The Nissan had crushed all comers in the sprint race portion of IMSA's Camel GT series in 1988, winning eight consecutive races, but had passed on enduros like Sebring (ABOVE: Porsche's 962 amid GT-class Corvettes and Toyotas and Mercurys). For 1989, however, the team opted to run the full schedule – and performed as expected, easily taking pole and surging away to a huge early lead. Since the team's second car suffered a suspension failure only 14 laps in, Geoff Brabham's domination up front was discounted…except the hours went by, and Brabham and teammate Chip Robinson kept going. After 12 sweeps of the clock, the duo were still up front, as they had been for 316 of the 330 laps. The Porsche era was over, and Nissan's had begun. The Electramotive ZXT-GTP would win again in 1990, and its successor, the NPT-90, would complete a trifecta for the squad in '91. However, an archrival had copied its playbook….
Like Nissan, Toyota's GTP team, run by Dan Gurney's All American Racers, had originally focused on IMSA's sprint races and, after a slow start, had rounded into dominant form on them by 1991. The following year the AAR Toyota squad made its first appearance at Sebring with its Toyota Eagle Mk III, and team leader Juan Manuel Fangio II stuck it on the pole. Rather than taking a cautious approach, Toyota opted to treat the 12 Hours like a sprint, and fought Nissan's pair of NPT-91s straight up. Nissan and Toyota exchanged the lead 13 times in the first four hours, before reliability settled the issue. But it was the reigning champs who lost that fight, as an extended pit stop to repair faulty headlights handed the Toyota a five-lap lead.
The win was especially meaningful to Fangio, whose five-time F1 champion uncle had won at Sebring twice in the 1950s – and to team owner Gurney, who also had won there in 1959 as a driver, but had been regularly foiled by mechanical troubles after that.
Toyota scored again in 1993 – at a comparative crawl, due to steady rain that fell for all but the first half-hour. Fangio and teammate Andy Wallace managed just 71mph, the lowest winning speed since 1952! It proved an omen of the future, as IMSA – facing a crisis following the withdrawal of manufacturers from its GTP category – opted to scrap the high-tech and high-cost coupes in favor of a lower-cost, open-topped World Sports Car category.
The latter, initially consisting of modified GTPs fitted with the required production-based engines, were no faster than the quickest GT-class cars – indeed, Paul Gentilozzi took the overall pole for the 1994 race, at a speed 15mph slower than the Toyota's pole time of the year before. WSCs and the Nissan GTs shared time up front in the race, too, before the well-sorted, factory-backed Nissan squad pulled away to secure the win with Steve Millen, Johnny O'Connell and John Morton at the wheel of its 300ZX (ABOVE).
If the WSC class had stumbled out of the gate at Sebring, it found its feet the following year, thanks in large part to Ferrari. The Prancing Horse made a return for the first time in 23 years, with a purpose-built World Sports Car housed around a sonorous V12 engine originally developed for the Scuderia's F1 team.
The car was sold to customers rather than run as a factory operation, and the Scandia team's two examples proved quickest. One, driven by former Ferrari F1 racer Michele Alboreto and Mauro Baldi, claimed pole, while the second, driven by Fermin Velez, Eric van de Poele and team owner Andy Evans, outlasted a Chevy-powered Spice WSC for the victory by 87sec after a hard-fought battle that tied the all-time record with 23 lead changes. After being beaten by an Oldsmobile-powered Riley & Scott Mk III the following year, Ferraris would win at Sebring again in 1997 and '98 (RIGHT).
By this time, Sebring was in transition again, as IMSA was in the midst of a problematic transformation into “Professional SportsCar Racing,” with a resultant hodgepodge of SportsCar, Le Mans and FIA rules. While producing some bruised feelings, the objective of creating parity between the WSC and GT classes was carried off rather well, as the Momo Ferrari of Didier Theys, Mauro Baldi and Gianpiero Moretti held off a GT1-class Panoz for the overall win.
The fast-growing Panoz sports car empire would play a key role in the next chapter of Sebring's history, too….
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