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The 1959 United States Grand Prix at Sebring Almost Ended in Financial Ruin

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Bruce McLaren, pictured here, was a relative unknown when he took victory at Sebring.

Bruce McLaren, pictured here, was a relative unknown when he took victory at Sebring.
Photo: Keystone (Getty Images)

As Formula 1 neared its first decade of existence, promoters in America began to look at the World Championship and wonder just what it would take to actually bring the globe’s greatest racing stars to United States. Unfortunately, the first-ever United States Grand Prix at Sebring was a little bit of a disaster. Despite a stunning finish, small crowds killed the Florida race — but Alec Ulmann, who set up the event, was willing to try again.

This blog is part of a series on Formula 1’s presence in America. The sport has had a storied — but not particularly successful — history in the country. As F1 grows in America, and as we approach the 2022 United States Grand Prix, Jalopnik is taking a look back at the venues left in the dust and what ultimately led to their abandonment.

The 1959 United States Grand Prix is generally considered the “first” F1 race in America; for the first 10 years of F1’s existence, the Indianapolis 500 technically counted toward the World Championship, but no one was exactly thrilled at the prospect of developing an entirely new car for a one-off oval race — or at the idea of traveling from Europe to America, a problem that plagued the the 1959 US GP as well.

The US GP at Sebring was the final race of the 1959 F1 season and took place on December 12, a full three months after the previous race in Italy, but it was an important one: Heading into the event, three drivers were competing for the Championship: Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, and Tony Brooks. It was organized by promoter Alec Ulmann, who was one of the first members of the SCCA and who, after seeing his first 24 Hours of Le Mans, developed the 12 Hours of Sebring at home in America.

Notably, the field for the 1959 United States Grand Prix also featured six American drivers, a rarity for F1. Five came with European outfits: Harry Schell with Cooper-Climax, Phil Hill with Ferrari, Bob Said with Connaught-Alta, George Constantine with Cooper-Climax, Harry Blanchard with Porsche and Phil Cade with Maserati. There was also one single machine from Indianapolis: Roger Ward’s Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser.

The race itself was a stunner. Brabham led Moss by 5.5 points and Brooks by eight, which meant all three were still in the running for a World Championship. Qualifying saw Moss, Brabham, and Brooks sharing the front row, but overnight, American Harry Schell was given third place because it appeared that no one had counted his final lap, since it came near the end of the session.

That kicked off one hell of a Sunday morning, as Ferrari (and many other teams) loudly protested the move — going so far as to engage in a shouting match with promoters even while the Star-Spangled Banner played to start the race. Promoters maintained their position, and Schell started from third. It was, unfortunately, later discovered that Schell had cut the track, which is what gave him such a fast time.

When the green flag flew, things got spicy. Brooks was rammed from behind by Wolfgang von Trips in the very first turn, and his two-minute pit stop to repair damage killed his pursuit of the title. Moss led from the start and built a 10-second gap over Brabham, only to retire five laps into the event and effectively ending his Championship hopes.

Brabham then inherited the lead, followed closely by his teammate Bruce McLaren, and the two kept an easy pace due to the fact that the race had, by its halfway point, knocked half the field out of contention. Meanwhile, Maurice Trintignant’s crew kept egging him on, hoping he would be able to slice the gap from third to first by the end of the race.

Then, as the final lap neared its conclusion, Jack Brabham’s car began to sputter. Just 400 yards from the finish line, he had run out of gas due to his own insistence that the Cooper team start him with an only partially fueled tank in order to maintain a quicker pace.

Teammate McLaren slowed behind Brabham, leaving the Australian frantically waving his Kiwi teammate by and praying that Trintignant wouldn’t bypass both drivers on the final lap.

Thankfully, McLaren was able to resume speed, crossing the finish line to become the youngest Grand Prix winner at age 22 years and 104 days. Along with his $6,000 prize, he also received several acres of land.

Trintignant and Brooks flew by in second and third, but only three other cars remained — all multiple laps down. So, Brabham leaped from his car and pushed it up the hill and across the finish line. He took fourth place and with it a World Championship.

To say that the race was both exacting and exciting would be something of an understatement; conditions had aligned perfectly to give Sebring one hell of an event. But the on-track show was forgotten in the wake of some disastrous media coverage.

Hopes for a second round of F1 at Sebring, however, seemed doomed. Here’s a quick excerpt from Caesars Palace Grand Prix by Randall Cannon that really puts it into perspective:

Press notes from the 1959 Sebring Grand Prix of the United States were still rattling when motorsports pundits began to predict the demise of Sebring as the 1960 venue for a U.S. round of the Formula One world championship. “This obsolete World War II airstrip has outgrown its usefulness and should be abandoned,” read one of the blasts from the West Coast. […] The pundits also leaned in on Alec Ulmann, the Sebring promoter: “Last December’s U.S. Grand Prix, when only a handful of spectators showed up,” continued the opinion piece, “should have proved to promoter Alec Ulmann that his track has had it.”

[…]

Attendance for the 1959 Sebring Grand Prix of the United States had been announced at 15,000. By contrast, Sebring was pulling a reported 40,000 spectators for its spring 12-Hour endurance race.

The book reports that Stirling Moss was particularly displeased with the track, largely because the locals used the international event as an excuse to jack up prices of things like hotels and food.

Further, the exciting race almost ended in financial despair. Ulmann only just managed to break even due to the small crowd, which was partially due to the fact that the event’s purse was a whopping $15,000, including a $6,000 prize for the winner. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be $152,665 and $61,066 in today’s money. Those may not be huge sums compared to the average multi-million dollar F1 budget now, but in 1959, F1 was still a smaller operation that relied upon race promoters to generate and distribute funds, which were often pretty small.)

It wasn’t until after the 1960 running of the 12 Hours of Sebring that Ulmann finally confirmed F1 wouldn’t be returning to his track. Instead, he suggested that he’d be interested in bringing the event to southern California, where there was a burgeoning motorsport scene. There, Ulmann thought, he could attract a large, internationally-minded crowd to watch Europe’s greatest drivers compete for a Championship. Unfortunately for him, the 1960 event was set to be an even greater failure.

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