|If the history of Virginia International Raceway can be described as being interwoven with the history of sports car racing in America, then the thread is obviously Briggs Cunningham. Road racing traces its roots from loosely organized events over public streets and roads at such venues as Watkins Glen and Bridgehampton in New York and Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin to airport courses at public landing fields and Strategic Air Command bases around the country. Eventually they evolved into events held on private road courses. Cunningham was a leader at every stage.||
Cunningham in Maserati Tipo 60 at VIR April 1961
Briggs Swift Cunningham Jr. was the son of a wealthy Cincinnati financier
who had made his fortune in the 19th Century in real estate,
railroads, utilities and banking. Already wealthy, he later financed two young
men in business who had plans to market a cake of soap they had produced by
mistakenly over-mixing the ingredients so much that the soap floated. The senior
Cunningham received a share in the company formed by the partners Proctor and
Gamble, with one of them becoming godfather to young Briggs Jr. The elder
Cunningham died at age 75 when his son was only 7, leaving a family fortune
sufficient for Briggs to lead a privileged lifestyle and to develop his
competitive personality through a variety of interests. While at Yale, he began
a career as a successful yacht-racing skipper that would lead him to
international fame as owner and captain of the America’s Cup winning Columbia.
In the 1930’s Cunningham developed a love of auto racing with his
friends and classmates Miles and Sam Collier. They began by racing makeshift
racers over the private roads of the Collier estate Overlook in
Westchester County New York. They formed The Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA)
and promoted racing from 1934 to 1940. Briggs did not drive during his
mother’s lifetime out of respect for her wishes. However, in 1940 he began a
long career of constructing and entering cars of his own design. He entered a
Mercedes body on a Buick Century chassis that he had built and named BuMerc in
the final ARCA race on the grounds of the New York World’s Fair. He did not
drive the car at this time.
After the war, sports car racing re-emerged from a group formed in the
Boston area known as The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). The first organized
race was through the streets and over the public roads in the small village of
Watkins Glen, New York on October 2, 1948. This time Cunningham drove his BuMerc
to a second place finish and hired a driver who drove his supercharged MG-TC to
a third place finish.
By June of 1949 Cunningham had established a professional relationship
with mechanical wizard Alfred Momo that was to become one of the longest lasting
and most successful in American road racing. They purchased a Ferrari 166 Corsa
from Momo’s former co-worker Luigi Chinetti who was to become the most
important Ferrari importer in the United States. This was the first Ferrari
racing car in America and Cunningham entered it in the first race held on the
public streets and roads of Bridgehampton, New York. His driver was George Rand.
The Ferrari was the class of the field until mechanical trouble caused a DNF. At
the Watkins Glen race on September 17, 1949 Briggs drove the Ferrari to a second
place finish after leading until the last lap when he was passed for the win by
his friend Miles Collier.
The 1950 season was memorable for several reasons. Cunningham raced a
Healy-Cadillac the first of many small sports cars with large displacement
American engines and he began a quest to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.His Lemans
effort featured two Cadillacs, one a stock body nicknamed “Clumsy Puppy” was
driven by Briggs and Phil Walters. It had as its only modification the addition
of a dual carb manifold. Sam and Miles Collier drove the other, a specially
designed aerodynamic body that acquired the name “Le Monstre”. It captured
the imagination of the French fans because its huge engine caused the earth to
shake and the exhaust would spew flames out the back at night. The entries were
memorable but clearly not capable of winning. The coupe finished tenth and “Le
Monstre” finished eleventh after losing time hitting a sandbank.
After Le Mans the team resumed the American season with Briggs having
successes in his Healy Cadillac and Sam Collier campaigning the Ferrari 166.
Tragedy struck at Watkins Glen when Collier was killed in the Ferrari in a race
in which Briggs finished second in the Healy-Cadillac.
The LeMans entries had been at the urging of the Collier brothers and Sebring
promoter Alec Ulmann. The Colliers drove the second car and Alec Ulmann served
as team manager in 1950 and several subsequent years. The Americans were
allowed to race but the organizers seemed to associate them with “hot-rodders”.
