Over the coming weeks, as we count down to the 60th anniversary running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida, held March 14-17, we'll be bringing you memories from some of the racers who've made their mark on this sports car racing classic. Getting us started is one of motorsports' all-time greats, Sir Stirling Moss.
In 1954, Moss had yet to win his first Formula 1 grand prix (that, along with his legendary Mille Miglia victory, was still a year down the road), but the 24-year-old Englishman was obviously a star in the making and had caught the eye of wealthy racer and entrepreneur Briggs Cunningham.
When Cunningham invited him to drive at Sebring, the opening round of the '54 World Sportscar Championship, Moss was quick to agree, knowing one of the powerful, 5.5-liter Cunningham-Chrysler C4Rs had won the previous year's event. Yet, when he arrived at the Central Florida track, Moss was given the team's little 1.5-liter O.S.C.A. MT4 to race, sharing with American Bill Lloyd.
As Moss recalls, the O.S.C.A. wasn't expected to be a contender for an outright victory, yet its lightweight construction and forgiving handling proved perfectly suited to the car-breaking bumps of the Sebring runways. As bigger, faster entries from Ferrari, Lancia, Aston Martin and Jaguar succumbed to the beating and the crazy pace at the front of the field, the 130hp O.S.C.A. just kept on going, aided and abetted by occasional heavy rain and, of course, the featherlight touch of Moss and his teammate, Lloyd.
In the end, the O.S.C.A. won by a staggering five laps, covering a total of 873.6 miles. It's the smallest-engined car ever to win the Sebring 12 Hours race and, interestingly, also the first to win on wire wheels.
At the time, that Sebring win was the biggest of Moss' career to date. Over the years, he'd race there – and lead – in more potent machinery, but that '54 debut remained his only win on the toughest track in sports car racing.
But enough background. It's over to Sir Stirling to give us his own recollections of the 1954 12 Hours of Sebring...
I'd never been to the United States before and I really wanted to go. When Briggs Cunningham asked me if I would do it, I thought I could kill two birds with one stone: do the first round of the World Sportscar Championship and get to the U.S. for the first time.
We viewed the 12 Hours of Sebring as an important race because it was the biggest, most prestigious sports car race in the States. Perhaps you could argue there were better circuits, but certainly not more important races.
Briggs and I had a gentleman's agreement, as happened a lot back in those days, and I don't think it was decided in advance what I would drive. When I got there he offered me the O.S.C.A. [Cunningham also entered a Ferrari 375MM and one of his Cunningham-Chrysler C4Rs. –Ed.]
To get there, we flew to New York, which was 14 hours in those days, and then connected down to Miami. I seem to recall there were at least two hotels in Sebring, although they were of a very moderate standard, but I was fine with that – I was finally in America.
My first impressions of the track were that it was all very rudimentary, but not so different from what I was used to back in Europe. Remember, Silverstone was still an aerodrome circuit then, of course. And, even though it seemed a long way from any major population, there was a crowd – although, of course, it was nothing like they get today.
The only way to find out where you were meant to be going was to follow these little oil drums. There were no other road markings, and all the while you had planes taking off and landing from the airstrip alongside the track.
I was sharing the car with an American chap called Bill Lloyd and we had very realistic expectations ahead of the race. We were going for a class win; we had absolutely no expectation of winning overall.
As the race wore on, the brakes were getting worse and worse, and I had to throw the car into a little shimmy to slow down and get around the corners. Nowadays, of course, they would have jacked the car up and changed everything.
The reason the O.S.C.A. did win was that it was a proper road racing car and the Sebring bumps hardly worried it. It was lightweight, well sorted, and just a nice-handling car that worked very well on a very difficult circuit. [Although it wasn't completely plain sailing, as the moment at right testifies. –Ed.]
Also, I remember that year there was appalling rain. That certainly helped, too, because we were going slower and we were less likely to lock up. As the cars ahead of us ran into problems, we just kept going.
It was a lot of fun, an incredible result against all of those much faster, more powerful cars, and certainly a nice way to experience America for the first time.
The 60th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida takes place at Sebring International Raceway, Fla., March 14-17. This year, adding even more luster to this classic event, the race is once again the opening round of a world championship – the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship.
Find out more at www.sebringraceway.com
And to purchase tickets, CLICK HERE