Cunningham
1992 By Tim Considine

 

They came from near and far to honor him, some of them legends
in their own right, race-car drivers, builders, and engineers
whose names adorn the pages of America’s automobile racing
history – John Fitch, Sherwood Johnston, Dan Gurney, Bill
Stroppe, John von Neumann, “Kas” Kastner, Warren
Olsen, Bill Devin, and Augie Pabst, just to name a few. The
occasion was a surprise party to celebrate the 85th birthday
of the patron of American sports car racing, one Briggs Swift
(how appropriate!) Cunningham.

As he stood unobtrusively off to one side of the two-story entrance
hall to his home, one would never have suspected that the
quiet, courteous silver-haired man with bushy eyebrows shaking
hands with one admirer after another was a true American sports
hero. In this age of “I’m number-one,” in-your-face
superstars, Briggs Cunningham is a throwback to a simpler,
nobler time, a time when honor and character meant more than
just winning by any means and at any cost.

“He’s the last gentleman sportsman,” says Laura Cunningham,
Briggs’s wife of almost 30 years. “Yes, gentleman,
a good description of him,” says John Fitch, whose motor
racing star rose to ascendancy in Cunningham’s cars in
the 1950s, “he’s a gentle man. Always was.”
He was also a formidable competitor – at sea as well as on
land.

In 1958, of course, Briggs Cunningham secured his place in the
annals of his other favorite sport when as skipper of “Columbia,”
he successfully defended the America’s Cup. But extreme
modesty is another trait of Cunningham’s. Ask about his
victory and he’ll remind you he was just substituting
for a much better sailor, Cornelius Shields, who had heart
trouble. “I’d never done any match racing,”
he explains, “so ‘Corny’ helped me with timing
the starts and all that. He was a great coach.” He must’ve
been. Cunningham destroyed the British challenger Sceptre,
easily winning four straight races.

No surprise, “Mr. C,” as he’s called around his
beautiful Rancho Santa Fe home near San Diego, is watching
the selection races for this year’s Cup very closely,
particularly with the prospect of an America vs. Japan race.
“It would be very interesting,” he says, “because
the Japanese never had much over there in the way of sailors.
But they bought Bond’s whole fleet of 12-meters and took
them over to Japan and taught these kids to sail. And then,
this fellow Chris Dixon has been teaching them on their new
boat. They’ve done a good job and it’s a good boat.
They very well could be the challengers. Of course,”
he adds, “Dixon isn’t Japanese. You know, you used
to have to be a resident to sail for a country, so they’ve
had to fiddle that one a bit.”

Always known as an energetic worker, Cunningham spends most of his
time these days tending to what is regarded as one of the
most comprehensive maritime and motor sports libraries in
existence, row upon row of the literary history of both his
passions. “I’m the librarian,” he says, pointing
to stacks of yet-unclassified books and publications, “and
it’s all I can do to keep up with all the new magazines
I get – too damn many of them!” He also keeps up with
motor racing on television. “I don’t watch the stock
cars too much. I don’t care about stock cars, but I try
to watch the so-called sports cars when they’re on. And
I watch Indianapolis, of course, because it’s Indianapolis.
I like to watch that.”

Cunningham has little regard for those who collect cars just to make
money. He has always had a real love for and curiosity about
automobiles, from the time he convinced his mother to pay
for steel wheels for Yale’s chassis dynamometer – and
then ran one of the first tests on her Rolls Royce, while
the family chauffeur watched – aghast. Does he miss his
own priceless collection of 71 cars, sold in 1987 to Miles
Collier, Jr., the son and nephew of Cunningham’s old
friends and fellow American sports car pioneers, the Collier
brothers? “Oh, I do in a way,” he sighs, “some
days I do and some days I don’t, now. I just walked around
and talked to the people, even talked to the cars. It was
fun. But I think Miles is doing a pretty good job with them
down in Florida. I wish he’d held on to the Bugatti and
a couple others, though.”

So, what were the favorite cars of this man who’s owned,
built, driven, and/or raced more exotic automobiles than most
of us can even fantasize?

“Well,” he says, considering, “I always liked
Ferraris, but I think the OSCA was my favorite. I liked smaller
cars better because you didn’t have to go as fast as
you did with the big cars. With them I was always worried
whether the brakes’d work or something would fall off
or break, that sort of thing. I felt like I had more control
of a small car like the OSCA. Also, it was beautifully finished,
you know, nicely made.”

