60 years ago: Second US championship for Paul O’Shea
Racing driver Paul O’Shea won his second title as US sports car champion in the 1956 season driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing.” When the season ended on 28 December 1956, he was champion in the category “D Production“ and had scored the most points in the National Sports Car Championship of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). He went on to defend his title again the following year, this time driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS, the racing version of the 300 SL Roadster.
Stuttgart. On 23 January 1957, the New York Times reported that Paul O’Shea was awarded the title of “National Sports Car Champion” for the second year running. This was at the same time a triumph for Mercedes-Benz, because since 1955 the racing driver born in 1928 had been competing with works support in the 300 SL production sports car (W 198). The championship title was informally awarded by the news media. The SCCA only honoured the champions in the individual categories. In 1956, O’Shea won the racing class D of the production vehicles (“D Production”).
To crown the winner among the champions of the racing classes, the newspapers and magazines counted the highest number of total points achieved by a driver in a season. In 1955, O’Shea became the first winner of the title awarded in this way as part of a PR campaign with 11,750 points, and played a role in making this the most successful season in motor racing for Mercedes-Benz ever. One year later, he scored 10,500 points by season’s end. The SCCA confirmed this during the official announcement of the results of the season on 28 December 1956 – it was crucial for being publicly crowned US sports car champion in January 1957. However, German trade publication “auto motor und sport“ already reported after the season’s last race in the issue of 24 November 1956 that the “American sports car champion of the year 1955, Paul O’Shea, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, […] successfully defended his title again this year.”
After publication of the SCCA results, Mercedes-Benz racing manager Alfred Neubauer immediately wrote to O’Shea: “Work on the new USA championship pin for you is already under way.“ In addition to other encounters, both knew each other from a visit of O’Shea to Stuttgart: The racing driver visited Mercedes-Benz as a guest from 8 October to 1 December 1956. During this time, he was presented with the championship pin for 1955 from the hands of Professor Fritz Nallinger, the technical director of then Daimler-Benz AG.
During his visit, O’Shea also got to know the Mercedes-Benz Museum as well as the various plants of then Daimler-Benz AG, and travelled to the racetrack in Monza. In addition, at the Solitude track, the US sports car champion presented the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster, which was launched in 1957.
Mercedes-Benz backed O’Shea in the US sports car races to promote the sales of the company’s sports cars in the important export market. This reflected the maxim that a brand instantly benefits from racing victories by selling production cars (“win on Sunday – sell on Monday“). Accordingly, the representatives of the company closely monitored in what cars the race spectators arrived: At the Cumberland National Sports Car Race on 20 May 1956, Customer Service Inspector Victor R. Gross counted around 100 Mercedes-Benz passenger cars in the parking lot: “They were mostly sports cars.“ Even more impressive was the result of the parking lot analysis of the 12 Hours of Sebring Race on 24 March 1956: “Among the approximately 15,000 cars of the spectators were an estimated 300 or so vehicles of our 300 SL model, plus many hundreds of vehicles of the 190 SL model.“
The correlation between involvement in motorsport and vehicle sales also was a topic in a board meeting of Daimler-Benz on 28 November 1956: “Under the favourable influence of the races,“ so the minutes, “sales of our 190 SL model increased from 824 in 1955 to 1691 in 1956.“ This represents a doubling in sales in one year.
The champion second year
Paul O’Shea had a great start to his second season as a driver backed by Mercedes-Benz: On 21 January 1956, the Sports Car Club of America announced last season’s winners of the racing classes in the SCCA National Sports Car Championship. O’Shea had won the “D Production” racing class, and just a few weeks later he was informally named US sports car champion by the American motorsport specialist media due to having scored the highest number of points. At almost the same time, racing manager Alfred Neubauer was arranging the vehicles for the current season in Stuttgart: “Due to the good results of our 300 SL sports cars in the races organised by the American SCCA, the Board of Management has decided to sell the two vehicles stationed in America and to send two new 300 SL vehicles to the USA for further use by our central office,“ Neubauer wrote on 27 January 1956.
The choice fell on a 300 SL with ivory paintwork and red leather, and a second 300 SL painted silver grey with blue leather. Mercedes-Benz decided against vehicles with aluminium bodywork: The company wanted the works racing cars to remain on a technical par with the American customer-sport vehicles. The two 300 SLs were ready right on time for the important “National Races” on the racing calendar of the SCCA.
