Turner Sports Cars   Articles

Austin-Healey magazine
Sept - Oct, 1961, pages 12 - 17

Courtesy of Richard Absher

[The article was re-created by re-typing to make down loading time quicker.]

t was winter in Virginia when I received a most welcome invitation to visit Florida in March of 1959 for the "XII Hours of Endurance" at Sebring.  The invitation came from an Army fiend with whom I had served in Germany.  Ed had finished his service commitment and returned home tot he city of Lake Wales in central Florida.

I looked forward to the trip and renewal of an acquaintance with a motorsport buddy.  Ed and I had been competitors in amateur events in Germany, then sponsored by the American Touring and Motorsport Association (ATMA) in affiliation with the Automobilclub von Deutschland.  Attending the race at Sebring would update my perspective on the U.S. racing scene, having been away during a three-year tour of duty.

As a youngster in the aftermath of World War II, I was an enthusiastic race spectator whenever I got the chance.  There were stock cars (really stock!) on the oval inside Soldier Field in Chicago that I still remember.  Visualize if you will, Tiny Lund (all 300 pounds of him) in a pre-war Lincoln Zephyr on that flat oval.  There were roadsters on the half-mile dirt track at the State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee in 1946.  Then there was Road America.  My kid brother remembers our trip up there in the spring of 1955, I believe soon after the track opened.  That was likely my introduction to Austin-Healeys.  Beautiful cars, those Healeys.

As March approached, I was eager to see big time competition in the U.S.  I looked forward to comparing what I would see at Sebring with what little I had seen of professional racing in Europe.  Because of my busy 10th Infantry Division duty and our equally busy ATMA competition, I saw only one important race in Germany, but that was a humdinger.  It was Juan Manuel Fangio's win in the Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in August 1957.

The trip Florida was uneventful, interrupted only by a snooze along the road to rejuvenate the body.  This was my first visit to Florida and I was duly taken by the lush greenery, the citrus orchards, and the flat vistas.  I arrived in Lake Wales to learn that my friend Ed, his brother and I were to be part of a makeshift pit crew for car #80, a Turner, then in the "alternate" field.  We learned that Maserati #5 was out of the race due to the accident in practice that took the life of Edwin Lawrence, and the Turner was in.  Although obviously saddened at the driver's death, it would be exciting to be in the thick of things rather than just watching the race as a spectator.  Suddenly I was going to be able to watch from the vantage of the pits.

I asked a bunch of questions about the Turner because it was unfamiliar to me.  I had been in Germany when the first "Bugeye" Sprite came to Wurzburg, but I had never seen a Turner.  Although I loved the Healeys, my first impression of the Sprite was that it was a toy.  Early in my overseas tour of duty I decided I had to have a sports car.  However, I first had to shed the nearly new 1955 Chevy I had foolishly taken with me to Germany.  I lusted after a 1956 Healey 100M, but the last one available in Germany was sold before I could close the deal to sell my Chevy.  Thus, I became a Triumph TR-3 owner and driver.  However, I've never lost my love of the 100-4 design.  It's what classic is all about to me.  The Sprite, though, was an acquired taste.  Only after I had driven one and watched several in our competitions did I accept the fact that they were "real cars."  The Sprites at Sebring in 1959 were GT-4 class competitors of the Turner, and as it turned out at the finish line all three of the Sprite entries bested the Turner.

On race morning we met to discuss pit crew assignments.  I was designated as "Pit Manager" which was strictly a supernumerary assignment.  My duties were carefully outlined to me as, "stay out of the way of the people who know what they're doing."  I could and did accommodate those instructions.  However, as part of the crew I did merit an introduction to "our" drivers, Frank Lieb and Smokey Drolet.  Smokey was one of very few women drivers in the race along with Denise McCluggage, Eleanor de Tomaso, and Peggy Wylie.

In essence my pit crew assignment left me free to wander the pits, paddock, and race course.  I did so with one or another camera in hand, staying out of peoples' way and snapping a picture from time to time.  I also managed a snippet of movie film of Stirling Moss pacing an adjacent pit just before the start of the race.  The start itself is also recorded on that movie film made from the pits, between shoulders and over heads.  The file would have been much better taken from some other place.

