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.

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.
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.“