Fittingly, in the year that one of sports car racing's ultimate tests of man and machine, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Fresh From Florida, celebrates its 60th running, Sebring International Raceway's tooth-loosening concrete runways will once again host a world championship status event – the opening round of the new-for-2012 FIA World Endurance Championship.
This week, as we countdown to that milestone race on March 14-17, we're taking a look back at Sebring's two-decade streak as a fixture on the original World Sportscar Championship, starting 1953 and ending in '72.
During that period, the event attracted the great and the good of sports car racing. Homegrown superstars such as Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti, plus a who's who of international aces, including Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, John Surtees and Jacky Ickx, were among the winning drivers as factory fleets from Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar, Porsche and Ford slugged it out. (ABOVE: The Stirling Moss/Graham Hill Maserati Tipo 61 prepares to hit Sebring's rough, bumpy concrete in 1961),
But victory at Sebring isn't just about beating your fellow men and machines, it's also about taking on and conquering one of the toughest tracks in all of motorsports. Compared to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the only other sports car race that can edge it in terms of prestige and history, Sebring is half as long, but twice as tough. Mario Andretti, who won on three occasions during the WSC years, sums it up as only he can….
“Sebring?” he muses. “Man, it's hard. Those bumps just beat you to death. Le Mans is a walk in the park by comparison, because the road is so good, and it's nowhere near as hard on a car.”
Much of Sebring's rough, tough character is a direct result of the track's original purpose. Back in 1941, the United States Army Air Forces built Hendricks Field as a base for B-17 Flying Fortress pilot training. Its network of runways was formed from poured concrete blocks, gridded by asphalt-filled expansion seams. The sandy foundations, Floridian climate and general wear and tear from countless 20 ton-plus bombers all contrived to ripple the surface and raise the seams to a point where the future racetrack's defining character had been pre-ordained.
After the base was deactivated in 1946 and turned into Sebring Airport, aeronautical engineer and racing enthusiast Alec Ulmann came looking for a site to convert military aircraft to civilian use, but soon found himself pondering the possibility of using the runways to host a sports car endurance race. In the UK, Silverstone had already proven the concept was a workable one, so why not give it a go?
The first race, the Sam Collier 6-Hour Memorial, was held on New Year's Eve in 1950, attracting a healthy 28 starters. The track was marked out with hay bales and the “pits” were a row of folding tables, but all taking part declared it a success and Ulmann decided to take things up a level with a true test of endurance.
The first 12-hour race followed a little over a year later, March 15, 1952, running on a 5.2-mile layout that, bar some tweaks in 1967 to replace the Webster Turn with the Green Park Chicane (adding some 50 yards to the overall length), would remain virtually unchanged for 30 years. Larry Kulok and Harry Gray won in a Frazer-Nash Le Mans Replica (RIGHT) and, crucially, the success of the event gave Ulmann the confidence to ask motorsport's international governing body, the FIA, to be included in its new-for-1953 World Sportscar Championship.
Permission granted, Sebring became the opening round of the series, attracting a high-powered 53-car field headed by a pair of John Wyer-run factory Aston Martin DB3s, the Ferraris of Bill Spear and Jim Kimberly and a West Palm Beach-built piece of American heavy metal, the 5.5-liter Cunningham-Chrysler C4R entered by Briggs Cunningham and driven by John Fitch and Phil Walters.
Early in the race, with attrition taking its toll, it became apparent that this was going to be a duel between the Cunningham and the DB3s – actually, make that DB3 in the singular, after one retired following a collision with an oil drum. After 12 hours, Fitch and Walters covered 899.6 miles and won by a full lap over Reg Parnell and George Abecassis in the remaining DB3, and Sebring's reputation as one of the toughest challenges in sports car racing was sealed.
A year later, Europe was over in force, with multi-car, star-studded entries from Lancia, Ferrari, Jaguar and Maserati, as well as a three-car entry from Aston Martin looking for redemption. With cars and equipment still travelling by ship, that was no small undertaking, and it certainly underlined the growing importance of Sebring and the American market to the manufacturers.
In the end, a Briggs Cunningham-entered car triumphed again, but not the C4R. Instead, it was a tiny, 1.5-liter O.S.C.A., driven by English rising star Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd, supplying an upset of epic proportions as it nimbly took on everything the track and some trademark Florida deluges could throw at it, while the bigger, faster machinery starting ahead of it slowed and wilted.
In 1955, Cunningham made it three wins with three different makes of car in three consecutive years, but this was to be a controversial result.
The race had turned into a straight duel between Cunningham's D-Type Jaguar, driven by Phil Walters and English future Formula 1 World Champion Mike Hawthorn, and the Ferrari 750S Monza of Carroll Shelby and American future F1 world champ Phil Hill. In the closing minutes, the public address system announced the Ferrari was leading, while timing and scoring had the Jag taking the win. The “winning” Ferrari drove to Victory Lane, but was soon joined by the D-Type, which had run out of fuel on its cool-down lap. Confusion reigned….
Later in the week, the American Automobile Association announced that, after poring over the lap charts, the Jaguar had indeed won by 25.4sec, giving Cunningham his three-peat and leaving Enzo Ferrari a tad ticked off.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, so they say, and Il Commendatore got plenty of satisfaction in the years that followed, with Ferrari winning seven of the nine races held between 1956 and '64. That 1956 race was the first Sebring appearance for Scuderia Ferrari, the official factory team, and it wasn't there to play second best to anybody. When the checkered flag flew, the Juan Manuel Fangio/Eugenio Castellotti 860 Monza was an easy winner, finishing two laps clear of its Luigi Musso/Harry Schell sister car.
In 1957 (start, ABOVE), Fangio made it two wins in a row – but this time at the wheel of a Maserati, the legendary Argentinean having switched allegiance primarily to get his hands on one of the graceful 250Fs in F1. Sharing his 450S at Sebring with Jean Behra, Fangio brought it home two laps clear of the Moss/Schell Maserati.