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Time Machine: Herrmann ‘In Luck” With Porsche

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 19 2010

The Porsche RS 60 on the track at Sebring.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Sebring, Fla. – Now celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first major victory as a Porsche works driver, Hans Herrmann sometimes raced airplanes down the back straight when he first began competing in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. But the course, which used one of the Sebring Airport’s runways as part of the circuit, was a welcome change from European events, because of the wide open spaces in south central Florida.

“Me and the other drivers always wanted to race at Sebring,” said Herrmann, “because it was an airport track. Compared to the other tracks in Europe it was very safe. You had lots of runoff areas. In Europe, we had only walls, houses and trees — something that was hard. At Sebring, there were very few casualties.”

The back straight on the original Sebring circuit was marked with cones directing drivers down one of the airport’s two runways. The airplanes taking off or landing on the adjoining runway “were disconcerting at first,” said Herrmann. “But after a while, you got used to it.”

In a remarkable career that included milestone overall victories for Porsche at Sebring and Le Mans, Herrmann eventually got the nickname “Hans in Luck,” after a character from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales of his native Germany. During Herrmann’s career, which ended with retirement after his final victory aboard a 917 at Le Mans in 1970, racing was often a grim tale when it came to safety.

Herrmann’s co-drivers for his first class victory at Sebring in 1956, Wolfgang Von Trips, and his final overall Sebring triumph in 1968, Jo Siffert, eventually were killed in racing accidents. “It wasn’t until Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda began putting an emphasis on safety that people began paying attention to safety,” said Herrmann.

For his part, the 80-year-old Herrmann arrived at Sebring wearing a gold Omega watch awarded him after he co-drove a Porsche RS 60 with Frenchman Olivier Gendebien. Inscribed on the back with “Twelve Hours of Sebring,” the date, “3-26-60” and the phrase “First Place Overall,” the watch still keeps perfect time. It is one of several dozen watches that Herrmann collected throughout his career, including a Swiss watch given to him by the King of Saudi Arabia following a day when Herrman won three races at the Aspern track in Austria aboard an Abarth.

Herrmann also drove an Abarth at Sebring, winning a preliminary three-hour event in 1963. Then – as now – the concrete course at Sebring was rough and bumpy.

“The track itself was terrible,” said Herrmann, speaking through an interpreter. “It was terrible for the chassis. You could only win (the 12-hour) if you had a strong, solid car, which was one of the (attributes) of Porsche.”

The victory aboard the RS 60 in 1960 brought Porche and its lightweight entries the first overall triumph for the German company in a world championship race for manufacturers. The Porsche was preceded the year before in victory lane at Sebring by a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, a marque that trailed two RS 60’s across the line in 1960. (The Porsche of Bob Holbert and Roy Schechter was ten laps back.) The second overall win at Sebring in 1968 aboard a short-tailed Porsche 907 was also against competition with more horsepower like the Ford GT 40.

“We always had competition that was more powerful,” said Herrmann. “So it was a pleasant surprise when we won. Nobody would be satisfied with racing in a class (for lighter weight car with less displacement). Our top speed on the straightaway was 280 kilometers per hour and the competition was 300.”

“Hans in Luck” survived many remarkable and dangerous moments in his career. In the Mille Miglia on the roads of Italy in 1954, Herrmann and co-pilot Herbert Linge ducked under a railroad crossing barrier while at speed, clearing the tracks just in front of an approaching train. Herrmann made a photo of the spectacular moment the subject of a letter card with the inscription “Glück muss man haben” (“You’ve got to be lucky”).

After moving into Formula One, the driver survived one of the ear’s typically spectacular incident in 1959 at the AVUS circuit, comprised in part of the German Autobahn. Losing the brakes of his BRM entry on a long straightaway, Herrmann elected to hit some hay bales to avoid an area packed with fans. “It had been raining a lot and the haybales were rock hard,” he said. “I hit one right between the front wheels.”

The resulting end-over-end crash sent Herrmann flying out of the cockpit. The asphalt tore off most of his clothing and left him with friction burns on his arms still visible more than a half century later.

In 1968 at the Imola circuit in Italy, Herrmann’s Porsche entry crashed due to heavy rain. “I had to go just one more lap to get all the fuel and then to change tires,” he recalled. “But on that lap eight or nine cars started aquaplaning in the rain.” Contact with another car tore the Porsche in half. The section containing Herrmann miraculously pirouetted and slotted through a gap in the guard rail. “I started to get out and I realized there was no rear left of the car.”

It seemed fitting that a native of Stuttgart would bring Porsche the first of its long skein of overall victories at the Le Mans 24-hour. Driving the uber-powerful and sometimes unpredictable Porsche 917, Herrmann triumphed with Rudi Lins in the great French race in 1970.

It also seemed fitting that “Hans in Luck” would retire gracefully following the landmark victory and what might be regarded as a fairy tale career. Herrmann said he had promised his wife Madeleine he would retire should he win at Le Mans. His son also had an influence, giving him a note prior to the start of the race. It read: “Drive slowly, Papa.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 19 2010