The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Fresh From Florida celebrates its 60th running this year, with Sebring International Raceway's tooth-loosening concrete runways hosting the opening round of the new-for-2012 FIA World Endurance Championship. This week, as we count down to that milestone race on March 14-17, we're taking a look back at Sebring's years as a flagship event of the North American-based IMSA series from 1973 to 1998.
Too stubborn to fade away…
When the FIA's World Sportscar Championship washed its hands of the Sebring 12 Hours in 1972, one of America's most renowned racing events seemed likely to pass into history – but the track legendary for its toughness proved too stubborn to fade away. The crisis caused by the FIA's withdrawal represented an opportunity for the fledgling International Motor Sports Association, which was eager to raise its profile as a sports car sanctioning body. IMSA, founded by former SCCA president John Bishop, duly signed on to run the 1973 edition of the race, paving the way for a new era.
The '73 race certainly had a very different feel. On the downside, the international drivers and teams – and the paparazzi they brought with them – were absent, and the crowds were noticeably down. However, fans who did turn out were treated to one of the strongest gatherings of GT machinery yet seen. While Tony DeLorenzo's pole speed was a full 18mph slower than the last WSC-class pole, the field boasted a dozen cars with legitimate aspirations of victory. Corvettes, Camaros, Mustangs and Porsches all dueled for the top spot, before the 911 Carrera RSR of Peter Gregg, Hurley Haywood and Dave Helmick (ABOVE) pulled away in the closing stages to a one-lap victory, doubling up after their victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona.
IMSA seemed to have gotten Sebring over the hump, but an even larger crisis reared its head the following year. The Arab oil embargo, legacy of the previous October's Arab-Israeli war, forced gasoline rationing across the U.S. Sebring organizers were obliged to cancel the 1974 race, both to avoid the appearance of wasting fuel on a sporting event and because fans faced the risk of being left stranded in relatively remote Sebring, if there was insufficient gas available to get them home. Yet a couple thousand fans stubbornly showed up anyway to camp out and party on the canceled race weekend, providing more evidence of the 12 Hours' hold on the imagination of the public.
Another relaunch brought another crisis: The 12 Hours was back on for 1975, but the track was not ready for prime time. Although the unforgiving nature of its concrete and asphalt surface had been a talking point – or even a point of pride – for years, the neglect that followed the end of race founder Alec Ulmann's involvement was now impossible to overlook. In addition to some serious potholing of the asphalt sections of the track, the surrounding infrastructure was also failing – as demonstrated by a collapse of one of the spectator bridges. Federal aviation authorities were also imposing stricter regulations on the use of airport runways. Yet, once again, the 12 Hours somehow muddled through these obstacles, as veteran Corvette racer John Greenwood took over promotion of the event and lured a solid field of production-based GT machinery, including a factory team from BMW. The latter dominated the race with their CSLs, outlasting Greenwood's “Spirit of Sebring” Corvette and a slew of Porsches. Brian Redman and Allan Moffat (a last-minute replacement for F1 star Ronnie Peterson, who had been ordered not to compete by the FIA) took the win, BMW's first major international win.