Driving Le Mans by Bob Grossman
as told to Michael Frank March 5, 2000
Click on any Photo to Enlarge

Le Mans 1963

I grew up in Philadelphia. Even as a kid, I loved cars. I've been drawing cars since I was five. In those days, there were more than 30 makes, and I knew them all on sight.

When I came back from World War II, I wanted to be a singer. I settled down in Nyack, New York, which had been my embarkation point for Europe. There used to be garages on the east side of New York, wonderful garages. There were cars there which had been laid up before the war, I would buy and sell them to pay for my singing lessons. That's how I got into the car business.

Classics Cheap after the War

Back then, most of the imported cars were English. All the European makes were represented by a fellow named Max Hoffman. I wanted a Jaguar dealership, and so I approached Hoffman. He was glad to sell it to me, on the condition that I take one of his German cars for every third Jaguar. The German cars were Volkswagens, and they shortly became very popular, we did quite well with them. That was 1952, and I paid all of $5,000 for the dealership. In time, we came to represent all the English makes, in fact, we were the major dealer for exotics of all types.

Volkswagen by Grossman

As a dealer, I found I loved the cars. I began racing an XK 120, on my own, out here at Bridgehampton. You know, you can't over rev a Jaguar engine, 5500 is about it. Not like a Ferrari which will allow you to hit 8 or 10 and forgive. In those days, I didn't know that you brake before you hit the clutch, I would shift then brake. The engine would blip up a little, and I broke a few engines that way.

Racing was an and amateur activity on those days, you had to belong to the SCCA. It was like a polo club...very rich WASPy people. I had a lot of trouble getting in, so I gave them a real reason to turn me away: I turned pro. By 1959 I had a good reputation, racing a Ferrari California which I had bought from Luigi Chinetti, the sole Ferrari distributor at the time. Luigi suggested that I prepare that car with an aluminum body and race it at Le Mans...we came in fifth. I had spent only $8,000, if you can imagine that.

'59 California

I was very friendly with Walt Hansgen, who was an excellent driver on Briggs Cunningham's team. With his help, and my previous experience with Ferrari, I was able to get on the team for 1960. Of course, Cunningham and Alfred Momo were both Jaguar dealers, and I knew them. Very fine people, dear friends.

(ed. note: Briggs Cunningham built his own cars in the early 50's, GT roadsters called the C4R. This was an excellent racer, and was driven to a third place finish at Le Mans in 1953, losing only because of the superior brakes on the Jaguar C-Type. Cunningham approached Sir William Lyons to try to get disk brakes for his cars, but was unable to cut a deal. When the Cunningham company ceased production, Sir William gave Briggs a Jaguar distributorship as a consolation, "terribly sorry about the disk brake thing, old man." Cunningham then raced two D-Types, and his engineer, George Weaver, came up with an idea for an independent rear to replace the Jaguar D-Type live axle. This was fitted to one of Cunningham's D-Types and proved successful. In the off-season, the car was sent to Brown's lane for evaluation, and the Cunningham IRS became the inspiration for the E-Type IRS. As a result, the Cunningham team was able to get an unusual amount of support from Jaguar for it's Le Mans efforts. Source: Larry Black, Cunningham Company)

Patrons: Momo and Cunningham with E2A

In 1960, Cunningham ran a prototype E-Type (ed. note: E2A) and three Corvettes at Le Mans. It may seem odd that Cunningham would run Corvettes. After all, they were the competition. But they were American cars, and that was important to Briggs. We broke in the cars at Bridgehampton, and before we flew over, we raced at Roosevelt field...they had races in the parking lot there in the early days of racing. At Le Mans, the E was driven by Gurney and Hansgen, it left the race early. Then it started to rain. Two of the Corvettes crashed. That left one Corvette, which I was co-driving with John Fitch. The car required very frequent pit stops...once every hour and a half, because we had the biggest engine, a real gas-guzzler. When I took over for the final run, Fitch said, "watch the temperature, it's creeping up". No sooner had I taken the wheel, the temperature gauge pegged. Le Mans has a lot of rules...you can't add fluids unless you are at a scheduled stop for gas, so I had to find a way to finish. It was my job to do that: imagine the whole million dollar effort, fifty people involved, and not even finishing. I would stop every few laps, the crew had some dry ice which was being used to keep the Cokes cold...they'd pack some ice around the head, and I'd be off. It was like walking on eggs, but I brought it home. I won the GT class, just as the engine gave out, a very dramatic finish. There were a lot of American GI's at that race, we had more attention than the winners!

