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.
The following two years, Ferrari was back to the fore, with the 250 of Dan Gurney and Peter Collins taking the win in 1958, and the all-American pairing of Phil Hill and Chuck Daigh doing the business a year later. Hill would also win for Ferrari in 1961 (the same year he brought America its first F1 World Championship), sharing with Olivier Gendebien and reigniting a Ferrari win streak temporarily ended by Porsche's compact RS 60 (Gendebien's first Sebring win, alongside Hans Herrmann) a year earlier.
Ferrari's streak continued through 1964 ('62 winners, Jo Bonnier and Lucien Bianchi in a Ferrari 250, ABOVE), before Jim Hall's Chevrolet-powered Chaparral 2 gave the bragging rights back to the USA in '65, thanks to an extraordinary, monsoon-defying victory with Hall and Hap Sharp sharing the driving. Jim Hall recounts that famous win in next week's Sebring 60th Countdown story on RACER.com.
During the second half of the '60s, Ford firmly set its sights on sports car racing's biggest prizes and embarked upon an incredibly successful program that had its roots in Eric Broadley's 1963 Lola GT design, then blossomed into the iconic Ford GT40 and its various iterations under the Ford Advanced Vehicles banner, aided and abetted by the likes of John Wyer and Carroll Shelby – serious players in a serious plan to end Ferrari's dominance of sports car racing and showcase the Blue Oval's technology and muscle.
As well as winning at Le Mans in four consecutive years between 1966 and '69, GT40 variants triumphed three times at Sebring, starting in '66 with the Shelby-entered, 7-liter V8-powered Ford X1 roadster driven by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby. Sadly, the win would be overshadowed by an accident involving Canadian Bob McLean, who lost control of his GT40, rolled several times and died in the fiery aftermath, and by a second tragedy, when Don Wester's Porsche tangled with Mario Andretti's Ferrari and speared off the track into a spectator area, killing four.
A year later, Andretti would take the first of his three Sebring wins in a 7-liter Mk IV (LEFT), sharing with New Zealand's Bruce McLaren. Later that year, that same Mk IV design in its second and final outing took the credit for saving Andretti's life when he crashed heavily at Le Mans, but walked away with minor injuries, thanks to its sturdy roll cage.
In 1968, Ford got a rude awakening when, on safety grounds, its big-block V8s were pegged back in capacity and performance, giving the advantage to Porsche's smaller, more agile 3-liter 907. Sure enough, the works 907 of Jo Siffert and Hans Herrmann romped to the win, ahead of its sister car driven by Vic Elford and Jochen Neerspasch. Top GT40? That would be 16th….
But the GT40 enjoyed a glorious coda in 1969, winning both Sebring and Le Mans, thanks to John Wyer's bulletproof preparation and savvy race management…oh, and a driver lineup that exuded class and speed. Amazingly, Wyer enjoyed his success running tried and tested Mk I models, albeit with engines bored out to 4.9 liters. At Sebring, Ferrari and Porsche were the big favorites, along with the longshot Lola-Chevy entered by Roger Penske. As expected, they dominated the early hours, but reliability turned ugly in the closing stages and the metronomic GT40 of Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver would be there to inherit a stunning win.
Much to his continuing annoyance, Andretti's extraordinary second win in 1970, played second fiddle to the story of the guys who finished second (RIGHT): Peter Revson and a certain Terrence Stephen McQueen, Hollywood superstar and sometime racer. Andretti will be recalling the story of his stunning, final-hour charge in a future Sebring 60th Countdown story on RACER.com, so on to 1971….
That's when the mighty and majestic Porsche 917 took its one and only Sebring victory, with Vic Elford and Gerard Larrousse at the wheel of a Martini-sponsored entry. Tough competition from Ferrari's 512M and 312PB machines, plus a gaggle of Alfa Romeo 33/3s, meant Porsche's 917Ks (Wyer had also entered two Gulf-backed cars) didn't have it their own way in the early going, but Sebring's usual attrition rate allowed the Martini Racing machine to head home the first of the Alfas by a useful three laps.
And so to the 1972 race, which was won by Andretti (his third) and Ickx (his second) in a Ferrari 312PB, but was sadly to be the last for Sebring with WSC status (well, aside from a single-year appearance on the World Championship of Makes calendar in 1981, but that's another story). Sadly, the writing had been on the wall for several years, with the FIA becoming increasingly irritated by the condition of the track and the lack of facilities in nearby Sebring itself.
The FIA's Paris-based elite wanted slicker, more modern venues on their schedules, with five-star hotels within easy reach (sound like a familiar story?). So, despite Ulmann's promises of rebuilding the circuit, or even finding a new location nearer the bright lights, Sebring was off the '73 WSC calendar.
At which point…enter the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) and its Camel GT series to kick start a second golden era for the Floridian track. But that's a story for a couple weeks' time...
The 60th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida takes place at Sebring International Raceway, Fla., March 14-17. This year, adding even more luster to this classic event, the race is once again the opening round of a world championship – the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship.
Find out more at www.sebringraceway.com
And to purchase tickets, CLICK HERE