What was needed was a legitimate manufacturer’s entry to gain respect from the
Europeans. To accomplish this purpose, Cunningham decided it was time to build
his own cars to establish a place for an American built sports car that would be
competitive in prestige as well as speed. Near the end of the 1950 season he
bought an automobile manufacturing and development business from Phil Walters
and Bill Frick and moved it to Palm Beach, Florida near where he spent his
winter seasons. The purpose was to build a sports car that would be competitive
with the best that Europe had to offer and to use American components.
The first car, the Cunningham C-1 was designed around Cadillac power but
Cadillac pulled out of the project. Chrysler’s new “hemi”engine was
substituted and the cars became the C-2R. Three were built. They were 150 mph
monsters but they all failed to finish at Le Mans in 1951 for differing reasons.
Back home in the United States the results were much better.
In the first American outing for the design, John Fitch won on the streets of
Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin on August 26. At Watkins Glen on September 15 the
Cunninghams finished first, second, and fourth.
The 1952 season saw the introduction of the most successful Cunningham
design ever, the C4R. At Le Mans the C-4K Coupe led the race but dropped out at
the 8 hour mark. The C-4R driven by Briggs and Bill Spear finished fourth with
Cunningham driving 20 of the 24 hours.
Back in the USA the team finished 1,2,3 at Elkhart Lake but on September
21 a tragic event at Watkins Glen was to change sports car racing in America for
years to come. Cunningham was leading the first qualifying lap as the cars
entered the village streets when another driver brushed against a crowd of
spectators, injuring 12 and killing a small child. The era of racing on public
streets and highways with little or no crowd control came to an abrupt end. The
pioneers of American road racing had to seek new venues. Their savior came in
the form of Air Force General Curtis LeMay, an avid racing fan. He allowed
sports car racing to survive by staging events at the many Strategic Air Command
(SAC) bases around the country. The first event, a 6-hour race at McDill AFB in
Tampa was won by John Fitch in a Cunningham C-4R. Just weeks later, in March of
1953, Fitch teamed with Phil Walters in the same car to win the 12 Hours of
Sebring. The car went on to win 4 more times during the season including a 1-2
finish at March Field in Riverside, California.
For Le Mans in 1953 the Cunningham team brought their latest, the C-5R.
It was the fastest car on the track but Jaguar arrived with a superior braking
system. The C-5R was only able to earn third place and Briggs finished seventh
in his C-4R. The Cunninghams were third and fifth the next year in the 1954 Le
Mans. Back at home in 1954 the
Cunninghams finished first, third, and sixth at Watkins Glen. This would be the
last win for a Cunningham-built car. For the 1955 Le Mans race the team carried
a C-6R for Briggs and Sherwood Johnston and a D Type Jaguar for Bill Spear and
Phil Walters. Both cars failed to finish. The previous year the team had won the
1954 12 Hours of Sebring with Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd in a
small-displacement OSCA. Briggs himself had enjoyed a successful year in the
OSCA, winning the1954 SCCA points title in F Modified.
1955 would be the final year for Cunningham cars. The Internal Revenue
Service only allowed 5 years before classifying such a business as a
non-deductible hobby and the Palm Beach factory closed its doors at the end of
the year. Briggs Swift Cunningham had carried the American flag to the greatest
shrine of European sports car racing and had done so with an All-American racing
car. The French had long since stopped looking down on the Americans as “hot-rodders”.
At the same time, he had created a style of car that would capture the
imagination of the world for years to come. While he was the first to mate a
lightweight two seat chassis to a large displacement American V-8, the design he
pioneered lives on today in the Corvette, the Cobra, the Panoz, and the Dodge
At the end of 1954 the face of sports car racing in America had changed
again. Congress had responded to political pressure by banning racing at SAC
bases. This time the solution to the problem brought about a positive
development, the construction of permanent, private road courses. The civic
leaders of the village of Watkins Glen had moved north of town and mapped out a
course over township roads that were easier to control than the crowded streets
in town. Later, in 1956 the third and final course was constructed at the
present location. Meanwhile, the citizens of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin had seen
the same benefits in hosting a permanent course and had supported and encouraged
Cliff Tufte in his construction of Road America. The Cunningham team was in
contention for wins in the inaugural events at both courses.
