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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Appreciating an American classic

by Gordon Kirby
The Sebring 12 Hours truly is a unique race with special appeal. It enjoys a great history going back fifty-seven years to 1952 and is America's founding international sports car race and the country's fourth oldest motor race, preceded only by the Indy 500, Pike's Peak and the Southern 500.

The other thing about Sebring is that it's the antithesis of the silk gloves and white wine myth of sports car racing. The old airport track is very fast in places but it's as crude and rough as they come, making a serious challenge for car designers, builders and crewmen as well as the drivers. It's both intimidating and physically demanding and, of course, it's also a tremendous party for the fans, a legendary spring break celebration. Memorably, the race was cancelled in 1974 because of the energy crisis but a few thousand party-goers showed up anyway.

Going back to the days of Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti in the sixties and seventies the drivers tell stories of smelling a pig roast at one corner and some pot-smoking at another turn, and if you look at the littered remains of the party on Sunday morning after the race you would be excused for thinking you had just witnessed a classic, Woodstock-style rock concert rather than a motor race. But it's all part of what makes Sebring a genuinely unique event.

The first race run at the former Hendricks Field WWII airfield was the Sam Collier Six Hours on Dec. 31, 1950. The race was promoted by Alec Ulmann and was the first endurance race for sports cars run in the United States. The first Sebring 12 hours took place fifteen months later in March of 1952 and the next year's race was the opening round of the FIA's new world sports car championship.

Over the following twenty years, through 1972, the race was always an early or opening round of the world sports car championship. Fields of sixty and more cars were common with factory teams filling the sharp end of the grid. Briggs Cunningham's team won the race in 1953, '54 and '55 with John Fitch and Phil Walters (also known as 'Ted Tappet') driving a Cunningham-Chrysler in '53, Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd aboard an OSCA in '54, and Mike Hawthorn and Phil Walters driving a D-type Jaguar for Cunningham in '55.

The following year Juan Fangio won at Sebring driving a factory Ferrari Monza with Eugenio Castelotti. Fangio won again the next year aboard a factory Maserati 450S, co-driving this time with Jean Behra. In 1958 Phil Hill scored the first of his three Sebring victories co-driving a factory Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa with Peter Collins. Phil won again in '59 sharing another factory Testa Rossa with Olivier Gendebien, Dan Gurney and Chuck Daigh.

By then, Sebring was established as one of the classic races on the world sports car calendar and during the sixties the race got even bigger. First Porsche challenged and beat Ferrari. Then Chaparral and Ford turned the trick. Between 1956-'72 Ferrari won the race nine times, Porsche and Ford took three wins, and Maserati and Chaparral one each.

Longtime promoter Alec Ulmann quit the business in 1972 and Sebring became an IMSA race for GT cars. Through the next fifteen years the race was dominated by Porsche with a string of Carreras, 934s, 935s and ultimately, the 962 GTP car. After BMW won with a factory 3.0 CSL in 1975 driven by Brian Redman/Hans Stuck/Allan Moffatt/Sam Posey, Porsche was unbeaten over the next thirteen years 'til 1988.

Through the first years of the GTP era the Porsche 962 was the car to have and it won four straight races at Sebring between 1985-'88. But the 962 soon was challenged by Nissan and Jaguar. Nissan GTP cars swept three 12-hour classics from 1989-'91 before Dan Gurney's AAR Eagle-Toyotas scored back-to-back wins in 1992 and '93. Toyota's dominance and the departure of any competition brought an end to the GTP era and the beginning of the end, too, for IMSA in its original iteration.

Today, IMSA serves as the sanctioning body for the American Le Mans Series, both organizations operating under the same roof. Created in 1999 the ALMS subsequently was fueled by Audi deciding to race first its turbo R8 Le Mans cars in the series, then the R10 turbo diesel. Audi's cars dominated the fledgling ALMS series and also won eight straight Sebring races from 2000-'07. The Audis were the favorites last year but encountered mechanical problems and were beaten by a pair faultless Porsche RS Spyder LMP2 cars run by Penske and Rob Dyson. Penske's winning car recorded Porsche's first Sebring victory in twenty years.

