I’m writing this column during the waning days of 2006. Fifty years is traditionally a significant anniversary. What I remember most about 1956 was that we lost Ernie McAfee during the last race held on the Del Monte Properties at Pebble Beach.
Ernie was a dear friend and a wonderful man. Our fifties-era sports car racing crowd was much the poorer for his passing. Whenever I got involved in any sort of sports car-related activity, I would call Ernie for help and he never failed me. A couple of times I got roped into chairing a concours. Each time I asked Ernie to judge. For political reasons I sometimes had to have other judges who were not particularly car knowledgeable. Ernie was always so very kind and courteous, leading them through the process and keeping them from making stupid mistakes.
During the first half of the fifties decade, Ernie McAfee was one of the very top sports car pilots in the U.S. He was also involved in the business of importing, selling and repairing foreign—mostly Italian—sports cars.
What follows are only a few highlights—it doesn’t pretend to do justice to the life of Ernie McAfee. That would require a book. He got involved with cars and speed before WWII. His high point was setting a Southern California Timing Association record on the dry lakes at 136.33 in a torpedo-shaped lakester with a flat-head Ford engine he built himself. In 1952, with Ernie navigating, Jack McAfee (no relation) came in 5th overall in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. In 1953, Ernie won the novice event at Palm Springs and raced Bill Devin’s 4.1 Ferrari coupe a number of times. That same year, he started to race his Siata 208S (for which he was the importer) the first time at Santa Barbara.
Ernie’s best year was 1955. His sponsor, Bill Doheny, bought a new 3-liter 750 Monza Ferrari. Its first race was at Santa Barbara on May 28, a Saturday. He won the qualifying race and then went on Sunday to win the main event. The next month at the Los Angeles Sports Car Race held in Hansen Dam Park, he repeated the performance. And he did it again at Santa Barbara on September 3–4.
Later that year, Doheny bought a 4.4-liter Ferrari, a 121LM, an undoubted beast of a car. Ernie raced both the Monza and the 4.4 at the December 3–4 Palm Springs race. How, you might ask, could this happen? On Saturday, Race 6 was for modified cars 1,500 to 3,000-cc. The displacement of the Monza was just under 3 liters. He entered and won. The next one, Race 7, was for modified cars over 3,000-cc. So McAfee jumped out of the Monza into the 4.4 and won that one too, finishing ahead of Masten Gregory’s Maserati by 3 seconds.
But Ernie wasn’t all that happy with the 4.4, so for Sunday’s main event, he went back to the Monza. He and Gregory put on a show—nose to tail, trading the lead—that had the 35,000+ spectators on their feet for the entire hour. At the end, they came out of the last corner side by side. At the line, the Maserati was only inches ahead.
The first race of 1956 was on January 14–15 at Torrey Pines, the last race ever held at that venue. On Saturday, there was a 6-hour enduro. Ernie entered one of his Morettis for which he was also an importer, but failed to finish. On Sunday, he was back in the Bill Doheny 4.4 Ferrari. The main event was almost a repeat of the previous Palm Springs, but not quite. This time Phil Hill was there in a 3-liter Monza. Even though Ernie led at the start, Phil passed and stretched his lead until the car overheated and he had to park. Then it was Masten and McAfee going at it again. But Ernie spun and dropped back to 13th. Even though he worked his way back up to 2nd, gaining on Gregory every lap, Masten took the checkered 50 seconds ahead.
On March 17–18, 1956, Ernie was back at Santa Barbara again. This time he pulled an unbelievable feat. He had acquired an MT4 Osca. On Saturday, he defeated Ken Miles in a 550 Porsche by 4 seconds. On Sunday, Ken failed to finish and Ernie won by more than a lap. But in case he didn’t have enough to do, he entered the Doheny 4.4 in both the Saturday and Sunday main events, both of which he also won.