The milestone year for track construction in the United States was 1957.
New courses were opened at Riverside, Calif; Thompson, Conn.; Bridgehampton,
N.Y.; Laguna Seca, Calif; Lime Rock, Conn. and Virginia International Raceway in
Danville, Va. The Cunningham team was busy around the entire country.
Briggs had become a Jaguar importer at the beginning of 1956 and was the
factory team for the United States with a trio of D Types. Phil Walters had been
the lead driver from the formation of the team until his retirement from racing
after witnessing the tragic accident at Le Man in 1955. Sherwood Johnston became
the number one driver until May 20, 1956 when a privately entered D Jaguar
driven by Walt Hansgen beat the powerful Cunningham entry at Cumberland, Md. and
Hansgen earned a place on the team.
The Cunningham Jaguars arrived at VIR for the track’s inaugural race on the weekend of August 3rd and 4th of 1957 in the midst of a hotly contested battle for the National Championship in C Sports class between Hansgen in the Cunningham Jaguar and Carroll Shelby in John Edgar’s Maserati. Hansgen had won at Elkhart Lake and Marlboro, Md. For VIR, car owner Edgar had replaced Shelby’s Maserati 300 with a more powerful 400 horsepower 450 model. The power advantage paid off on VIR’s long straights and Shelby was able to beat Hansgen into the winner’s circle for the Virginia track’s first feature race. Walt countered with wins at Bridgehampton and Watkins Glen in New York. The team returned to VIR in October and Hansgen took the National Championship by a convincing win in the President’s Cup feature. Both Sports Illustrated and The New York Times named the Cunningham driver “Sports Car Driver of the Year”.
Hansgen, Thompson, & Cunningham - May 1958
|The 1958 season at VIR saw the Cunningham lineup equipped with new Lister Jaguars. Hansgen won both the Spring Sprints and The President’s Cup in the fall. In the Spring Sprints Hansgen won the feature after he and Ed Crawford overcame an early lead by Lance Reventlow in his Scarab to finish 1st and 2nd. Reventlow had towed all the way from California to challenge the Cunningham entries in his newly designed and built racer. The fall win earned the team leader enough points for a second consecutive National points title.|
The year 1958 was a memorable one for Briggs’ racing career on more
than one front. The America’s Cup challenge in yacht racing had been renewed
with the British. Just as he had done so often at Le Mans, Cunningham gave the
American people a reason to be proud. His 12-meter Columbia defeated the
British at Newport, renewing the winning tradition for the United States that
would last until the loss to the Australians in 1983.
In the midst of the America’s Cup victory celebration on the docks at
Newport, Cunningham found a pay phone and received word that Ed Crawford had won
the feature race at Watkins Glen in his Team Cunningham Lister Jaguar. Members
of his yacht crew, thinking he was talking about the yacht race, saw him smiling
and congratulated him on a “fine race”. He replied, “I just heard. I wish
I could’ve seen it.”
The headlines in the local press at VIR in May
of 1959 could have been copies of earlier editions. Hansgen made his 4th
consecutive trip to the Danville winner’s circle. He ended the season at
Daytona with another Championship, this time in C Modified.
The President’s Cup race was not held at VIR in 1960. The event was
staged at Upper Marlboro, Md in both 1959 and 1960. The official entry for the
May 1, 1960 SCCA Nationals lists an OSCA for Cunningham and a Maserati for
Hansgen as well as a pair of Formula Jr. entries for the two drivers. They are
not listed as starters in any of the results so it is assumed that the team was
busy elsewhere. They had reason to be occupied elsewhere as the team arrived at
Le Mans with a substantial departure from their usual entry. In addition to a
Jaguar E2A hybrid for Briggs, the entourage included three Corvettes for an
all-star line-up of drivers that included John Fitch, Bob Grossman and Dick
Thompson. The import and export of driving talent between Europe and America
came full circle that year when Cunningham hired Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren
who had finished first and second in the 1960 F-1 World Championship to drive
his two Jaguar E2A models in the season-ending West Coast races at Laguna Seca
and Riverside. The Jaguar E2A was constructed with features from both the D-type
and the newer E-type.
