Remembering Briggs Cunningham
By John Fitch

 

Briggs Cunningham, my boss, companion, mentor and, most of all, my
friend, has passed on and, even though his last years were
pretty much spent apart from all of us, the world seems just
a bit emptier today. I don’t need to belabor his life
and careers – those statistics of his various endeavors will
be found elsewhere as the world pauses a moment to consider
just who he was. I would rather think of our times together,
stretching back to the very early days of postwar motor racing
in this country, our great campaigns with the cars that bore
his name so proudly, the long talks, the common pursuit of
speed and all the other things that characterized our times
together.

People don’t talk about the Cunningham racing efforts so much
these days – there are only a couple of us left who were
closely involved in those years and there has been a lot of
great racing over the intervening years. However, it was Briggs
Cunningham who wanted to bring America to the front of road
racing and he wanted to do it in an American designed car,
built and campaigned by American engineers and mechanics and
driven by American drivers. That goal doesn’t seem to
be so difficult looking back at the big efforts by Ford and
Corvette but Briggs did this all before the American automotive
giants had much interest in the sport and he did it pretty
darned good.

I was part of that time, raced the big Cunninghams on a variety
of circuits from Watkins Glen to Road America to Le Mans and
enjoyed every moment of it all. Looking back, of course, it
doesn’t seem quite so important now in the large scheme
of things but, at the time, we were a dedicated bunch, marshaled
together by a yes, loved leader, and we did put on a respectable
show by any measure. Of course, that leader was, in so many
ways, bigger than life and his stature in the sport was paralleled
by only a few – mostly gone now. Briggs’ passing
brings to a close a very special chapter in my life – driving
for Briggs was the high point in our racing careers, and for
many of us, the high point in our lives.

When I last visited Briggs, Alzheimers was taking its toll, but
one thing he hadn’t lost; he was still the soul of kindness
and consideration. This innate sensitivity came through when
he actually apologized for his lack of memory.

Briggs was considerate first of his people but also of his cars,
as though he felt a stewardship responsibility for them during
his tenure as owner. He seemed to assume that his cars deserved
to be preserved for the pleasure of owners and collectors
who would treasure them in the future. In the huge number
of races he drove, he never crashed or ever scratched a race
car in anyone’s memory.This sense of a given car’s place in
history is supported by his creation of one of the more magnificent
auto museums in the world after his racing career was over.
That collection represented the golden age of sports car racing
that he personified.

Briggs’ interests and talents ranged widely, but one incident tells
where his heart was.

He had just won the America’s Cup and was congratulated for taking
sailing’s highest honor for America. His cars happened to
be racing the same day and he replied, “Thank you very
much. I just wish I could have been there.”

I have a vision of Briggs up somewhere in the clouds, where
he and his old competitors meet each day to fire up the cars
and race each other ad infinitum. Fangio and his calibre of
genius are there and Enzo Ferrari, still behind the scenes,
and now Briggs Cunningham.

Briggs has just been warming up with us mortals, eager for one more
run against the class of the field, and I’ll put my money
on the white cars with the blue stripes.

Give it your best, old friend, it’s the only way you ever
knew how to do it!

John Fitch
Lime Rock, CT, July 9, 2003

~The
above article originally appeared in the September/October
2003 issue of Vintage Motorsport magazine under the title,
Remembering Briggs Cunningham.

Cunningham by Tim Considine

   

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