Fast, too, he might have added. In 1954, Stirling Moss and Bill
Lloyd drove Cunningham’s 1500 c.c. OSCA to a smashing
overall victory at Sebring. The following year, Briggs himself
won the SCCA F Modified national championship with it. Typically,
Cunningham downplays his own driving skill.

“Oh,” he says, “I never went fast enough to scare myself. Not
more than once or twice.” This from a man who’s
hurtled down the Mulsanne straightaway at 150 mph through
blinding rain and fog in the cold blackness of night, trying
desperately to keep suddenly-appearing gnat-like small cars
from being a hood ornament on his Chrysler-powered screamers!
“Oh, I just liked those long drives,” he says. Indeed,
in 1952 at Le Mans, Cunningham drove without relief (in every
sense of the word) all through the night (over 20 of the 24
hours) to fourth place in a C-4R, his favorite among the cars
he manufactured.

“Well, the C-4R was a nice car to drive, Cunningham remembers, “but
it was just a road-going car, really, sort of big and clumsy.”
But that was the point. Cunningham always insisted that his
cars be real sports cars, cars that could be driven on the
road. Sherwood Johnston, another of the talented American
amateurs Cunningham tapped to drive for him, agrees. “Briggs’s
idea was that the cars needed to be heavy and strong and that’s
the way they were built. That’s also why they always
finished, or 90% of the time, anyway.” Johnston made
his debut for the team co-driving a C-4R with the boss at
the 12-hour race at Reims in 1953. They finished 3rd, after
Fitch, in the fast, but regrettably airplane-like C-5R, literally
flew off the road while running second behind Moss’s
winning C-Type Jaguar. The sports car race accompanied that
year’s French Grand Prix at Reims, the only Formula One
race, as it turns out, that Cunningham would ever see. He
remembers little about it, other than Fangio won, but still
has strong feelings about the 12-hour affair.

“That was the silliest race I think I’ve ever been to,”
Cunningham says now, “They started the thing at 12:00
at night. How the hell are you going to get any sleep before
the start of that race. I never did figure that out. You had
to sleep the day before, which I couldn’t do. You couldn’t
sleep in the middle of the day. You could lay down, pretend
you were asleep, doze, or wrestle around in the bed, but you
couldn’t really set down and get a night’s sleep.
A really stupid race!”

His most enjoyable drive? Surprisingly, it wasn’t one of
his wins with the OSCA in ‘55, or his best finishes at
Le Mans (fourth in ‘52 and ‘62), but a solid eighth
place there in 1961 with Bill Kimberly in a two-liter “Birdcage”
Maserati. “Yes,” he says, “that was a fun car
to drive. I think the best drive I ever had at Le Mans was
in that little car.” He owns one record that still remains
unequaled. For three years in a row, a Cunningham entry won
the 12-hours of Sebring, Fitch’s C-4R in ‘53, an
American car and driver scoring the first ever World Sports
Car Championship win, the OSCA in ‘54, and a Cunningham
D- type Jaguar in 1955, driven by Mike Hawthorn and Phil Walters.
Cunningham still laughs at a gag Hawthorn pulled on several
of his mates when they were all at Sebring.

“Those guys used to have a ball over here at that time of the year,”
Cunningham explains, “because there was nothing doing
in Europe. And Mike was a prankster. He went out one time
and got a whole bunch of chickens. And he came back to the
hotel at about 1:00 in the morning with these chickens and
if a guy hadn’t locked his door, he’d open the door
and throw a chicken in and shut the door. He had that place
in a real uproar. God, no one there got any sleep that night!”

Of course, Cunningham never realized his ultimate goal, to win
Le Mans with an American car, but his thundering white and
blue racers were anything but a failure. Indeed, without the
backing of Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors, his Cunninghams
were always a real threat to the best from Ferrari, Jaguar,
and Mercedes Benz. But more than that, Briggs Cunningham was
an immensely popular good will ambassador for his sport and
for America – the quintessential sportsman. Naturally, he
dismisses this oft-used description, as well. “I think
the only reason they called me a sportsman,” he says,
smiling, “is because I didn’t do any work!”
Anyone who ever was around him during his racing years knows
better. So did the hundred or so luminaries gathered to honor
Cunningham on his 85th birthday.

Perhaps another American hero said it best that night. “Briggs,”
said Dan Gurney, “was a pioneer who achieved tremendous
things for Americans in the world automobile racing scene.
“What he accomplished has withstood the test of history
and of time.”

~The above article originally appeared in the April 6, 1992 issue
of AutoWeek.

   
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