On the morning of March 22, 1969 at 10:45 AM I was standing, suited up, helmet in hand alongside my PV behind the pits at Sebring Fla. The old car was ready to go. It had been through a lot in the past four years and had acquired a muscled, spit in your eye look about it. It was now 15 minutes before the start of the Sebring 12 hour Grand Prix of Endurance and I was waiting for the word from my friend the late George “Sandy” Sanderson, as to whether we were in or out.
Two years earlier Sandy had invited me to accompany him on his annual trek to the famous 12 hour race at Sebring Fla. Back in the days of Fangio, Fitch, Walters and the big Chrysler powered Cunninghams, Sandy had driven a 750cc Crosley Hot Shot to 16th place overall with no co-driver and acting as his own pit crew. Sandy was also was instrumental in the entry of the Hot Shot, driven by Bob Deshon and Fritz Costner, that won the inaugural event in 1950. On that first visit I was overwhelmed by what I saw, the international teams, the sheer size of the facility, the cars hurtling through the night with lights blazing and the history of the place (which Sandy filled me in on). I couldn’t help but think how great it would be to participate. The following year Bob Theall and I made the trip and as we watched we began to think, “what the hell, you only get to go around once”.
Our rig on the way to Florida. Sandy on the right. Bob in the distance repairing a tire on the Dodge motor home.
As the ’69 season approached, Bob and I began to think seriously about Sebring. This was a world class event. Even by combining our resources we couldn’t afford a new car just for this event. In the end we decided it would have to be my PV if we could do it at all. We went to see our friend Sandy at his little auto parts store in White Plains NY (the Sandy’s Spare’s that can be seen on the front fenders in some of the photo’s) . To our amazement, after a short discussion to determine if we were really serious about this, Sandy picked up the phone and placed a call to Alec Ulmann, president of the Automobile Club of Florida and founder of the Sebring Twelve Hour. At Sandy’s instigation Mr. Ulmann agreed to have us meet with him at his office in New York City and to bring photo’s of the car we intended to enter. The outcome of the visit was an invitation to attend the event as the 19th alternate starter. We were assigned the #98 as the 98th entrant for the for the 1969 event. I’ve kept that as my racing # ever since.
The start with me and my PV in the thick of it.
Incidentally, Bob and I made the trip from NY to Florida and back in a 122S Volvo that Bob had cobbled together from two junks the week before we left. The shell had been sitting under a tree for more than a year with a seized engine which Bob replaced with one from a 122 that had been heavily rear ended. We took off for Fla. with the car still covered with a years accumulation of sap and bird droppings. It would be hard to imagine a more disreputable looking car. It ran flawlessly down and back and cruised comfortably at 90+ mph on the lightly traveled (at that time) I-95 between Jacksonville and Daytona.
Preparation on the PV consisted of adding a quick release fuel filler to the right (pit ) side of the car along with the required “fuel cell” gas tank and a Bendix electric fuel pump. Six new Goodyear Blue Streak racing tires and spare Velvetouch metallic brake linings were the only other purchases. Other than that, the car was given a tune up, oil change and fresh brake linings. Unfortunately, hindsight would prove that we could have been a little more fastidious about our preparation.
Racing into the darkness on the warehouse straight.
Our entourage consisted of Sandy (our official entrant), his friend Lila, Bob’s fiancee Nancy, and Bob’s Dad. We towed the Volvo with my old ’56 Mercury and Bob’s Dad brought his Dodge pop top camper. When I look back today, it’s apparent we had more enthusiasm than sense. Upon arriving in Sebring we had the good fortune to meet a young man, Ken, who ran a small VW repair shop out of his home garage. He told us he’d always wanted to work with one of the teams at the race. All the teams big however, appeared well prepared and not in need of assistance. Then he spotted us. He proved invaluable.
Sebring race week in the 1960’s was a unique experience. The whole town took on a carnival atmosphere. Famous persons were everywhere. International F-1 drivers Innes Ireland and Jo Bonnier were entered as well as Chris Amon and Mario Andretti. Film stars Dickie Smothers and Jim Garner also. Smothers was driving his own Porsche 906. Garner had a team of Lola Chevrolet's and was pitted next to us. At the track Garner frequently used our pit for access to his own as the rear
of his pit was usually clogged with autograph hunters. At one point during the event one of his cars came in unexpectedly. Garner came charging through our pit and vaulted over the card table that Nancy had set up to keep our lap charts. Nancy called him to task right then and there. Garner stopped and apologized.
