florida International Grand Prix of Endurance." The event now had been sanctioned by the FIA, and carried the distinction as one of the World Manufacturer's Championship Endurance Races. The series had been initiated earlier that year by the Commission Sportive International. Meaning the competition counted toward World Cup points. No other race in America shared that honor.
When Ulmann received the cable from France, he wasted no time in sharing the news with local newspapers and radio.
The 12-Hours of Sebring and the Indianapolis 500 Sweepstakes were the only American races listed on the "Auto Sporting Calendar of the World." The FIA points put Sebring on a par with such races as LeMans in France, the Tourist Trophy of England, the Pan American Road Race in Mexico and the famous Mille Miglia of Italy.
Shell Oil furnished the gas and oil for the race, marking the first petroleum company to recognize Sebring. In addition to a plentiful amount of premiums such as posters, cups and the like, Shell also provided a giant banner to be stretched above the start/finish line.
The company embarked on a massive advertising campaign for the second around-the-clock competition, and as part of the deal, drivers would run for the overall win--to be known as "The Sebring Shell Cup."
It was through the auspices of Shell that Alec Ulmann was able to enlist the duties of George E.T. Eyeston as the official starter. And, says Ulmann, Eyeston did more than simply wave the flag--his knowledge of course protection helped officials to mark the layout through the prudent placement of hay bales and other circuit markers. Eyeston was best known for his conquest of the world land speed record, and had been dubbed "the 357 mph man". He also was a trained engineer, and a member of the board of the Castrol Oil Company.
There were other notables serving as race officials. S. Hempstone Oliver returned. He served as Cheif inspector. Oliver was the Curator of Transportation at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Chief Scrutineer Dean Fales who had been Ulmann's professor of automotive engineering at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology also was selected to serve.
Officials were listed as:
Alec Ulman -- Cheif Steward
Reginald Smith -- secretary
Joseph Lane -- Cheif Server
Fred Asche -- Pit steward
The race committee consisted of:
Forrest Howard -- General chairman
Ford Heacock -- co-chairman
Col. C.D. Richardson co-chariman
J.M. McAdams
Frank Bryant
Tom Dimberline
Allen C. Altvader
Jim Fulton
Apparently, the reputation of the race was growing quickly. As early as February 20th, there was an article in the Highlands County News that hotels in the area already were being swamped for reservations. The Avon Park Sun also encouraged residents there with rooms to rent, to contact the Sebring Chamber of Commerce, as the city was "jammed with an influx of people to see the car races."
As in the previous year, there was another SCCA sports car race run just prior to the 12 Hours. This one was "Florida National Sports Car Race" which was held at MacDill Air Field in the Tampa area the week before. Proceeds of that 500 mile event were used to improve the living conditions of the airmen stationed there. Newspaper reports projected that "thousands of fans" who witnessed that event, now would come to Sebring.
Promoters apparently hoped that the popularity of the Sebring contest might also encourage local fans to travel to Tampa for their competition, and advance tickets were made available at the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce. Those who purchaced the pre-sale tickets also would be eligible to win the gate prize -- a new automobile.
Possibly the greatest news of that year for Sebring was word that the famous English Aston-Martin team would join the French factory DB's for the 12 Hour competition. In fact, David Brown, the head of the British auto firm came over to watch the race.
Ulmann believed that the entry by Rene Bonnet's DB Pannards the previous year had done a great deal to spur that kind of effort, both in the caliber of race teams, and in the image that was presented to the FIA's Commission Sportive headed by Monsieur Perouse. Part of Aston-Martin's participation may have come from Jack Law. He was a P.R. man for the auto maker, and a former officer who had served at Hendricks Field during the war years.
There also had been an announcement in December of 1952 that the people of LeMans, France, would try to field a team of cars for this race. It was to be a means to show their appreciation for the visits of Briggs Cunningham and his team to their most-famous of road races. The plan had been to sell subscriptions and with the assistance of sportsmen and racing enthusiasts they would send a trio of vehicles, to be piloted by amateur drivers. The effort was spearheadded by the "Sporting Automobile Club of LeMans," with the blessing of the Governor of the Department of the Sarthe, Lord Mayor and the LeMans Chamber of Commerce.
Unfortunately, it does not appear that the effort was too successful, and there is no indication that they ever ran at Sebring.
Many faces were starting to become familiar, it was announced that among the returning car owners and drivers would be Duke Donaldson, Rene Bonnet, Luigi Chinetti, Rene Dryfus, Jim Kimberly and Stirling Moss. Briggs Cunningham and Briggs Cunningham III became the first father/son team to drive the race.
Practice runs were held Thursday and Friday. Fans were allowed into the track on Friday "for a small admission charge."
The race was run from noon until midnight, on a day described as "partly cloudy and mild."
An estimated 12,500 fans showed up for the race - a sharp increase over the year before. As security, ten additional Miami Police officers had been brought in to aid the local men who handled the crowd control duties. Also assisting was the American Legion Reserve Police Unit of Highlands Post 69, who enthusiastically responded to the call from Sherif Broward Coker. They were joined by Miami Legionaries from Post 25, recognized as the best trained and organized unit of its kind.
Later, Captain Barney of the Miami Police Department would remark that the crowd was the most polite and cooperative he had ever worked with.
The Aston-Martins made a good showing, leading the first 32 laps of the race before going out as a result of an accident. The #57 Cunningham CR4 then took the point, and never was bested.
For the second time the winner was an American car. In fact, the Cunningham was a Florida-made car, and one of only American contenders. Ironically, the car had been entered for the race the previous year, but was withdrawn because it was not yet ready for competition.
Powered by a 542cc Chrysler engine, the Cunningham had been fabricated in West Palm Beach and was a street legal automobile. In fact, it ran the 12-hours carrying a Florida license plate.
The car was driven by John Fitch and Phil Walters--the General Manager of the West Palm Beach racing plant. They were boosted to the lead when the front-running Aston Martin of Geoff Duke and Peter Collins collided with a Jaguar and was eliminated at the three-hour mark. Fitch and Walters won by a lap over one of the Aston-Martin DB3's. The Reg Parnell/George Abecassis entry reportedly was hampered by the fact that one of its headlamps did not work.
There was one car fire, the Cadillac Allard of Paul Ramos was destroyed when a fuel line broke. However, driver Anthony Cumming escaped unharmed. Another competitor, Randy Pearsall, escaped injury when his Jaguar XK 120 Flipped. In fact, of the 55 cars that started the race, only 35 finished.
The winning drivers received stop watches from the Champion Spark Plug Company. In addition to the Sebring Shell Trophy, the Cunningham team also took the Cop-Si-Loy Award.
The Aston Martin team won both the Marchal Trophy for best overall performance, and the KLG-Nisonger award for pit efficiency.
Dick Irish of Cleveland was the winner of the Shell Oil Sportsmanship Trophy. His Excalibur burned up its differential and he pushed the vehicle two miles to the pit.
The Deutch-Bonnet of Wade Moorehouse and Rene Bonnett was the index of performance winner for the second year in a row. An important step forward that year had been the adoption of what promoter Alec Ulman termed "a far more satisfactory index of performance." It was the creation of Timing & Scoring Chief Joe Lane, with more emphasis placed on the winners' distance.