On the eve of a new era in North American sportscar racing with the debut of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, IMSA Insider will look back on key moments from the past five decades since the classic endurance races that open the season. – the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring powered by fresh produce from Florida. This week: the 1960s, where a bitter manufacturer rival helped elevate both races to international prestige.
Failing in its attempt to take over Ferrari in the early 1960s, the Ford Motor Company decides to do everything possible to defeat the Italian car manufacturer on the race track. While Ford’s primary focus was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, two racetracks in Florida would play a key role in this new rivalry.
Modern American sports car racing actually dates back to 1948, when World War II veteran Cameron Argetsinger decided to stage a European-style grand prix on public roads around his adopted home of Watkins Glen, NY. The event was very successful, and other venues soon followed suit.
After watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Alec Ulmann decided to create an event to rival the French classic, using Hendricks Field, an abandoned WWII B-17 training base outside Sebring. , in Florida. It started with a three-hour race in 1950, and extended it to 12 hours in 1952. The following year it was part of the FIA World Constructors’ Championship, which would continue until 1972, with crowds filling the facilities to enjoy both the race and the mild Florida winter.
Meanwhile, William HG France founded NASCAR in 1948 to sanction American stock car racing, including the events he held annually at a beach and road circuit in Daytona Beach, Florida. “Big Bill” was also fond of sports cars, promoting nearby races. New Smyrna Beach Airport. France built the Daytona International Speedway in 1959, taking the further step of incorporating an indoor road course inside the massive 2.5-mile trioval. After hosting club races on the speedway beginning in 1962, France held its first international event, the Daytona Continental, in 1962 as a prelude to the Daytona 500 while racing a month before the Sebring event.
Dan Gurney took the checkered flag for the first Daytona Continental, literally riding to victory after losing the engine of his Lotus-Climax 19B and stopping just short of the finish line with one minute remaining. Gurney would continue to play a major role in developments throughout the 1960s – then return as a successful car owner in the late 1980s.
With Ford and Ferrari poised to go to war, the stage was set to expand the battlefield to the two Florida locations. After two successful three-hour races, France extended the Daytona Continental to 2,000 kilometers in 1964, about 30 minutes longer than the Sebring classic.
Ferrari drew first blood into battle by scoring podium finishes at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans in 1964. Dan Gurney took fourth at Daytona and Le Mans to lead the Blue Oval. Ford was racing the new Daytona Coupe fielded by Carroll Shelby, but was also working hard to develop prototype race cars designed just for racing.
For 1965, Ford had a new weapon, the sleek GT40, and let Ferrari know that meant business with a top-four sweep at Daytona. Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby led Ford’s charge, with the top Ferrari returning to seventh place. The Ferrari factory chose not to compete at Sebring, where a Chevrolet-powered Chaparral 2 driven by owner Jim Hall and Hap Sharp won a GT40. The stage was set for a Ford v Ferrari showdown at Le Mans, where Ferrari dominated with a podium sweep while Ford’s new Mk II and GT40 failed to finish.
After falling flat, Ford would spare no expense for 1966. Sensing the opportunity, France extended the Continental to 24 hours, with the race also serving as the opening round of the FIA World Constructors’ Championship. Miles and Ruby repeated as Daytona winners, leading a podium sweep with the Mk II version of the GT40. The best Ferrari was a 365 driven by Mario Andretti and Pedro Rodriguez. Miles and Ruby continued by leading another podium sweep at Sebring. It was at Le Mans, where Ford staged a “photo-finish” in another sweep of the podium.
Until 1966, Ferrari’s efforts at Daytona were led by Luigi Chinetti’s North American racing team. But for 1967 the Italian manufacturer fielded a pair of factory 333P4s – and dominated the race. To embarrass Ford in its home country, Ferrari staged its own “photo-finish” of the top three. Taking no chances, Ferrari then opted out of the Sebring event, where Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren won in a new Ford Mk IV over the Mk II of AJ Foyt and Ruby.
The culmination of Ford v Ferrari came at Le Mans in 1967, where two American drivers teamed up to win in a Shelby-prepared Mk IV. Formula 1 veteran and 1962 Daytona Continental winner Dan Gurney teamed up with Foyt, then a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time USAC Indy Car champion.
An FIA rule change in mid-1967 that limited engine displacement rendered the mighty Ford and Ferrari obsolete, ending the much-vaunted rivalry.
But the rule change opened the door for Porsche. Entering five long-tail 907s for the race, Porsche earned a podium finish at Daytona (along with another staged photo-finish). Jo Siffert and Hans Herrmann – who were among five drivers to share the winning car at Daytona – led a one-two finish at Sebring, where Porsche won the overall for the first time since Herrmann and Olivier Gendebien shared an RS60 in 1960.
The decade ended with a mad dash at Daytona, where factory Porsches fell one by one due to the failure of an eight-dollar coin in the driveshaft. Mark Donohue and Chuck Parsons then took the win in a Chevrolet-powered Lola fielded by Roger Penske. At Sebring, Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver won in an “old-school” Ford GT40 prepared by John Wyer.
Aided by the Ford v Ferrari rivalry at Le Mans, Daytona joined Sebring to share the international stage with the French classic. Both races would continue to grow through the 1970s, despite international rule changes and a domestic fuel shortage threatening American motorsports, which will be covered in next week’s story.