The race teams were based all over town and the cars were driven to and from the track and tech. inspection over the public roads. Tech. inspection was held in the center of town right next to that Florida institution, the shuffle board court. It was quite a scene with the genteel retiree’s on one side of the fence and the raucous international motor racing crowd on the other. I can recall driving my PV, racing numbers, straight pipe and all, right through town and having the cop at the intersection stop traffic and wave me through. Having breakfast at the diner, you might look out to see a parade of Porsche 908 factory team cars go by on the highway. It was wonderful.
We learned during the practice sessions how to survive in faster traffic than either of us had ever experienced. I’d had some experience with fast traffic as the SCCA would on occasion run B/S with A&B production sports cars and the A/sedan class. This would combine one class of 2 liter 4 cylinder engines with three classes of V8’s, but it was nothing compared with this. As some of the big team drivers gained confidence that we wouldn’t suddenly move off line on them, they began to pass us very close. I waved one of the factory Porsche 908’s by,while entering the turn at the end of the 4000’ long back straight. Seeing him coming up, I moved off line and waved him through on the racing line. He screamed by so close I wouldn’t have wanted to have my fingers between the cars. As he slid through the turn ahead of me, he touched one hand to his helmet to say thanks. In another incident on that same straight, I was running at over 100mph alongside the BMC practice mule, an MGB that they had brought for practice only. We were nearly halfway down the straight when A red speck appeared in my mirror. It was the Chris Amon/Mario Andretti P-3 Ferrari. I was on the left and the MG was on the right. In an instant the Ferrari flashed between us and changed up two more gears after he passed.
Heavy traffic, attempting to stay out of the way
leaving the hairpin.
Night practice brought another new experience. Neither Bob nor I had ever raced in the dark. The course was unlit with the exception of the main straight past the pits. Sylvania Corp. provided special headlights free of charge at their tent. They fitted the PV with a different lamp in each headlight bucket. One had a split beam to help see better rounding the turns and the other had a pencil beam straight down the center of the road that was good for speeds of 120 mph. We found it a bit unnerving when being overtaken by some of the big sports prototype cars. These cars were equipped with lights good for 200+ mph. As they overtook, it was like having someone arc welding in the back seat. The glare on the PV’s interior was blinding and DON’T look in the mirror. We learned to keep track of the position of an overtaking car by watching the direction of our shadow in the overtaking cars lights.
Little by little we moved our way up through the alternate list as one entry after another dropped out. By starting time on race day we were first alternate. One more cancellation and we would make the grid. Looking back I can see where Mr. Ulmann was probably showing consideration for an old friend when he granted us an invitation to the race and thought it unlikely that 18 of the 19 alternates would drop out. Gentleman that he was, he remained good to his word. I have no doubt though, that had we shown ourselves to be incompetent for this competition we would have been asked to step down.
Less than 15 minutes before the 11:00 AM start Sandy came rushing around the end of the pits waving frantically. Moments later I backed my PV into the 69th starting slot in the last “Le Mans” start ever to be held at the Sebring 12 hour. Sandy told me later that there was a round of applause from the grand stand across the way as I backed the old PV into its starting space. I’d never done a “Le Mans” start before and looking down the line of drivers and at the array of international racing machinery across from me I almost couldn’t believe I was really there. Our plan was to depend on the legendary Volvo reliability since we certainly weren’t going to be a threat in the speed department. I had practiced how I would do the start and had laid out my safety harness so there wouldn’t be any confusion. When the starting signal was given I waited a moment to be sure that it was indeed the start and not that someone up the line had jumped the gun as occasionally happened on a Le Mans start with the drivers strung out over nearly a quarter of a mile. I sprinted across the track, slid into the seat, buckled my 5 point safety harness, fired the engine. closed the door and engaged 1st gear. Being the last car I didn’t need to concern myself with traffic coming up on my left so I drove straight across the track to the outside wall, turned right and nearly froze. I had intended to follow the pack into the first turn but to my dismay, more than half the field were still in their starting slots. All I could do at that point was keep my foot down. I was probably halfway up the field going into the first turn. That first lap was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I had never before, nor have I since, experienced a traffic jam like that. Smoke, dust, busted hay bales and bit of automobile flew everywhere. Entering turn 3 I had a BMW overtake me, who was in turn being passed by a Corvette, which was being overtaken by a Porsche 908 that was battling with a Ford GT-40. Cars were everywhere and everyone was running flat out. One would never have believed it was an endurance race from my vantage point. After the first twenty minutes or so the traffic began to settle out. It then became a matter of setting up a rhythm. Every two and a half laps or so the train of leaders would come howling by. None wanted the others to get too far ahead. The flag personnel were especially helpful. They would display the blue flag before anything showed in the mirror. This was more to give advance warning to the slower cars than to tell them to move over. Staying out of the way was part of surviving.