I was on the Cunningham team. Back in the States, we went out to Bridgehampton with a couple of Lister Jags...very fast cars. I knew Bridgehampton very well, and I found myself in a dice with Hansgen. I was right on him, but in the excitement I missed a shift. The one thing you didn't do on the Cunningham team was over rev. When I stopped in the pits, Briggs looked at the telltale, and I had been 1000 over...he threw me off the team.

Chasing Hansgen in a Lister

I drove Ferrari's again in 1961 and 1962, finishing sixth each time, but in 1963 I was invited back to drive for Cunningham. I had developed a reputation as a finisher while with the Ferrari team, this was very important to Briggs. I was very excited to drive a Jaguar at Le Mans. I still remember seeing the Lightweights at Briggs's shop in Queens.

That year, I paid my own way over. As a car dealer, I had discovered that I could buy cars in Europe cheaply and ship them back for sale in the States, it would pay for my racing. You would think that after being thrown off the team in '60, I would now be very careful. But on that trip, I bought a Rolls for not much money...I never paid more than $3000 for those cars. Hansgen and I went to pick it up, and decided to take it on a test drive to Normandy...we reached a point where the road split...one way Normandy, the other Paris. So it was Paris. When we got back to the hotel, we were late and a bit drunk, and Momo and Cunningham were furious.

Alfred Momo usually brought his wife to the races...she was our timekeeper. This time, he also brought his daughter. We were staying at the Moderne, which was a nice hotel, but like many French hotels, it had common bathrooms. After that trip, I wanted a bath. I went to the bathroom, but the door was locked. I started pounding on the door. When it finally opened, Alfred was waiting inside with a baseball bat...I had accidentally picked the wrong door, I was knocking on the door of his daughter's room.

Before the trip a couple of kids who worked in my showroom told me they wanted to come to Le Mans...I thought they were kidding. While we were in Paris, they showed up at the hotel, and announced themselves as members of the Cunningham Team. Cunningham was polite, but he wasn't amused. I now had three strikes against me...and I was already on probation because of the over revving incident, I was sure I was going to be thrown of the team. But fortunately, I wasn't.

Johnny Baus with No. 16 Before the Race

The team was met in France by Johnny Baus, an American who had fought with the French Resistance during WWII. He and his wife were our liasons with the French, and helped with the officials, the accomodations, and so forth. The cars had to be inspected by the scrutineers before we would be allowed to race. As homologated GT cars, there were many rules to comply with. They would fit something under the car to make sure that we had the correct road clearance. They would even load the car with simulated luggage.

Cunningham was a great sportsman and a gentleman, but also very strict. We practiced everything, I can demonstrate all the pit signals to this day. One thing we didn't practice was the Le Mans start, it was just something we did. I usually left the car in first, I'd start it in first rather than neutral. I wouldn't buckle up until I was on the straight, that way I'd get a good start.

1963:The Cunningham Team at the Start (1, below)

Many drivers start Le Mans as if they were in a sprint race, rather than an enduro. They'd quickly get involved in a wheel to wheel dice, and that's the worst thing you could do with a car...it just uses it up. Le Mans is very far North, but it's kept warm by the Gulf Stream, so the climate is very much like here (ed note: New York). Given it's latitude, and the fact that you're racing in June, when the days are very long, you'd have daylight until 10 PM, and the sun would come up around 4 AM. There isn't as much night driving as you'd think. But in the morning, there would sometimes be a heavy mist, which would cling to the low lying areas. This could be deadly at such high speeds. So as the race wore on, there would be fewer and fewer cars, while broken and crashed vehicles would line the sides of the track. By the end of the race, there are very few position changes. One year, when I was driving a Ferrari, I had a problem with a universal joint. I pulled into the pits, and one mechanic poured water on the joint to cool it, while another did the repair. It took quite a long time, I lost three laps. But I was in third place when I stopped, and was still in third place when I rejoined the race.

