2016 champion car owner uncovers family secrets, talks heritage and more...
2016 champion car owner uncovers family secrets, talks heritage and more...
TOLEDO, Ohio (Nov. 1, 2016) - His father was on the front cover of Time Magazine in 1954 as one of the most renowned American sports car racers of his era. As heirs to Procter & Gamble and a division of Standard Oil, Briggs Cunningham's family story is 'off-the-charts' interesting. And it got even more fascinating in 2016 when the 84-year-old icon added the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards national championship to his family archives.
Cunningham's ARCA title was 21 years in the making but it was all worth it when the 77 car won the car owner's championship with rookie Chase Briscoe in the driver's seat.
"It's a big deal for me...really big," said Cunningham from his Lancaster, Kentucky farm. "We've been doing this with Kerry (Scherer) for at least 20 years. It goes all the way back to Mark Gibson when he first drove for us."
It actually goes back a lot farther than that for Cunningham, whose racing legacy began with his father, Briggs Cunningham II (1907-2003), one of the most renowned road racers in the world. Cunningham II's passion did not begin and end with motorsports. He was also the captain on the winning yacht in the America's Cup in 1958.
"I'm the third...he (his father) was two. My dad lived to 96...my mom made it to 104.
"My dad raced cars forever so I was always hanging around race cars. He was born and raised in Cincinnati. His mother didn't want him to race so he had to do it elsewhere. She had a big farm, right next to the guy that owned Kroger. As kids, we used to go from Bridgeport Connecticut...take a train and go see her.
"Her husband (Briggs Cunningham I) passed away when my dad was seven. She didn't know what to do with her money. She didn't trust the banks. During the war, she used to send us eggs and meat. Then she'd send us her stamps and we'd trade 'em for gas. When she passed away, they went through her house. There was one closet...nobody had ever been in the closet...never opened the door. There were stacks and stacks of shoe boxes in there all packed with money. She was driving around with her chauffer selling eggs, selling meat for cash. She didn't want something to happen during the war, and in case she couldn't get in the bank, she stored her money. Had all the money in the world, and had 50 grand in the closet too.
"But that's where this started. She didn't want him to race. My dad's first race was during the World's Fair in New York City...I think in 1941. He went down there, had a car built and raced. Once he started that, he raced all over the world. I went with him all the time. He got in the race in Le Mans...that 24 hour race. He built those cars that were out there. He tried to drive the whole 24 hours (without relief). There were only two people to ever do it...he wanted to be one. I was there. He made it 21-and-a-half hours. Last time he stopped for gas, he had no clue where he was. He never made the full 24 hours.
"The whole European thing left a sour taste in his mouth. He had the whole east coast distributorship for Jaguar, but Jaguar wouldn't give him the disc brakes he needed to win. He wanted to be the first American to win, but Jaguar wouldn't cooperate. He was a little bitter over that. Got third one year...that was his best finish over there."
Cunningham's family history is interesting to say the least, and it goes way beyond sports car racing. Cunningham's grandfather on his mother's side was Frederick T. Bedford, an heir to John Rockefeller's Standard Oil fortune and an extremely successful businessman and philanthropist.
"He was a great guy. I spent as much time with him as I did with my family."
Bedford died in 1963 at the age of 85. As interesting as the family ties to Standard Oil are, Cunningham's family heritage on the other side is equally fascinating.
"My grandfather (Briggs Cunningham I) on my father's side was one of a few people who founded Procter and Gamble. We had oil on one side and soap on the other."
The Cunningham family originally settled in present-day Cincinnati in the late 18th century, making their fortune by supplying provisions to settlers moving west. Briggs Swift Cunningham I enlarged the family wealth by investing in railways, telecommunications, meat packing and commercial real estate. He was also the chief financier of two young men who had developed a bath soap that floated: William Cooper Procter and James Norris Gamble, founders of what was to become the multinational giant Procter & Gamble.
The 1930 marriage of Bedford's daughter Lucie to Briggs Cunningham II ushered in a new era of privilege and philanthropy, with a generous helping of mid-century American dynamism. It was said at the time that their combined fortune made them the richest couple in American history.
Cunningham III was born on June 13, 1932 in New York City but grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. As far back as he can remember, he always accompanied his dad to the races.
"I used to go to all the races. One day my dad said, 'here's a car...why don't you race it.' I raced at Lime Rock, Thompson, the one up in Wisconsin, Watkins Glen...all over the place. After a while he just didn't think it was the thing to do, so that was that. He and mom didn't get along too well so he moved to California and I went into the NAVY in 1952. I was 20 years old. I had the best time in the world. My mom had a fit. I had just flunked out of Princeton. It was during the (Korean) war...if you flunked out of college, you got drafted.
"Had a ball in the NAVY. Signed up for four years...stationed down in Panama. It was a blast."
After being discharged, Cunningham set his sights back on education.
"I wanted to go back to school. Went to Yale the second time. I made it two years at Princeton, but Yale would only give me credit for one, so I started over...did three more years. After I graduated I didn't know what I was going to do."
An advisor suggested teaching.
"I thought, yah I'd like to try that. They offered me a job at a private boys school in Danbury, Connecticut, so I went up there as the Headmaster. They said, 'how would you like to teach biology?' That's what I did for three years."
In the meantime, Cunningham met and married his wife Beth. After moving to Newberry, South Carolina where he served as a Headmaster and continued to teach school for a couple more years, the couple packed up and moved to Kentucky where they "rented a farm from Mr. Gamble, the grandson of the original Mr. Gamble."
"Then we got our own place here. Been in the cow business ever since...registered angus cows. We have about 200 cows on a little over 400 acres."
Briggs and Beth recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
And like most bitten by the racing bug, Cunningham couldn't leave racing alone and formed CSG Racing in 1996, a partnership between Briggs, Kerry Scherer and Mark Gibson. Gibson eventually went in his own direction, while Cunningham and Scherer marched on under the Cunningham Motorsports banner.
The organization became renowned for fielding top-notch teams and providing ongoing driver development opportunities for several, including Parker Kligerman, Dakoda Armstrong, Alex Bowman, Kyle Weatherman and most recently Chase Briscoe and Myatt Snider. Cunningham Motorsports, headed up by team manager Paul Andrews, has 37 career ARCA Racing Series victories with 14 different drivers.
"I think about all the kids who have come through here now...it's a pretty impressive list. We've got six kids waiting to drive for us."
Cunningham doesn't get away from his Kentucky farm much anymore but you can bet you'll see the champion car owner at the next event on tour - the 64th annual national championship awards banquet in Indianapolis Saturday night, December 10.
"You better believe I'm going."