1949 Crosley Hot Shot

‘Sebring’. The name connotes speed and endurance in auto racing. On New Year’s Eve, 1950, this sleepy Florida town became the site of America’s revived interest in long-distance endurance racing when airport runways at Hendricks Field, just outside Sebring, were pressed into service for top-speed competition.

 

Alec Ulmann, an aeronautical engineer, had been looking for storage sites for war-surplus aircraft to be converted to civilian use or to be rebuilt for the air forces of smaller nations. While visiting Hendricks Field, Ulmann, an auto-racing enthusiast, saw in the mile-long runways the possibilities of a smaller-scale Le Mans endurance race there. Obsessed with the concept, he worked with Sebring business friend Col. C.D. Richardson to organize such an event as soon as enough interest in the world of auto racing could be mustered.
And this race would espouse the French “David against Goliath” concept of handicap racing competition by adopting the Index of Performance. In this system, cars with either small and large engines would be equalized by imposing a lower average speed, or a shorter distance to travel for the smaller engines as compared to the more powerful cars.
Hendricks Field had few amenities for spectators; no grandstands, security, ticket booths or public-address system, and few lavatories. By enticing the local firemen’s association to become involved, and with a small group of sports-car enthusiasts, Ulmann, Richardson and Ulmann’s wife Mary set out to put together America’s first modern-day major endurance auto race, a “Little Le Mans”.
To everyone’s surprise, the response was much larger than anticipated. Over thirty cars entered from all across the US and Canada.
Bobby (Ralph) Deshon owned an MG TC with a supercharged engine. He had planned on racing the TC in the Sebring race. The race officials had come up with a handicap ruling, to make all the different cars equal, regardless of their engine size. (The handicap system was widely used throughout Europe.) They would take the size of the engine and convert the cubic inches into cubic centimeters (cc) and multiply it by a certain number, and that was the number of laps the car had to finish to win the race. Then if the the car had a supercharger to boost horse power that number was again multiplied by .04, which roughly equaled to about another 20 laps that car would have to finish.
Bobby had decided to sit out the race, because the MG TC could not be competitive against the Ferrari’s. Just then Vic Sharpe had shown up in his Hot Shot, with tires for another friend Tommy Cole, who was driving an Allard Cadillac in the race. (Vic Sharpe had at the time owned the local Crosley franchise.) Tommy Cole had suggested to Bobby that the little Crosley might have a chance to win because of the little engine size. (The Crosley had to complete 288.3 miles, while the Ferrari had to complete 363.6 miles.) He would have to run the little car in high gear without shifting, and he would need the help of Frits Koster another driver with much racing experience. (Frits had just recently arrived in the U.S. from Holland) The next time Vic saw his car, the windshield was removed and a small piece of plexiglas had been bolted to the cowl rubber and the car was going around the track on practice runs. (Vic was good friends with Bobby, Frits, and Tommy Cole.) Since Vic did not hold an SCCA (Sport Car Club Of America) license, Frits, and Bobby would drive the car in the race.
The race track was marked with a few hay bales, a couple of signs, and the pits were just a row of folding tables tied together with 2x4s. 28 cars had shown up to the starting line. The cars lined up at a 45-degree angle to the track at the makeshift pits, the Crosley was in 28th spot, dead last. At the 3:00 pm green-flag signal the drivers were to sprint across the tarmac into their cars, start engines, and hurry off on the six-hour run. (Driver John Bentley, delayed at his car in last-minute preparations, was seen to then run in the opposite direction, toward the other drivers, causing much mirth among the spectators.) While the little Crosley was one of the slowest cars on the track, it’s consistent lap speed quickly took the lead on the handicapping index.
After the first hour of racing, the handicap formula showed, to everyone’s amazement, that No. 19, the little Crosley driven by Frits Koster and Ralph Deshon, was in first place. In a close second was Jim Kimberly’s No. 55 2-litre Ferrari, and holding down third place was Bob Keller in an 1100-cc Fiat, No. 20. Fourth was a Cadillac-engined Allard, No. 34, driven by Tommy Cole, who had himself hours earlier driven the Crosley around the track.
No. 11 was first to fail, Kurt Hildebrand’s rebodied Volkswagen, out with no oil pressure.
At the end of the second hour, No. 27, a Mercury-powered Allard had to drop out, leaving 26 cars in the racing pack. The Crosley Hotshot remained in the lead, but the No 20 Fiat edged ahead of Kimberly’s Ferrari.
As the third hour ended, another Ferrari, Luigi Chinetti’s No. 17, began to lose oil but continued on by making frequent pit stops. And at this time a mechanic caused Tommy Cole’s stalled Allard to be disqualified by running over to help, amidst loud protest from the car’s owner. Now there were 25 cars left in the race.
As darkness began to fall, the headlights came on. Marshall Lewis replaced Jim Kimberly in the Ferrari, and overtook Keller’s Fiat. But despite many changes of position and the loss of four more cars, the Crosley never dropped out of the lead.
It was Bobby’s first time in an endurance race, and he had made a couple of mistakes that cost them some distance. He tried to shift the non-synchro trans in the turns and lost a lot of speed. It was because of Frits’s great driving ability that they were able to make up the lost distance. Frits kept the little car in high gear and just let it scream on the straightaways. Going into the corners they would just sit up and let the air resistance blowing against their body slow them down for the turn, once through the turn they would slide back down in the seat. Vic had figured the little engine ran about 7500 rpm all the way through the race. That night as Vic was driving the Hot Shot home he lost oil pressure in the engine. The car had to be towed the rest of the way, Vic took off the pan, and removed the oil pump to find that the oil pump gears were completely chewed up from the high rev’s. He put on a new pump that night and drove the car back to the Sebring track the following day for a photo shoot. (Most of the pictures of the car at the race track, including a recent drawing and prints from the drawing and those show here were from the next day, posed on the track. The car did not have hub caps on the day of the race)
The Sebring race has transcended its humble beginnings to become the annual weeklong American tradition in long-distance endurance races, though now it lasts twelve hours rather than six. After the first Sebring race, Crosley continued to do well in racing, including such events as Le Mans and the Grand Prix de la Suisse, and still do well in Veteran sports car racing.

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