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Speed & Beauty

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There are places that invoke the passion of speed. Names once obscure in the carnival of life that are vestiges of the terminal velocity. Intersections of brute horsepower and elegant finesse. While there are dozens of famous racing venues scattered around the world, only a few have a name that, when spoken, translates into the apex of automotive performance. Daytona, Indianapolis, Bonneville, and perhaps the most notable of all, Le Mans, are each household words that literally mean racing—even to nonbelievers. áá by Alan Paradise The pursuit of speed has not always been a beautiful endeavor. Henry Ford’s first race car, built in 1901, was far from aesthetically pleasing. Come to think of it, it wasn’t that fast either. In fact, Ford won his first race simply by outlasting the other driver and car. As the world became increasingly obsessed with racing, better understanding of how power-to-weight ratio and sleek, efficient body design played a part in helping a car and driver travel at ever-increasing speeds. It wasn’t long before the romance of performance made the cars become a symbol of technical advancement and power. Hence, the race cars quickly became icons of beauty. After World War II, America was in a position to control the auto racing world. The country went wild for racing, and USAC rapidly grew, boasting events on thousands of short dirt tracks from Maine to California. The hot rod spirit also infected a new generation of drivers, and with it came the National Hot Rod Association. In the southern states, racing was a part of the day-to-day life, and soon NASCAR took control of the sport. Prior to the war, European road racing represented the most advanced and sophisticated form of competition. It didn’t take long for Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo and Maserati to resume their place as the leading innovators of the sport. Soon names like Porsche, Lotus and Ferrari would join in. At the time, the most famous and prestigious race was the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1950, American Briggs Cunningham entered a Cadillac driven by Miles and Sam Collier in the event. However, the massive-bodied car was no match for the nimble and slick Europeans and finished tenth. Cunningham would enter his own designed and built sports cars for the remainder of the decade. Mercedes was posed as the powerhouse of the event, until a tragic accident in 1955 saw one of the mighty 300SL racers crash into the main stands, resulting in 84 deaths. Mercedes pulled out of racing. Still, it was the images of racing that catapulted the 300 series roadsters and gull-wing coupes into super status. Racing, too, was responsible for the worldwide popularity of the Jaguar E-Type. By this point in time, the Chevrolet Corvette was the one and only American sports car. It was extensively used in road racing on U.S. tracks such as Riverside, Sebring and Watkins Glen. It did not travel overseas to take on the growing might of Ferrari until 1960, when a Cunningham-backed team finished eighth, while Ferrari teams finished 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 with an Aston Martin in third. No Corvettes were entered in ’61, and in ’62, one Vette finished in 31st place. America was good at big cars and drag racing, but woefully inadequate at sports car competition on a world stage. In light of the increasing global awareness by maturing American car enthusiasts, Ferrari, Porsche and Jaguar were gaining in reputation and popularity. The world was a bigger place, and America’s position of building the coolest cars was shrinking. Speed was sexy, and baby boomers loved sexy. It was for this reason the U.S. became the biggest market for the Jaguar E-Type, Porsche 356 and MG. Carroll Shelby combined with Ford to redefine the equation of speed and beauty with the Cobra—a discarded AC Bristol body and chassis fitted with a Ford 260cid V-8 engine. When the two-seat roadster showed up, everything changed. It was at that time Chevrolet did the Shelby camp one better with the new Corvette Sting Ray. Suddenly, there were two American sports cars that not only had V-8 horsepower, but also fully independent suspensions and improved braking, making either capable of cornering with the Ferrari 250 and Jaguar E-Type. The rules of engagement had changed, and enthusiasts bought into the program without questions. The Shelby Cobra and Shelby Daytona Coupe were formidable foes in Le Mans, although the Corvette Sting Ray seemed to be less suited for worldwide success. Shelby was about to team up with Ford to prove the dominance of the red, white and blue.

Updated: July 8, 2009 — 10:00 AM

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