The following is an excerpt from “IMSA 1969-1989” that tells the inside story of John Bishop’s life and how he created the world’s greatest sports car racing series. Available from Octane Press or wherever books are sold.
To many people, John Bishop became a savior in 1973. For twenty uninterrupted years, starting in 1952, the Sebring 12 Hour sports car endurance race for was held under the guidance of Alec Ulmann, one of the first members of the SCCA when it was founded in 1944. In 1950, Ulmann traveled to Le Mans to take in the sights and sounds of the 24-hour race. The experience inspired him to bring sports car endurance racing to the U.S., which he did with a six-hour race at Sebring later that year – the first such event held in America.
The Sebring track itself began life as Hendricks Army Airfield, a hastily built airport used during WWII as a training site for B-17 bomber crews. After the base was decommissioned in 1945, the airport was turned over to the local community. In the ensuing years, Ulmann convinced the airport authority to let him promote a series of races using the long runways and network of access roads as the track layout. As part of the agreement, one active runway remained in operation during the race.
The start of the first 12 Hours of Sebring in 1952. The event was the brainchild of Alec Ulmann, who organized the race on the decommissioned runways of a World War II B-17 training base. Photo: Sebring International Raceway Archives
Starting with the first 12 Hours of Sebring race in 1952, the event became a crown jewel on the international racing calendar, attracting the best and brightest drivers, manufacturers and race teams from around the world. The AAA acted as the sanctioning body for the first few years, until the organization quit the racing business after the now infamous Le Mans accident in 1955 that killed more than 80 spectators. After that, Alec and Mary Ulmann formed the Automobile Racing Club of Florida (ARCF) as an entity to produce and promote the race. Alec Ulmann was the vice president of the ARCF and also acted as race secretary for the event. The SCCA sanctioned the race from 1963 through 1972, with full backing from ACCUS and the FIA.
Nothing lasts forever, however. Years of use left the track surface broken, with large chunks of concrete regularly coming loose during events. The facilities were spartan for both competitors and spectators alike. Under pressure from the FIA to improve track safety for the ever-increasing speeds of new generation racing machines and to invest in better facilities for the growing crowds, the Ulmann family announced the 1972 running of the event would be the last. After 20 uninterrupted years, the Ulmann’s were tired and wanted to move on. Sebring appeared destined to become just another dusty footnote in racing history.
Recognizing an opportunity for IMSA to take over one of the world’s most recognized sports car events, Bishop approached Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR and investor in IMSA, with an idea for NASCAR to put up the money to save the Sebring race. France Sr. wasn’t convinced. According to Bishop: “Big Bill never understood why anyone would pay to see an event at Sebring, whose facilities, let’s say, fell far short of those at Daytona and Talladega.” Bishop couldn’t get his friend and partner to budge.
John Greenwood, on the right with Milt Minter, stepped up to bankroll the 1973 Sebring race, effectively saving the event. He would continue to be involved as a Sebring benefactor for years. IMSA Collection/International Motor Racing Research Center
Then, providence intervened. Bishop happened to be talking with John Greenwood about Sebring on the pit wall at Daytona in January of 1973 and to his surprise, Greenwood offered to put up the money to save the event, including making some needed safety improvements to the track like building a higher wall separating the pits from the main straight. With only a few short weeks to get it all organized and done, the pressure and the stakes were high. But Bishop recognized an enormous opportunity to elevate IMSA’s status in the racing world.
The program cover for the first IMSA-sanctioned 12 Hours of Sebring in 1973. Sebring International Raceway Archives
Reggie Smith, the ex-secretary of the ARCF, now the ex-promoter of the Sebring race, started a new organization called the Sebring Automobile Racing Association, which later on affectionately became known as the Sebring City Fathers. SARA became the official promoter of the event. Greenwood put up the prize money and made safety improvements to the track. R.J. Reynolds was more than happy to have Sebring added to the Camel GT Series calendar, which was now in its second year.
IMSA was not yet a member of ACCUS, which turned out to be a good thing, as it was not under any pressure to adhere to FIA edicts or existing ACCUS rules preventing drivers from crossing over from one member’s sanctioned race to compete in another. For unknown reasons, the SCCA board of governors voted not to interfere with IMSA taking over the race. The Club appeared to have given up on Sebring. All of this meant IMSA had a free hand to sanction an event with an almost mystical international reputation and attract drivers from any race-sanctioning body on the planet.
The runways, taxiways and access roads at Sebring have always been a challenge for racers. The Camaro shared by Luis Sereix, Tony Lilly, and Dave Voder navigates the rough pavement. Note the orange cones intended to guide the competitors at night when Sebring was pitch black and especially tricky to navigate. autosportsltd.com
The 12 Hours of Sebring became the first IMSA Camel GT event of the 1973 season. With the help of RJR’s Joe Camel advertising campaign and renewed interest in the race, a good crowd showed up, ensuring Sebring would become a fixture on the IMSA calendar for many years to come. For many people who lived through the near-extinction of the Sebring race, Bishop was recognized as one of three heroes who stepped in at the last minute to rescue this iconic event. In recognition of their contributions, Bishop, Greenwood and Smith were later inducted into the Sebring Hall of Fame.