I had last seen Moss at the wheel of a Vanwall at the Nurburgring nearly two years earlier.  Several other Sebring starters had also been on the Nurburgring grid with Moss, including John Behara, Alessandro do Tomasso, and Roy Salvadori.  Also close by our pit was the Richie Ginther/Howard Hively GT class winning Ferrari convertible, a beautiful car.  Our pit was smack between two Maserati entries.  We were where the hapless Maserati #5 would have been.  In a picture of the pits, you'll note the blank space between two Maserati signs.  That's us.

Among other things, I was impressed with the proximity of the other race teams, although the pit arrangement at Sebring than made picture access difficult.  Oh for a press pass and modern camera equipment!  As it was, in the pits I was limited to sticking my head and camera out of the pit and shooting down the line.  It was either that or climb to the top of the pit structure and shoot from there.  Although I wasn't there as a journalist or photographer, my "I was there record" photos have helped me recapture the memories of the day.

I was struck at the time of the race, and now when reviewing the photos, by the wide variety of cars on the track at the same time: from the Deutsche Bonnets, Austin-Healey Sprites, the Turner, MGAs and TR-3s to the fastest sports machines of the day.  A couple of snippets of the movies bring that disparity home emphatically, showing the big machines passing the smaller-engined cars in front of the pits as if the latter were out for a casual Sunday drive.

While rain had been a near continual problem during practice, race morning dawned dry.  The day looked to be fine for racing.  At 10:00 a.m. the action began with the drivers racing across the track in a "Le Mans start."  The start-of_race noise wasn't quite as loud as I remembered from the Nurburgring, but it clearly announced serious machinery on the move.  After shooting the start on movie film, I moved away from the pits to look for other vantage points.  I found the flat airport terrain and the course layout to present few really good spectator spots.  Part of that was likely my unfamilarity with the track, not knowing where the action was likely to be most photogenic.

As the race progressed, I found it difficult to keep up with the overall leaders, let alone the individual class and Index of Performance leaders.  At one point I was in the pits when the hourly update (in ditto format) was distributed.  That was helpful, but not very satisfying.

The Turner kept lapping the track with consistency and little difficulty, although it too had its moments in the pits.  Frank and Smokey alternated driving.  Still it was nearly impossible as a spectator to tell how #80 was positioned with regard to its class competitors.  From listening to the pit chatter it was obvious that even the crews had their problems keeping track of their competitors.  Of course, keeping their own lap charts was no more complicated than the good old stop watch and clipboard.  Were the Sprites ahead, was the Turner in the running?  Who knew?

Using the pedestrian bridges that crossed over the track, moving around the track was not difficult.  However, hunting up restroom facilities and food was not the easiest task.  And when they were found, bother were rather Spartan.  Tent-screened restrooms were primitive and food was not fancy.  Both got the job done, though, and after all, we were there for the racing, not for gourmet dining.

As the afternoon wore on, the possibility of rain increased.  Finally, late in the afternoon it started and culminated in a real downpour along about 6 o'clock.  The effect on the race was dramatic, all cars slowing way down.  Many of the drivers had encountered heavy rain in practice and knew where the track presented the biggest problems.  In many places rain ran over the track looking for a place to run off.  Those drivers who hadn't seen the rain earlier had their hands full as the cars began to slide and spin at most any provocation.  Many spectators sought some sort of shelter from the heavy rain, as umbrellas just didn't do it.

At the height of the rain there was some speculation that the race would be called.  The conditions were truly atrocious for safe racing.  Yet the cars continued to circumnavigate(!)the track, those most canny drivers being able to pick up a position or two.  In preparing this article, I talked to Denise McCluggage to exchange recollections.  She had instant recall of the rain these 40-plus years later.  She remembered being asked to relinquish a late turn as driver to Ricardo Rodriguez, who was thought to be better able to give the de Tomaso O.S.C.A. a final shot at the Index of Performance.  To no avail, though, as the lead Deutsch-Bonnet squeaked out the Index win.

