He was a racing car constructor, driver and team owner; also a sports car manufacturer and automobile collector.
The October 2003 Road & Track magazine article "Briggs Swift Cunningham—A Life Well Spent" states that "by building and sailing his own ships, and building and racing his own cars, Briggs Cunningham epitomized the definition of the American sportsman." He was inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1993, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1997, and named to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2003.
Introduced to motor racing as a youngster when his uncle took him to road races just after the first world war, Cunningham began international automobile racing in 1930 with his college friends Barron, Miles, and Samuel Collier, who in 1933 founded the Automobile Racing Club of America (renamed the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) in 1944). He continued in competition for thirty-six years.
By 1940 he was building sports cars for other drivers to race. His first race as a driver was with his Bu-Merc, a hybrid combination of modified Buick chassis, Buick engine and Mercedes-Benz SSK body, at Watkins Glen shortly after World War Two. Some of his other hybrids involved Cadillacs, Chryslers, and Fords. Cunningham was one of the first to purchase a Ferrari barchetta, which was raced along with other brands he constructed or owned.
His 1951 announcement of his intention to build an American contender for the Le Mans race caused a stir on both continents. His team was already a favorite with the Le Mans fans and the announcement demonstrated his commitment to fielding a winning team of American drivers and automobiles. One of the cars, the Cunningham C-4R built by The B. S. Cunningham Company of West Palm Beach, Florida and driven by Phil Walters and John Fitch, finished 18th out of 60 starters. The other, driven by George Rand and Fred Wacker Jr. failed to finish.
By 1956 the Cunningham team was described as a dominant force in SCCA sports car racing—a distinction the team retained for the next decade. In addition to Cunninghams, the team raced Ferrari, Jaguar, Maserati, O.S.C.A., Porsche and other sports cars. One of these set a record in 1954 that remains unbroken: Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd drove Briggs Cunningham's 1.5-liter O.S.C.A. MT4 (Maserati Tipo 4) in the Sebring 12 Hours, where it defeated its higher-powered competitors to become the smallest-engined car ever to win the race, and also the first to win on wire wheels. The next year, two other drivers from the team won Sebring in a Team Cunningham Jaguar D-type. In 1964 Briggs Cunningham and Lake Underwood won first place in the 3.0 Litre Prototype class at Sebring with the new Porsche 904 GTS, and took first place in the 2-liter class and ninth overall the following year, again with a 904 GTS.
Alfred Momo was the team's chief mechanic.
Cunningham automobiles were mostly high-performance prototypes that Briggs Cunningham and his team built specifically for racing in the 1950s. A few, adapted for street use, are used as historic personal vehicles. Cunningham's cars were the first to sport racing stripes, the traditional Cunningham racing colors being blue stripes on white. Carroll Shelby, who competed against Cunningham and his teams and was influenced by Cunningham in his similar quest to build a victorious American racecar, adopted the Team Cunningham colors and revived the stripes.
Sebring Raceway's "Cunningham Corner" is named for Cunningham and his team.
Cunningham amassed a high-quality collection of automobiles that included the first Ferrari sold in the United States by Luigi Chinetti, and a Bugatti Royale, one of only six made. The collection was displayed in the Cunningham Museum in Costa Mesa, California and eventually sold into another private collection.
Briggs Cunningham's grandson Brian S. Cunningham, son of Briggs S. Cunningham III, raced in Formula 3 in 1994. Strangely enough, another grandchild is adult film actress JR Carrington whose real name is Jody Rose.
Cunningham team drivers and Briggs Cunningham co-drivers included: