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3929Crosley leads Sebring's racing history.

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  • mrcooby
    Apr 7, 2014

      Since New Years of 1950, the Sebring endurance race has been second only to Le Mans in international prestige and has an amazing history. It's an unlikely location for such an important motorsports event that saw a Crosley VC Hotshot take top honors in its first race.

      The Sebring Airport was originally Hendricks Field, a World War II B-17 training base. There were runways and narrow asphalt roads within the former military base, which had been turned over to the city of Sebring in 1946. Alec Ulmann, who was in the aviation business, had visited the huge facility near Sebring repeatedly and believed it was a logical location for an American endurance classic of the same stature as Le Mans, the famous 24-hour race in France. Seeing beyond the abandoned military barracks and dilapidated hangars and warehouses, he thought the long runways and access roads would make a good racing circuit.

      Ulmann invited racing pioneer Sam Collier and Sports Car Club of America Florida Region Director Bob Gegen to Sebring in the spring of 1950 plan a race for that New Year's Eve on a 3.5-mile circuit. Ulmann planned a complicated handicapping system, the Index of Performance. Months later, Collier was killed during the Watkins Glen race in September 1950. In his honor, the first Sebring race was officially named the Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix of Endurance.

      It was decided that the first Sebring event would be a six-hour endurance in accordance with international rules. The Sebring Firemen Inc. agreed to sponsor the event and provide manpower, and Ulmann's entry forms got an encouraging response with many of the top sports car drivers in America entering, including Jim Kimberly, Briggs Cunningham (who'd raced at Le Mans earlier that year), Luigi Chinetti (the 1949 victor at Le Mans), Fred Wacker, Phil Walters, Bill Spear and Tommy Cole. Among the field of cars were Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Allard, MG and Fiat, almost all still oddities in the United States.

      Vic Sharpe of Tampa, whose family owned the local Cadillac dealership, drove his new Crosley VC Hotshot to Sebring to watch the race and deliver spare parts to Tommy Cole, who was co-driving an Allard Cadillac with Erwin Goldschmidt. Cole asked Sharpe to borrow the Crosley for a spin around the circuit. In doing so, he timed himself with his wristwatch and used a slide rule to calculate what the 724cc Crosley could do within the complicated handicapping system. And as he'd expected, he saw that the Crosley would have an excellent chance of winning.

      Since Sharpe was not an eligible SCCA driver, Ralph (Bob) Deshon and Fred "Fritz" Koster were chosen to drive the Crosley. Sharpe agreed to have the bumpers and windshield removed to reduce weight. An old piece of plexiglass found near a runway was used as a small windscreen, and the Crosley started off on a few practice laps the night before the race during a heavy rain.

      On New Years Eve, twenty-eight cars lined up for the Le Mans-style start in positions determined by engine displacement; the cars with the largest engines were placed at the front of the field. The track was crudely marked with hay bales and a few signs; the pits were merely wooden tables. With that modest beginning on a chilly afternoon, a small crowd would witness what is today remembered as the most important event in American sports car racing history when the Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix started at 3 p.m. on December 31, 1950.

      The Crosley Hotshot settled into a consistent lap speed and quickly took the lead on the handicapping index as Deshon and Koster held off Allard and Ferrari entries to win the Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix. The lone American car had done the impossible and recorded the first of what would be many Sebring upsets.

      Following the race, Deshon wrote to Sharpe: “Just wanted to thank you for the wonderful afternoon at the expense of your Crosley. I can’t remember when I ever had a better time. Except for the laughing I did during the race, I can’t think of ever having a more relaxing ride. I hope the Hotshot is none the worse for wear. I learn now that Fritz was using the gear shift hoping to speed up a bit. I’m afraid the Crosley was quite content with whatever speed it had decided to maintain and that was that … Think how a stripped Crosley would go!”

      That first six-hour Sebring race received international coverage and was rated as a huge success. It would return in 1952 as a 12-hour race. It was certainly the finest hour for the faltering Crosley Motors, and the company played up the victory in its advertisements.

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