Into The Sixties
Part 2 Text by Kane Rogers
 
 

Briggs’ decision to again contest Le Mans came on the heels of a decision
by the Club Automobile de’l Ouest to limit prototypes by introducing
more Grand Touring-friendly rules. The minimum windshield
height was raised to ten inches and trunks (or boots
as they were known in Europe) had to accommodate an FIA-spec
suitcase. The changes also allowed for larger-displacement
engines in the GT class, making the Corvette, with its 283-cubic
inch fuel-injected V8, a theoretical contender. Briggs entered
three Corvettes and Jaguar’s experimental E2A, the first E-Type
to compete at Le Mans.

The team prepared in typically thorough fashion. Briggs rented
the circuit at Bridgehampton to run the cars for twenty-four
hours, during which it was found that the stock wheels were
prone to breaking. To solve this and to facilitate quicker
pit stops, Momo not only switched to knock-off magnesium Halibrands,
but he also fitted the cars with huge aircraft-type fuel fillers,
situated behind cutouts in the rear windows of their anchored
hardtops.

While thankful for the factory’s back-door support, Alfred was less
than welcoming of the advice coming from Corvette godfather
Zora-Arkus Duntov, who had wanted the cars to run with his
new aluminum heads. Momo’s watchword was still reliability,
so he eschewed the untested alloy units in favor of the proven
cast-iron ones, which he prepared himself in the interest
of better breathing. Driver comfort and information were also
important, so the cars were equipped with adjustable steering
wheels, extra instrumentation and padded bucket seats.

Dan Gurney, who had left Ferrari for BRM and was available to
drive a sports car, was paired with Walt Hansgen in the Jaguar.
In the Corvettes, Briggs would share duties with up-and-coming
Bill Kimberly, Fred Windridge joined Dick Thompson and John
Fitch would co-drive with Bob Grossman.

Rain threatened early Saturday evening, just as Bill Kimberley
was taking over from Briggs’ first stint. Alfred was arguing
with Firestone engineers, who wanted to save their rain tires
until absolutely necessary. Three-quarters of a lap later,
their concern was rendered moot when Kimberly drove head on
into a wall of rain, losing the car in a series of rolls,
then miraculously escaping unhurt before the car burned to
the ground.

Dick Thompson, ever the charger, drove the number two ‘Vette straight
into the sandbank at Mulsanne, destroying a large portion
of its bodywork, before digging out over an hour later. Thompson’s
co-driver, Fred Windridge, managed on Sunday morning to inject
some humor into Team Cunningham’s now seemingly desperate
fortunes when his Corvette, still streaming the tatters of
its few remaining bits of fiberglass bodywork, blew its engine
in a cloud of smoke and glory as it passed the pits. Unable
to make the escape road, Windridge exited the car as it was
swarmed by firemen, medical attendants, gendarmes and track
marshalls all nattering at him in French about where to push
the car. Recognizing a nearby photographer who was a local
friend of Team Cunningham, Freddy shouted to him, “Please
tell them to leave the car alone! You know how fussy Briggs
is!”

Meanwhile, the number 3 Fitch/Grossman Corvette was steadily proceeding,
making its way up to seventh place by morning, ahead of all
but one Ferrari in the GT class. The car made it as high as
fourth until, with one hour to go, its engine began to overheat
and lost most of its coolant. The rules were not kind to the
Corvette’s predicament; each car had to circulate for twenty-four
laps between top-ups to its oil and water, and had to complete
at least four laps in the last hour to qualify as a finisher.

The answer lay in Team Cunningham’s overwhelming preparation:
among its many supplies was a huge cache of ice to preserve
the vast quantities of food and drink they brought with
them to the race. One of the crew members suggested packing
the ‘Vette’s engine compartment with ice, which prompted Momo
to instruct Grossman to turn a series of fifteen-minute laps,
each of which would end with another trip to the pits for
more ice. The fans and the PA announcers ignored the winners-to-be
from Ferrari and began cheering on the staggering Corvette,
which finally finished eighth overall with an average speed
of 97.92mph.

“The car was popping and spitting and looked like it might not
last,” recalled Grossman. “At the finish, I was
mobbed by Americans- so many I couldn’t get out. A very emotional
moment. I’ll never forget it.”

 
  Into the Sixties – Part 3  
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Credit to Kane Rogers for his important contributions to this website's creation.