The President’s Cup and the Cunningham/Momo team both returned to VIR
in April of 1961. Hansgen lapped the entire
field, except for Roger Penske, in the three hour Cup race driving
Cunningham’s new Tipo 61 Birdcage Maserati. Penske and Gaston Andrey drove
identical 12 cylinder cars to make the podium an all Maserati affair.
Hansgen had led the Formula Jr race earlier in the day until mechanical
problems forced him to retire his Cooper-Climax. In October he entered a
Cooper-Climax in the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. He crashed that car and
Cunningham later sold the damaged chassis to Roger Penske who modified it and
added a sports car body. Penske campaigned the car as the Zerex Special and
established much of his early fame as a driver and car-builder. The same car was
later sold to Bruce McLaren and was the first car campaigned by the newly-formed
Team McLaren. The chassis sold to Penske was a Cooper T53 chassis number
F1-16-61 and we have to assume that it was not the same as the Formula Jr Cooper
that Cunningham brought to VIR in April?
The year 1962 was the final appearance at
VIR for both the President’s Cup and for Briggs Cunningham. On April 29, a
monsoon-like rainstorm caused Hansgen’s Cooper Maserati to make an
eight-minute pit stop for Momo to dry out his electrical system and he finished
second to Roger Penske in the feature race. In the earlier race for Formula cars
Hansgen had started at the back of the grid because he missed qualifying but
passed the entire field to earn a victory over Roger Penske and Peter Revson.
Maserati built two Tipo 151 coupes for Cunningham’s 1962 Le Mans
effort. He found them to be too heavy and the rest of the season back in America
was not successful for the Maserati. Briggs’ trip to France that year was more
successful as a driver. He and Roy Salvadori drove a works E Type Jaguar to
third overall and first in class
Jaguar shipped Cunningham three all new lightweight E Types for 1963.
They were entered at Sebring and Le Mans. Drivers included Hansgen, Salvadori,
Augie Pabst, Bruce McLaren, Bob Grossman and Cunningham. Salvadori crashed
heavily in the kink on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans and the
Grossman/Cunningham entry finished ninth. Hansgen retired with gearbox troubles.
This was to be the final appearance for the Cunningham team at Le Mans. They had
not won the 24-hour classic, but they had taken first place in the hearts of
many French fans. Laura Cunningham
tells of the style with which her husband approached his yearly escapade. “His
friend Johnny Baus was an American living in France. He would rent a garage in
town each year and the team would arrive from the States with their big semi
transporter with the best of equipment and supplies. Johnny would take care of
all the local arrangements each year.” She describes a relationship with the
French people that developed far beyond the concept of the Americans as
“hot-rodders” that had greeted Briggs and the Collier Brothers on their
arrival in 1950.
After Le Mans in 1963 Briggs made few appearances as a driver or entrant.
The SCCA had established a professional series known as the United States Road
Racing Championship (USRRC) that ran from 1963 through 1968. Briggs and John
Fitch entered one of the E Type Jaguars at the Road America 500 in 1963. Briggs
drove a Porsche 904 to 10th place in the 1965 USRRC at Laguna Seca
and finished 9th at Riverside. Cunningham drove the Porsche at
Sebring in 1966 with John Fitch and Davey Jordan. This was to be the final race
of his driving career.
Facing retirement in 1965, Cunningham and his wife Laura began to plan a
museum to house his racing cars collected throughout the years. From the grand
opening in 1966, the museum remained open to the public for 22 years, displaying
one of the world’s best collections. Included were the most important cars
from Briggs’ long career, from his BuMerc and his Ferrari 166 Corsa all the
way through the Porsche 904 from his last race in 1966. The collection was sold
to Miles Collier in 1986 and remains intact in his private museum but is no
longer open to the public.
Cunningham passed away in 2003 at the age of 95..