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The Ferrari that raced here 54 years ago

On Friday, November 11, guess what showed up at the track for some tweaking and tuning, thanks to the track-time generosity of the Lime Rock Drivers Club and PCA – CVR? A 1956 Ferrari 500 TR, s/n 0650MDTR.

It’s owned by a father and son “team,” Dennis and Chris Nicotra of Fairfield County, Conn. Before the car was put on track, the car was gone over by Ferrari specialists Black Horse Automotive Services of Bridgeport. Black Horse’s Geoffrey Isabelle, who was also on site, kindly wrote up a thumbnail sketch of the car’s provenance, including what the TR did at Lime Rock Park’s first-ever race day, Sunday, April 28, 1957...

At the end of the story are a collection of photos by Rick Roso (Uphill shot by Ryan McIntosh) from last Friday’s “test” day; Nikon D300s, Nikkor 28-300 lens

The 1956 Ferrari 500 TR, s/n 0650MDTR
By Geoff Isabelle

Chassis 0650MDTR is a highly significant piece of American sports car racing history. It was driven by some of the most important players on the West Coast and East Coast scenes during the sports car boom years of the mid 1950s.

The 500 Testa Rossa represented an important turning point for Ferrari. The factory in Modena had just realized that there was a market for selling “turnkey” race cars to privateers around the world. Up to that point, the only way to acquire a proper Ferrari sports racer was to know the right people and deal your way into a well-used ex-works car or be one of Ferrari’s privileged few preferred dealers. The V12-powered racers were expensive, complex and sometimes dangerous for anyone but the most skilled drivers.

The Monza-series 4-cylinder cars (yes, Ferrari built many successful 4- and 6-cylinder racers) were designed as the workhorses of the Scuderia. Strong, reliable and fuel efficient cars that were meant to be there at the end of a race should the V12 “sprinters” crash or break down. But with sophisticated transaxles and independent suspension, they were also too complex and expensive for a private entrant.

What Ferrari needed was a car that was light, reliable, competitive and approachable for the amateur “gentleman” drivers. Using experience from its 4-cylinder engine programs, Ferrari devised a car that combined the light and durable Lampredi-designed engine in 2-liter form with a proven and simple tube frame, live axle chassis. The resulting car was very simple yet extremely well balanced, efficient and a delight to drive at the limit.

Chassis no. 0650MDTR was delivered new in July of 1956 to John von Neumann of California. Right away, this car is special for being one of the earliest sports racing Ferraris to be delivered new to the U.S.A. von Newmann was an entrepreneur, car dealer and amateur racer who was later recognized as one of the key founders of the sports car movement in California in the 1950s. He immediately had the car finished in his signature color scheme of silver with a blue stripe. He raced it with moderate success in 1956 until he hired a young hot-shoe named Bruce Kessler to drive the car for the ’57 season.

In the hands of Kessler, 0650MDTR gained a reputation as a giant killer, consistently beating out serious big-bore machinery such as Jaguar D-Types, Aston Martin DB3Ss, and V12-powered Ferraris. Kessler loved driving it so much that he bought it from von Neumann and continued to race it successfully. It soon passed through the hands of several legends of American motorsport: Fred Ambuster, George Arents, Pete Lovely and Richie Ginther all having owned or driven this car at some point. Both Lovely and Ginther would go on to race in Formula 1 – Ginther ultimately winning for the fledgling Honda team.

Thankfully, we know a great deal about the history of this magnificent racing car. A huge file contains hand written notes, personal correspondence, and a letter from SEFAC confirming its sale to von Neumann. There are firsthand accounts and glorious period photographs that explain the history in great detail – the highs and the lows! This is one of the most significant early American sports racers and the history is there to back it up. Here is just a sampling of 0650MDTR’s pedigree...

* Winner of the first 2-liter race at then brand-new Lime Rock Park on Sunday, April 28, 1957 (beating the fly-weight Porsche 550s)
* Second in the first Over 2-liter main event race at Lime Rock Park on the same day (just beaten in a drag race to the line by Walt Hansgen’s Jaguar D-Type. John Fitch was P3 in another D-Type)
* Winner of the first race at Laguna Seca in 1957 -- the smallest displacement car in the field!
* It also had wins at Thompson and Riverside

The impressive record shows top-10 finishes in almost every race it entered from 1957 through the early 1960s and is simply too long to list here.

From all of the records and correspondence, we can tell that this car was very special from the day it was delivered. From the time it was new, it is described as having perfect balance and precise handling. It’s one of the magical things about hand-built cars – sometimes everything falls into place and the perfect car is born.

After its long stint with Lovely, it was sold to a SoCal Porsche dealer named Sam Wiess, who continued to race the car along with his sales manager Gordon Glyer. At some point in their stewardship the engine was damaged and hastily repaired to make it through the next few races. Being a hard-driven racing car, it was ultimately blown up but replaced with a totally correct unit from another 500TR – s/n 0614MDTR. It retains this engine to this day and it is considered an important part of the car’s history.

0614MDTR has its own storied past – with records showing it winning in class at Sebring in ‘57 and carrying Olivier Gendebien to fifth overall in Cuba. The chassis of 0614 has unfortunately been lost, but its legacy remains under the bonnet of 0650MDTR.

Another interesting fact is that 0650 is known as being the only 500TR with a scoop feeding the oil tank/cooler on the left side of the car.

Following a long period of disuse, 0650MDTR was uncovered and sold by Rick Cole in “barn find” condition in 1997. It was soon restored by the renowned RM Restorations and shown at Cavallino Classic and Meadowbrook Concours d’Elegance – continuing its winning ways, but in a more dignified fashion!

Very few opportunities arise for cars of this caliber. It is an incredibly important piece of early American sports car racing history yet remains in thoroughly usable condition. It would be most certainly welcome at any historic event – Mille Miglia, LeMans Classic, Goodwood, the Monterey Historics and most any concours event in the country.

Photos below

TRweb1jpg                           TRweb2jpg

TRweb3  TRweb4

TRweb5  TRweb6
Chris & Dennis with their jewel. That's ace shooter Pawel Litwinski on the trailer...

TRweb7  TRweb8

TRweb9  TRweb10

TRweb11  TRweb12

TRweb13  TRweb14

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