The winning Porsche Carrera RS of Peter Gregg, Hurley Haywood, and Dave Helmick at Sebring in 1973. The traditional colors of Brumos were not used as it was Dave Helmick’s car. autosportsltd.com
Born in Milan in 1905, Luigi Chinetti is best known for being the exclusive distributor of Ferraris in the U.S from the beginning of Ferrari’s firm immediately after World War II. Long before that happened, he began to build a resume when he secured a minor’s work permit from the Italian government as a lathe operator when he was twelve and another as a machinist when he was fourteen. He met Enzo Ferrari when they both worked for Alfa Romeo in the 1920s.
With the rise of Fascism under Mussolini, Chinetti became uncomfortable in Italy and moved to Paris the mid-1920s. He began to race, winning Le Mans in 1932 and 1934. Before the war, he was associated as both a driver and team manager with private and factory entrants that ran Alfa Romeos, Talbot-Lagos, Delahayes, Delages, and Maseratis, bringing a pair of the latter to the 1940 Indianapolis 500 in 1940. His Indianapolis adventures before the war led to his becoming the most important bridge between the European and American road racing worlds after the war, at a time when much more than an ocean separated them. He secured an entry for many Americans at Le Mans and other European events as well as promoting Americans through his North American Racing Team and by placing some with the Ferrari works team. The latter included Phil Hill, the only American-born World Grand Prix Champion, who drove a Ferrari to the title.
While Chinetti was at the 500 in 1940, the Germans were completing their invasion of France and would take Paris on June 10, 1940, just ten days after the Indianapolis race. Chinetti remained in the U.S., during the war. Afterward, he spent long periods in Milan, Modena, and Paris and was the sole French importer for Ferrari for a while. He also added to his racing reputation, winning Ferrari’s first big international victory in a 12 Hour race in 1948 at Montlhéry, France, where he drove the entire race by himself. He also won his third Le Mans the following year in another Ferrari. These early victories led to Ferrari putting some orders on the books at a time he desperately needed them. Despite his European connections in France and Italy, Chinetti’s primary home remained in New York, and he became a U.S. citizen in 1950.
The Montlhéry car was a 166 Spyder Corsa, and after some successful record runs late in 1948, the car was sold to the leading entrant in the post-war revival of U. S. road racing, Briggs Cunningham, a wealthy sportsman. When he bought the 166 in the fall of 1949 to take part in a race at Bridgehampton, it had not been freshened since the record runs. This did not sit well with either Cunningham or Alfred Momo, an Italian immigrant who prepared Cunningham’s cars. Nonetheless, the Ferrari led easily until an oil line behind the exhaust header broke and could not be repaired in time, so the car was retired, becoming the first Ferrari to race in America. Once Momo got the parts he needed, the 166 also became the first Ferrari to win a race in America (Suffolk County Airport 1950).
There was some friction between Cunningham and Chinetti because of the condition of the car when delivered, but Cunningham’s later success with it softened Cunningham’s view and he was soon ordering another Ferrari from Chinetti. This was a 195 S, featuring bodywork by Touring of Milan, a beautiful Le Mans coupe.
American sports car racing was run at the time by the Sports Car Club of America, which had a strictly amateur policy. This was to discourage professional oval drivers from taking part in SCCA events. There was no prize money and anyone who raced for money anywhere would lose their SCCA license. The SCCA people did not want the professionals beating them. Another consideration was a class one. Many SCCA participants were preppies from St. Mark’s, St. Paul’s, Andover and the like and had matriculated to Harvard and Yale. The leaders of the club definitely believed in “the right crowd and no crowding.” The Indianapolis drivers were working class and were looked down upon socially, if not in talent. This type of attitude also led to discrimination against Jewish membership applicants, let alone blacks and Latinos. More enlightened leadership was soon elected.
Alec Ulmann was a Russian émigré who had an aviation business at a largely unused airport in Sebring, Florida. He had been involved in the organization of the earlier Watkins Glen and Palm Beach Shores races and was a proponent of professional racing in America. He organized a six-hour event at a leftover B-17 bomber training base in Sebring, Florida, to be run on New Year’s Eve 1950, hoping to create a race as prestigious as Le Mans and other classic European endurance races.
Photo credit: Jack Cansler
The image here of Cunningham’s coupe at Sebring that day brings to mind a number of historic events. One is that when the car arrived at Momo’s, it smoked badly when it was started. Cunningham was outraged, as he planned to drive the car in the race. Chinetti simply told him that the rings had not yet seated and everything would be fine. Cunningham switched his ride to an Aston Martin DB2 and suggested that Chinetti and Momo drive the Ferrari.
As was so often when cars and their engines were concerned, Chinetti was proven to be correct. Once again driving alone, he brought the little Ferrari coupe home in 7th on handicap and fifth on distance. Cunningham’s Aston was 17th and 8th.
Another dust bunny of history is that despite the notoriety of Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing team from the mid-1950s, this was the only time Chinetti himself raced in America. He came from the European tradition of prize, accessory and starting money and had little interest in entering one of his $12,000 Ferraris in a race where the winner would receive a silver cup or engraved tray.
Cunningham and Chinetti would share one more dispute about a Ferrari, four years later. But that’s another story.
-Michael Lynch, Member of the IMRRC Historians Council