Briggs Cunningham Biography
by Phil Allen

    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 Viper.

     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”.

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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..