At the end of the first hour the old PV was in 58th place and running like a freight train. One could also say, that’s 12th from last, however this was a 10 year old, 1800cc street licensed sedan with drum brakes ( possibly the last car to run at Sebring so equipped). Twenty minutes later disaster struck. We were running steadily, averaging just under 80mph (a dozen years earlier this speed would have had us up front) and planning to refuel and change driver’s at the two hour mark. As I came round the long right hand bend leading to the hairpin I heard an ugly screeching noise up front and the water temperature began to rise. Whether or not something had hit a fan blade and bent it, we'll never know. The fact was, a fan blade had broken and the radiator had been destroyed. Perhaps the radiator itself had moved. We later realized that more thorough preparation of the car might have prevented this. Because of the oil cooler we had installed, my PV required a P-1800 lower radiator hose. A makeshift repair had been performed at some earlier time and in the absence of a replacement P-1800 radiator hose the radiator had been moved from its locating pin to accommodate a too short lower hose. Through our own negligence we shortchanged our greatest asset, reliability. We found the fan blade lodged in the inner fender. Bob attempted to patch the mangled radiator but in the end it was another Volvo owner who pulled our fat out of the fire for us. A spectator offered the radiator out of his brand new 142S. It took some quick work with a mallet to make room for the 142S radiator bottle but we were soon on our way again. An hour and a half had been lost.
Braking for the turn leading onto the S/F straight, my PV is overtaken by one of the GT-40 Fords.
It was really too bad. Through the remaining nine hours the old PV proved that it had what it takes when it comes to endurance. We found that the car didn’t like running without its fan. We could still lap as fast as before but had to be careful how hard we pushed it. One slip and the temperature would start to climb. Every so often one of us would slip and have to come in. Ken would be waiting, his right arm wrapped to the shoulder in rags. He’d hit the radiator cap and duck. The folks in the gallery over the pits got pretty good at retrieving the cap for us. Ken would pour in water and duck again. With a deep rumble the radiator would erupt a second time. On the next try the water would stay down and we were off again. Most other engines would probably have suffered a cracked block after the first such mistreatment. The Volvo endured it time and again. At the six hour mark we changed the front brake shoes. Bob and Ken managed this in 12 and a half minutes. Ken jacked up the car , pulled the front wheels and drums as a unit, then Bob changed the linings using two pair of channel lock pliers as everything was too hot to touch.
Through the afternoon and into the night the old PV roared on, slightly crippled but ever game. Bob drove through the sunset and spared me the nightmare of driving into the setting sun with an oil and bug spattered windshield. The night brought its own horrors, flashbulbs and drifting campfire smoke among them. The first two turns on the old Sebring course were taken flat out in the PV, the third turn however, was a third gear corner. The first two turns were identical and at one point in the darkness I lost track of which one I was in. Scary, not knowing where you are in the dark at 100mph. Should I brake or keep my foot down, and what if I’d guessed wrong! In another incident I was traveling down the long straight on the back side of the course when I saw lights moving off to my left. I couldn’t tell if there had been an incident and perhaps a car was reentering the course or whether it was one car close to me or two cars some distance away. Suddenly the lights went up and over me! Sebring is also an airport.
Sebring 1969, in the pit after the race.
L to R, Bob, Sandy, myself & Ken.
A private plane had used an adjacent taxi strip to take off. Scared the heck out of me. At 11:00 PM Bob brought the old PV across the finish line. We’d finished 46th and last of the cars still running. Were we disappointed? Not really. It would have been nice if we hadn’t torn up the radiator but “live and learn”. The crowd that enveloped the PV in the pits after the race indicated that they weren’t disappointed either. People patted the PV’s roof and congratulated us over and over for daring what we did with the little car that could. We retired to the Sylvania trailer for a post race party and a chance to talk with some of the other drivers about the days experiences. I had a nice chat with Dickie Smothers who, in that environment considered himself just another amateur who was grateful to have finished the event without incident.