This year, Audi returns with a pair of new R15 turbo diesels which will be making their debuts at Sebring. The new car has a reprofiled nose and appears to follow the same thinking employed by Nick Wirth's new Acura LMP1 car with more weight moved toward the front axle in pursuit of a fifty/fifty balance. The R15 has been well-tested and will race only twice this year at Sebring and Le Mans in June. Lucas Luhr/Mike Rockenfeller/Marco Werner will race the Audi Sport North America #1 and Rinaldo Capello/Tom Kristensen/Allan McNish are aboard the #2 Audi/Team Joest entry.

For Audi, Sebring represents a full-dress shakedown for Le Mans, as it does for Peugeot who have entered two of their 908 LMP1 cars. The drivers are Nicolas Minassian/Pedro Lamy/Christian Klein and Stephane Sarrazin/Franck Montagny/Sebastien Bourdais. In terms of pure speed Peugeot's driving team probably is stronger than Audi's, but as we know, Sebring isn't about pure speed.

Meanwhile, Acura's pair of brand new ARX-02a LMP1 cars will make their debut at Sebring, hoping to do battle with the Audis and Peugeots. The two ARX-02as are run by de Ferran Motorsports and Patron/Highcroft Racing and will compete in all this year's ALMS races. Gil de Ferran/Simon Pagenaud/Dario Franchitti drive de Ferran's car while David Brabham/Scott Sharp/Scott Dixon share the Highcroft Acura. Both teams have tested hard at Sebring over the past few months and are as ready as you can be for the first race with an all-new car.

"It's taken a tremendous amount of work, like these things always do," commented de Ferran's team boss John Anderson last week. "But it's a beautiful piece and I think we're going to be strong. It's just a tough thing to have Sebring as our first race. It would be nice to have two or three other races under our belt before tackling Sebring. But that's the way it is."

Also debuting at Sebring are Rob Dyson's two Lola-Mazda LMP2 cars driven by Chris Dyson/Guy Smith and Butch Leitzinger/Marino Franchitti/Ben Devlin. The new Lola-Mazda is a closed coupe and has also undergone some useful testing over the past two months. The only opposition for Dyson's cars in the P2 class is Adrian Fernandez's Acura ARX-01b driven by Fernandez/Luis Diaz.

There are only eleven prototypes in the field at Sebring this year--eight LMP1 cars and three P2s. The additional P1 entries are two Lola B06/10-AERs run by Intersport Racing for Jon and Clint Field and Autocon Motorsports for Bryan Williams/Chris McMurry/Tony Burgess. The rest of the field is made up of fifteen GT2 cars and the two factory Corvette C6-Rs which are the only GT1 entries. The GT2 field comprises five Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs, three Ferrari 430 GTs, Rahal-Letterman's pair of new BMW M3s, and one each of Corvette C6, Dodge Viper, Panoz Esperante, Aston Martin Vantage and Ford GT mk7.

In fact, the total entry of 28 cars is the smallest in Sebring's history, a true sign of the times. The previous smallest field was 32 for the 1952 inaugural. The second smallest was last year with 33 starters. The largest Sebring field assembled in 1983 during IMSA's heydays when no fewer than 84 cars took the green flag.

Still, despite the small field the 57th Sebring 12 Hours will be the most technically interesting motor race in the United States this year with new cars debuting from Audi, Acura and Lola-Mazda. It will also be the only time the new Acura P1 car will race against the Audis and Peugeots. And without a Formula 1 race anywhere in North America for the first time in fifty years, Sebring will be the continent's biggest and most important international race of the year. In an age dominated by spec cars the race shines as a rare creature providing us with a blush of different cars and thinking. Praise be, I say.

The race weekend at Sebring also will see the opening rounds of the Cooper Tires Atlantic Championship, the Star Mazda series and the BF Goodrich/Skip Barber National Championship. This trio of series represent three key rungs on the ladder to the top of American open-wheel racing and with nobody able to provide overall leadership for the sport we should thank the ALMS and IMSA for embracing each of these series.

So Sebring represents as big a start to the racing season as any race this year. Spring arrives on Friday morning just before 8 AM and I'm looking forward to driving into the tatty old airfield in the middle of Florida's citrus fruit country around that time. It's an unlikely setting for such a fine old event.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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