The Twelve-Hours of Sebring: a French style race in the USA

Published on Friday, February 14, 2020.
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European automobile racing was the thing of dreams for automobile enthusiasts in the pre-war USA. Kids there followed such great competition as the Grand Prix races making up the world championship, and also sportscar races that tried the endurance capabilities of cars, such as the Mille Miglia, and of course (our favourite) the Le Mans 24 Hours race.

A few of these enthusiasts, having grown up by the 1940s, successful in their businesses, shared the desire to see European style racing come to America.  The Automobile Association of America, the only body at the time of the end of WWII recognised by the France based FIA, and organiser of the Indianapolis 500, was at odds with a core group of  these enthusiasts which included the likes of Briggs Cunningham, the Collier Brothers, George Rand, George Weaver, Charles Moran, Hobart ‘Bill’ Cook, and Alexander ‘Alec’ Ulmann. It is these last two men who were key to our story and thanks to whom European endurance racing exists today still in the USA, their original goal having been to bring Le Mans 24 Hours endurance racing to America.

In 1944 this group of wealthy, auto racing enthusiasts of the Automobile Racing Club of America (the original ARCA founded in 1933) formed a new club to foster racing in the USA, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) to federate racing around the USA.  The SCCA however was keen to see rules favouring American automobiles, and categories that would differ from those of Europe’s governing body, the FIA.

French racing authorities had created the Index of Performance meant to allow small displacement cars to earn a share of the laurels, a system of performance standards based on engine displacement.  Alec Ulmann and Bill Cook were keen to see those rules applied to endurance events on their side of the Atlantic. Ulmann, a founder and life member of the SCCA was obliged to resign, considered a heretic for his engagement in developing FIA rules on American soil.

Alec Ulmann was a Russian immigrant who as a child fled the Bolshevic Revolution with his parents via Switzerland to arrive in the USA.  He studied at MIT and achieved a degree in aeronautical engineering. Very successful in aircraft engineering, construction and maintenance, Ulmann came to own the Hendricks Field, an airport near the town of Sebring in central Florida.  During the war and in the first years after it, Ulmann’s company received contracts to maintain and service American B-17s from the US Air Force. The Hendricks Field was a vast array of landing strips where a car race of epic form could be organised to bring long distance endurance racing of the type of the Le Mans 24 Hours race to America.

In the summer of 1950, Ulmann traveled to France with his compatriots, as the team manager of Briggs Cunningham’s racing team, to attend the 24 Hours of Le Mans and to try to request that the FIA and ACO officials afford the sanction of support of an endurance race at Sebring in Florida.  His arguments must have been convincing as the sanction and encouragement was allowed, all be it that no points would yet be awarded for that race to European teams that would participate. But the path to such an accord was laid.

Ulmann and Cook realised that without points for the European championship, they would be hard pressed to find European teams to come all the way, with all of the expense, for a race on a new track in the backwoods of Florida.  But a light went on for Ulmann. Fascinated by the French Index of Performance classification system, he determined that a race based wholly on that basis and attracting teams to compete solely under those rules would bring teams to Sebring. 

The first Sebring endurance race was held on December 30, 1950.  A total of 28 cars took the start. Ferrari, Aston Martin, Allard, FIAT, Crosley – a variety of makes took part in this Sebring Six-Hour endurance race, with the Crosley driven by Fritz Kostler and Ralph Deshon, taking the win.

For the first FIA sanctioned Sebring race, Ulmann and Cook severed definitively their ties to the SCCA.  Having passed the point of no return, they then set out to execute their plan, seeking to attract European manufacturers to Sebring.  Ulmann, fluent in French, had taken advantage of his position with the Cunningham racing tean at Le Mans to establish ties with European racing entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.  One of his contacts was René Bonnet, the partner of Charles Deutsch of Deutsch-Bonnet (D.B). A match made in heaven, Bill Cook agreed to purchase two D.B barquettes and one D.B coach to compete under the D.B team flag at the 1952, FIA sanctioned, Twelve-Hours of Sebring Race.  The history of Sebring and the story of Deutsch-Bonnet are inexorably inseparable.

The 1952 Sebring race was run under the full rules of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  The scratch winner would take home the victory yet the Index of Performance laureate would share in the spoils of victory, as well.  Ferrari, Jaguar, MG, Aston Martin, Frazer-Nashes, Siata and of course Deutsch-Bonnet – all lined up in Le Mans style – to take the green flag start.  The two D.B barquettes, no. 24 & no. 25, took the start. At the checkard flag only no. 25 crossed the finish line, yet to win the coveted Index of Performance.  Victory was theirs. Ulmann, Cook, Deutsch and Bonnet won their wager to take this tiny 750 cc artisanal sportscar to victory at the first FIA sanctioned endurance race held on the American continent.  Back home in France the news was resounding. D.B’s partners, Marchal, Solex and Dunlop, all jumped on the publicity band-wagon to share in the glory of victory.

The impetus of Ulmann and Cook encouraged the formation of a World Sportscar Championship that engulfed the world of endurance sportscar racing.  From 1953 the Twelve Hours of Sebring would join the league of the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Panamericana, the Targa Florio, the Tourist Trophy, the Nurburgring 1000 km and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to make up the races for the World Sportscar Championship.

 

Daniel Brooks

Daniel is a contributor for CarJager and also Forbes France writing texts in French language for their daily newsletter and trimestrial print editions.  His articles cover the classic automobile market as well as luxury and lifestyle of classic automobile collectors.

 

 

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