The legend of the buried GT-40

The automotive world is full of legends and icons. Where is Detective Frank Bullitt’s Mustang? How come death follows James Dean’s Lil Bastard? Isn’t there a GT40 buried somewhere in Sebring? Like the other stories, the buried GT-40 legend was born out of an energy filled time. Unfortunately it was also conceived of a tragic death, much like Lil Bastard.

During the 1966 Sebring 12 Hours of Endurance for The Alitalia Trophy, the Comstock Racing Ford GT-40 of Vancouver’s Bob McLean suddenly veered to the right as he exited the esses, headed towards the hairpin. McLean traveled across a grassy area at speed, before making contact with a communications pole. As the car had full fuel tanks, it burst into flames. Sadly, McLean perished in the fire. There was never an official cause given for the crash. One would suspect that the sudden change of direction must have been the result of a mechanical failure of some sort.

Gerry McDonald tells of his involvement on that tragic day:
On that day at sebring 1966 I was assigned the Comstock pits with 2 hours on/off duty. At the time I was off duty and had asked Chuck Rathgeb for permission to hang around. I had my motorcycle at rear of pits and he had asked me earlier in the day to get something from his plane.

When Mclean didnt pass pits we were all concerned and there was no info available from tower, so Rathgeb asked me to take my bike and check the accident scene which was about a mile away. When I arrive at burning car no one seemed to know if he got out or not. I finally got attention of a Corner Marshall and he informed me that Mclean never got out.

Now I had to go back and relay horrible news. I was horrified and all I could think, was that all eyes from pit people and wives in particular would be on me, so being the chicken that I am I rode to rear of Pits, walked very quickly up to Chuck and gave bad news. The other car was pulled out of race and that was it for Comstock Race Team.

Regular contributor to The Garage, Bob Barg, adds:
I met Kathie McLean (widow) a few years ago at the annual Greater Vancouver Motorsport Pioneer Society induction dinner. We had a long chat over the accident and Ford’s reaction to it. There is still some controversy still about what happened to the remains of the burned out hulk. The official version is that the remains of the car were buried somewhere outside of Sebring, but I have heard from other sources that this is not so, that it was hauled back to Toronto to the Comstock shop. She told me that Ford wanted to bury the whole thing under the rug as fast as possible.

In recent conversations on the Canadian Motor Sport History Group on Yahoo, which is largely populated by racers from those days, there are 2 distinct camps. There are those who believe the bare, burned out shell of the GT-40 was buried somewhere outside Sebring, not at the actual track. The other camp believes that the car was brought back to Comstock’s shop in Scarborough and dismantled there.

Like James Dean’s Porsche, it is rumored that the GT-40 was parted out and some bits may have lived on in other race cars. The suggestion has been made that the engine found it’s way to George Eaton’s stable as a backup for his King Cobra.

This story is also notable because of the pedigree of the car itself. This car carried the serial number P1000, indicating that it was the very first production model. That would make even the V.I.N. plate of this car very valuable. There is apparently a person in England who claims to be restoring P1000. If that is true, then it would seem that the car was indeed brought back to Ontario to be stripped. Otherwise, it would seem someone found and retrieved a real buried treasure.

The following gallery of photos came to us via Fotki user Kurzheck, who has compiled a rather large collection of historic racing photos. This gallery includes a number of shots not directly related to McLean and P1000, but that are Comstock cars or drivers.

[nggallery id=337]

Thanks to Gerry McDonald for providing sharing his part and to Bob Barg, who witnessed the crash, for setting some details straight.

ED Note: ASN Canada Vice President of Competition, Paul Cooke has weighed in on this story in the hopes that finally the debate will be put to rest.

“April 10, 2013

1966 Sebring 12 Hours.

This item was brought to my attention a short time ago at the time of this year’s Sebring race. Let’s clear up these stories once and for all – for the record. I was present at the event in the capacity of Comstock Team Manager and Chief Mechanic.

The race was well under way. The GT40 made a pit stop. Fuel was added. Tires and front brake pads were changed. All things were normal. Bob McLean took over as driver.