Lightweight and Aston Zagato

The Mulsanne straight at Le Mans was two lanes, about three miles long with a kink in the middle (6-11, below). You can just just about make it through the kink (11 below) without braking. Five hours into the race, as I was coming into the kink, I saw McClaren's Aston Martin Zagato blow it's engine, I could see the hot oil on the road. I guess I saw it in time, I just slithered through. I said to myself that the next car through would never see it in time. (ed. note Salvadori in the number 16 Jaguar spun at this point, and the car was destroyed. Salvadori was somehow thrown from the car and survived with only bruises.) When I passed this spot on my next lap, there must have been seven cars crashed and burning, I've never seen anything like it. The officials never acknowledged the presence of oil on the track, perhaps it had been burned or wiped off by the crashing cars.

Current Course at Le Mans

The Hansgen car had a problem with it's gearbox at the start, and Salvadori had crashed. Just as in 1960, I was driving the sole surviving Cunningham entry. The key to driving an enduro race is to drive carefully, shift well, and don't use up the car. I liked to lift off momentarily as I drove the Mulsanne straight, just off and on. It seemed to preserve the engine, driving three miles at full throttle is very hard on an engine. I was sharing the ride with Cunningham, who was also very easy on the car. We'd alternate driving, it was very comfortable. Cunningham and I both had long legs, so the seat position was fine for both of us. When not driving, there would always be something to tell the crew about the condition of the car, this was very important. At night, we'd try to catch some sleep, but this was difficult with the adrenaline pumping. We were running fine, until the accident.

1963: Survivor!

I was driving down the straight, behind a Ferrari, which was just a little faster than I was. I was trying to hitch a ride...to catch his slipstream just right, and let the vacuum pull me along behind him. At the end of the straight is a sharp turn (11 above), I had to brake quickly. Briggs didn't like running with a booster, the brakes were direct acting and I had to push very hard. Suddenly, the brakes were gone. I was moving at 160 MPH, and there were no brakes. There were hay bales set up for just such a problem. I crashed through three of them and ended up on the escape road. It's funny, the stuff that goes through your mind at such moments. I thought, "I'm going to miss a great meal", we had a big dinner planned for after the race. I thought about how I was the guy who never crashes, and here I was, crashing, wondering how it was going to end up. Finally, I thought, "my mother is going to see this on TV".

There were spectators sitting on those hay bales, and they scrambled when I went off the track. When I stopped, one of them came up and pointed to a scar on his face; "Montlhery, la meme chose". The same thing had happened to him at another race.

I  locked the car...sort of an odd thing to do, and went to the signal area. This was the slowest turn on the track (12, above), and the pit crews would signal the drivers from this point. I was able to call through to the pits. There were three people involved...Alfred Momo, Briggs Cunningham, and Lofty England. Lofty was in charge of racing for Jaguar, and eventually went on to run the whole company. I told them I'd lost my brakes, Briggs said, "that's impossible, there are two cylinders in tandem." Lofty said, "that's impossible, there are two cylinders", but I think it was Alfred who said, "just bring it in". I was worried that I had no brakes, I wouldn't be able to stop. "Don't worry, we'll catch you" said Alfred. So I drove the car in. I had just driven a few feet when the left front tire blew out. As I crawled into the pits, with no brakes and a flat tire, the crew held their arms up as if to catch me.

The Lightweight, Wrecked

I guess there wasn't much mechanical damage, the radiator couldn't have been damaged, and the suspension certainly wasn't. The brake pedal pivot pin had broken, that's how I lost my brakes. But the whole front of the car was folded up like an accordion. Briggs had a body man on the team, he had gone back to the hotel. It was late in the race, and with one car running, they didn't think he'd be needed! They called him back to the track. The rules didn't allow substituting a bonnet, but we were allowed to slice up the bonnet from the retired car and use the pieces to get my car back in the run. It probably took two hours.

I finished ninth, without the accident I would have been at least seventh. I don't know what the car's racing history was after Le Mans, Briggs never went back. But I had an opportunity to buy that car from Briggs some years later for $75,000, I'm sure he'd have sold it to me. I think it recently sold for $1.5 million. I loved that car. Of all the race cars I've driven, that was my favorite. Jaguar did so many things right...it was comfortable, well ventilated, and reliable. And fast...almost as fast as the Ferrari's. If a Ferrari was good for 170, this car could do 168. People just expected too much. It was, after all, a moderately priced car for everyday driving...and yet it held up so well against incredible competition.

Briggs was Done with Le Mans

Copyright©2000 Michael Frank, all rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
Photos are Copyright © their original holders. "Jaguar" is the property of Jaguar Cars, Ltd, Coventry, England