In the summer heat of Le Mans, France in June of 1960, Corvette took to its first steps onto the stage of world endurance racing at the 24 Heures du Mans. Three were entered by Briggs Cunningham’s racing team and the fourth by Lloyd “Lucky” Casner’s Camoradi USA team. One of the Cunnigham cars was involved in a dramatic finish that still stirs the souls of racing fans around the world.
A Simple Concept
The 24 Hours of Le Mans began life in 1923 as an endurance test for automobiles. The concept was very simple—start racing at 4:00 p.m. Saturday afternoon and wave the checkered flag at 4:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon, with the car covering the longest distance declared the winner. Although the starting and finishing times have moved up to 3:00 p.m., the basic concept remains the same.
However, the devil is in the details. The regulations are many and they are strictly enforced, sometimes depriving those who put forth a superhuman effort of apparent success. For one of the Cunningham Corvettes in 1960, after 23 hours of racing, a couple of rules stood between it and a class victory: 1) to be classified as a finisher, a car must cover a specified percentage of the distance of the overall winner and it must cross the finish line under its own power; and 2) the 1960 rules prohibited the addition of engine fluids more often than once every 25 laps.
The Only Cunnigham Car Left
By Sunday afternoon, Corvette #3 driven by John Fitch and Bob Grossman was leading its class and was running without problems. Of the four cars entered by Cunningham’s team, it was the only car still running. The Camoradi car was also running, but would not cover the required distance to be classified as a finisher.
The #1 Corvette of Briggs Cunningham and Bill Kimberley went out three hours after the race began, spinning off the track during a rain storm and suffering an engine fire. A lightweight Jaguar E-type 2A driven by Dan Gurney and Walt Hansgen succumbed to a blown head gasket after ten hours. The #2 Corvette of Dick Thompson and Fred Windridge gave up the ghost after twenty hours with a broken piston. Number 3 was Corvette’s only hope.
A Sudden Turn of Events
With only about an hour remaining in the race, John Fitch was scheduled to bring #3 into the pits for a routine service stop and a driver change. Many years later, Dan Gurney would be quoted as saying, “Racing is a cruel sport.” No race can be as cruel as Le Mans. The racing gods had one more mountain for Cunningham’s crew to climb if they wanted to win.
When Fitch pitted, a serious coolant leak was discovered. The car that had run without major issues for twenty-three hours now had a blown cylinder head gasket that was allowing engine coolant to escape. Fortunately, the engine did not appear to have suffered any major internal damage, but the Le Mans rules forbade the addition of any more coolant—it had not yet been twenty-five laps since engine fluid was last added. Knowing that the car had to cross the finish line under its own power and knowing also that the engine would not last another hour without some way to keep it cool, the crew was faced with a seemingly insolvable dilemma. If they couldn’t find a solution quickly, the entire Team Cunningham effort would go for naught—the car would not even be classified as a finisher.
Thinking on Their Feet
The Cunningham team was an experienced group, having competed successfully at Le Mans for many years and they weren’t about to throw in the towel just yet. They came up with a possible solution—ice.
Being experienced endurance racing campaigners, Team Cunningham had a huge cache of ice to preserve their food and beverages at the track. Crewmembers were dispatched to round up all the ice they could find and they duly filled the Corvette’s engine compartment with all the ice that would fit. Alfred Momo, Briggs Cunningham’s right-hand man, instructed driver Bob Grossman to run a slow, fifteen-minute lap and return to the pits for more ice. They would continue that strategy until the end of the race or the engine gave out—whichever came first. No doubt everyone on Team Cunningham had fingers and toes crossed in hope that the engine would last.
The delicate dance of keeping the car going without overstressing the engine did not go unnoticed by the public address announcer and the fans. As the word spread about what was happening, the fans seemed to almost forget about the leading Ferrari and turned their full attention to the now wounded Corvette. Each time Corvette #3 completed another lap and crawled into the pits for more ice, the fans watched intently. When the Corvette went back out on the track a big cheer went up. Lap after lap the drama continued until the leading Ferrari was given the checkered flag shortly after 4:00 pm. The crowd collectively held its breath waiting for Corvette #3 to appear—and appear it did, crossing the finish line under its own power!
The game Corvette gave all it had and succeeded in crossing the finish line, but the engine finally expired shortly after taking the checkered flag. Of the finish, Bob Grossman said, “The car was popping and spitting and looked like it might not last. At the finish, I was mobbed by Americans—so many I couldn’t get out. A very emotional moment that I’ll never forget.”
Nor will anyone else. Team Cunningham’s extraordinary effort gave Corvette first place in class and eighth place overall, and set the tone for future Corvette efforts at Le Mans.
If you want to know more about the #3 1960 Briggs Cunningham Corvette that raced at Le Mans, check out the excellent documentary called The Quest from Michael Brown Productions.