With cold tires and brakes, the car left the pit exit just as our other GT40 went by with Eppie Wietzes driving. It was observed that the McLean car was attempting to stay with the Wietzes car, not an unreasonable or unusual thing for Bob to do. The McLean car (remember the cold brakes and tires) simply left the road, impacted a utility pole, tumbled and burst into flames. The fire was not readily extinguished.

Bob McLean sadly passed away.

The fire-damaged car was removed to the off-track garage in the town of Sebring where Comstock had been working before the race. Fire damage considered, there did not appear to be any apparent mechanical irregularity. The Sheriff’s Dept. technicians were involved as was the custom in Sebring, to clarify an issue of a report that the car lost a wheel. True, but not what people thought. The FIA regulations required that the cars carry a spare wheel and tire. Under the front body section of the GT40 was the spare tire enclosure. The spare wheel was a wire wheel with a small tire, which would meet regulations but never be used. When the car impacted the utility pole the front body dislocated and the spare wheel and tire was ejected. It’s that simple.

The issue of returning the car to Canada was addressed. There was no appetite within the team to do so. Canada Customs was called regarding the return of the car to Canada. Canada Customs advised that the car could be disposed in Sebring, provided that an affidavit confirming disposal was executed by the local Sheriff’s office. The affidavit would satisfy Canada Customs as to the reason the car was not returned to Canada.
The car was disposed in Sebring under observation of the Sheriff and the affidavit provided.

Anyone who claims to have knowledge that is different than what I have provided above is wrong. A person in my position does not forget incidents that are indelibly etched in one’s mind.

It was all quite simple – a racing incident – no mystery, no intrigue – a very sad period of my racing career.”

Comments

  1. Dave in the Cypress says

    I was standing at the fence perhaps 100 yds before the hairpin on the opposite side of the track from the pole. The way it veered, it appeared to me that something immediate and catastrophic happened to the right rear – the impression was as if the bearing siezed or the brake broke and jammed. The absolutely abrupt veer (more of an instant angle change than a rapid turn suggesting right rear lockup) began at the location on the track about where it seemed a fast car would first apply brakes. {I wrote more but too much space taken up – pls let me know if more wanted} Thanks for letting me reflect. [Nov 5, 2010]

    • says

      You and I must have been standing at about the same place. I agree with your assessment of a catastrophic car failure, except that my immediate thought was that the failure was on the right front. At any rate the horrific image remains in my mind after all these years. I have attended every race since 1961 and can not walk the hairpin without flashbacks,

  2. Louis Galanos says

    I have always wondered about that accident and you have gone a long way at answering my questions. Thanks for the excellent article.

  3. says

    JE CONNAIS LA GT 40 P 1000
    SORTIE DE LA COLLECTION GIORDA NENGO EN ITALIE IMMATRICULE EN ANGLETERRE , ELLE EST ARRIVEE EN FRANCE IL Y A PEUT (VOIR ARTICLE ECHAPPEMENT CLASSIC ) ET COUR REGULIEREMENT EN HISTORIQUE COURSE DE COTE
    DANS LE CADRE DE L EQUIPE ( FORD RACING EXPERIENCE)

  4. Robert Barg says

    I also witnessed the crash from my vantage point near the bottom of the footbridge going over to the outside of the esses and agree with Dave and Michael that McLean suffered some sort of mechanical failure to cause the car to veer sharply off the track to the right. It happened not near the hairpin as reporded in other news media but just as the car exited the esses and was starting down the stright before the harpin.

    My friend Gerry McDonald and I had driven down to Sebring from Sarnia Ont. towing a small trailer with 3 motorbikes. Along the way we stopped in to see the Nascar race at Bristol Tenn. At Sebring Gerry and I signed up to be pit marshalls which we had done in previous years. I had just done my 2 hr. stint and went to the esses to watch the race. It was most horrifying.

    Robert Barg
    oldtransamdriver@yahoo.ca

  5. Guest P1000 says

    What a troubled web has been weaved here. I could tell you I am in possession of the XE block. But that would be stoking the fire. If the chassis was indeed ever buried outside Sebring, then I believe someone later did I bit of ' coffin robbing '. Sometime either 2007/8, I saw a very badly fire damaged 40 chassis tucked away in the UK. It was to all intents and purposes P1000. It's hard to age a chassis plate like that. Correct colours etc.
    You tell me….

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