The season comes to life in the reports to the parent company in Stuttgart filed by Victor R. Gross. About the Cumberland National Sports Car Race on 20 May 1956, which ended in a one-two-three class victory for the 300 SLs led by Paul O’Shea, he wrote: “O’Shea was particularly praised by many other drivers for his excellent driving technique.“ O’Shea took the lead in last quarter of the 45-minute airport race, followed by his team-mate R.C. “Dick“ Dungan, and Charles Wallace. “As a result, the entire race – especially the first 40 minutes – was led by three Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs, ahead of a Corvette,“ Gross reported. It was the first victory of the season for O’Shea.
At the Texan National Championship Sports Car Races in Fort Worth on 3 June, O’Shea scored double points: He secured the overall and the class victory in the third and the fifth race (The Lion’s Club Feature Race) ahead of Charles Wallace. As Gross recorded, the logistics for this competition were amazing by European standards: “Our vehicle was transferred from New York to Fort Worth by land together with our station wagon loaded with spare parts, a distance of about 2760 kilometres. […] As transpired later at the award ceremony, the two 300 SLs competing in the race travelled the longest way by land.“
At the Beverly National Sports Car Race on 7 July 1956, O’Shea finished second in the overall standings, the 300 SLs again scored a one-two-three class victory in the D Production class. In his report, the Mercedes-Benz representative touched upon the meticulous preparations, among other things: For example, prior to the race, extensive trials were conducted with the 300 SL on a racetrack rented specifically for the purpose of “testing [the] modified air vent with O’Shea, running both clockwise as well as counter-clockwise.“
That such an effort pays off was apparent in the Giant’s Despair Hill Climb in Laurel Run, Pennsylvania, on 19 and 20 July 1956, which O’Shea finished with the class victory: “We were able to set the best time here in the D Production racing class, and were even three seconds faster than the next higher class, in which the Corvette with Dr Thompson held the lead,“ Gross wrote.
The Chevrolet sports car developed into a formidable opponent for the 300 SLs that season. This was also demonstrated in the Breakneck Hill Climb National Race on 4 and 5 August 1956: “During the practice day, the times of our Mercedes 300 SL and the Corvette were clearly quite close. There is no need for me to say anything more about all the other vehicles, because they were pretty far behind our recorded times,“ the summary reads. The race ended with a one-two-three class victory of the 300 SLs with O’Shea in the lead: “With the victory, O’Shea scored 1000 points […]. He received prizes for the fastest sports car time and the best-in-class time.“ O’Shea also led the one-two-three class victory of the 300 SLs in the six-hour race at the National Championship Road America Endurance Races in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, on 9 September 1956 (with Phil Hill). And in the International Sports Car Grand Prix of Watkins Glen on 15 September, he again won the D Production racing class.
In all, O’Shea competed in 14 races in 1956. In October, the racing driver clearly led the standings for the informal title of “National Sports Car Champion“ with 10,500 points. Despite winning the last race of the season in Palm Springs, California, on 4 November, Carroll Shelby was unable to wrestle this position away from him.
With that, Paul O’Shea confirmed the high regard Mercedes-Benz had for him for the second year running. An internal report dated 24 July 1956 stated: “Paul O’Shea is fully on our side and has complete control of his vehicle. Also very important is the fact that he uses his head when he drives and observes all signals we give him during the race. It must also be said that he pushes our 300 SL to the utter limit if needed.“
Roll-out of the 300 SLS
Paul O’Shea was supposed to win American sports car races for Mercedes-Benz again in the 1957 season. In this context, Mercedes-Benz also held out the prospect to O’Shea of being hired as a consulting engineer by the US subsidiary of the corporate group. However, the Stuttgart-based company wanted to use the new 300 SL Roadster for the 1957 season, and not the “Gullwing” Coupé. The new car, as Alfred Neubauer reported on 27 November 1956, would no longer start in the D Production class, but rather in the unlimited D Modified class. The reason for this on one hand was that Mercedes-Benz was consequently able to compete in races even before 150 vehicles of this model had been built. On the other, the displacement limits had changed, so that the 300 SL would have had to start in 1957 in the C Production class for vehicles with a displacement between 2700 and 3500 cc, whereas in the D Modified category, the displacement continued to be limited to between 2000 and 3000 cc.
This gave rise to the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLS, a 300 SL Roadster (W 198 II) “specially prepared with a high output and low weight“ (Nallinger). The special versions, of which two were built, weighed just 970 kilograms (production version: 1330 kilograms) and had an engine output of 173 kW/235 hp (production version: 158 kW/215 hp). From the outside, the 300 SLS was identified by the lack of bumpers, a specially shaped cockpit canopy with air intake slot, a slim racing windscreen and a roll bar behind the driver’s seat. The plan of the Stuttgart strategists worked like a charm: Paul O’Shea won the title of US Sports Car Champion for the third consecutive time in 1957.