To me, the most vivid recollection of the day is when the rain quit and the clouds began to break at the horizon, at 7:30 p.m. or thereabouts.  By that time, everything and everyone was thoroughly soaked and the remainder of the race was almost anti-climatic.  The Ferrari 250 Testa-Rossas went on to take first and second, with Phil Hill, Olivier Gendebien, Dan Gurney, and Chuck Daigh sharing driving chores in car #7, and Jean Behra and Cliff Allison bringing car #9 in for second place.  Then came three Porsche RSKs, two more Ferraris TRs, another Porsche RSK, the gorgeous Ferrari 250GT California, and another RSK to round out the top 10 positions.  A good mix of big and small cars, attesting to the ability of the smaller cars to hold their own during the day.

The Lister Jaguars did not fare well this day.  The first car finished 12th with Walt Hansgen and Dr. Dick Thompson driving.  An accompanying photo shows one o the Lister Jags up on jacks in the pits, where it spent quite a bit of time.

One of the interesting stories of 1959 Sebring was the fate of another of the Lister Jags.  Sterling Moss ran that car out of gas a considerable distance from the pits, despite repeated efforts of the pit crew to get him to stop for fuel.  He then found a motor scooter, rode to the pits, picked up a can of gas, returned to the car, and got a push to get it started.  The net result?  He was disqualified.

I was pleased to see an AC Bristol finish 14th overall.  Along with the Healey 4s, I always thought the AC was not only a gorgeous car, but a go-getter even with its ages-old Bristol engine.  We remember fondly what those great cars could have been bought for in those days.

The Index of Performance cars, the Deutsch-Bonnet and O.S.C.A., finished 17th and 18th, a credible finish for both of the 750 cc-engined cars.  The three Austin-Healey Sprites finished 31st, 36th, and 38th, exceptional placings for almost completely stock automobiles.  It is said they were driven from the track back to California.  I missed seeing any of the big Healeys on the track, but certainly admired the Sprites' performances.  As a TR-3 driver, I was pleased to see two of them on the track for the race, though they didn't perform all that well.  One managed to finish, I believe dead last, while the other DNF'd.

And how did our Turner finish?  The story wouldn't be complete without reporting that it did finish, placing 43rd overall and 4th (of four) in the GT-4 class behind the three Sprites.  However, even at that it beat a Ferrari, a Lotus, an MGA, and O.S.C.A., and the ill-fated TR-3 mentioned above.  That it finished is testimony to the sturdy little car, the persistence of Smokey and Frank, and maybe a little bit to the thrown-together pit crew.

Since that day in 1959 I've been active motorsports, competing in locally sponsored and SCCA Solo II events off and on over the years and spectating when and where the opportunity presented itself.  I recently saw the rehabilitated Virginia International Raceway, a great-looking track that I'd last seen in the 1950's.  I've been back to Road America once or twice, and saw racing at Marlboro before it closed down.  I even renewed my pit crew experience, pitting for my brother and his partner in the SCCA Runoffs at Road Atlanta in 1987 and 1988.  I toured a number of the tracks in England and Scotland a couple of years ago, even riding a couple of fast laps of Knockhill as a guest of the chief driving instructor, Ian Forrest.  Memory recalls the racing at Austin and Bryan in Texas, on an airstrip in Panama, Laguna Seca, Sears Point, Charlotte, etc., etc.

Did I enjoy the Sebring experience?  You bet!  Have I done Sebring again?  No, I haven't.  Would I do it again?  Yes, I would.  In fact, friends who've recently moved to Avon Park, Florida tell me the Welcome Mat is out.  So, maybe I'll do it again sooner rather than later.


Following publication of the "Recollection of Sebring, 1959" article, I learned that I had incorrectly remembered Mr. Fred Lieb's first name as Frank.  Why the memory lapse, I have not idea, as his name was clearly listed as Fred on the entrant list sold with the race programs.  I can only plead that the author's memory is as old as the rest of his body.  My apologies to Mr. Lieb.

RLA, 4-1-02

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