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.
The interruption of Porsche's Sebring supremacy proved brief, as 1976 brought the first of three straight wins for the 911. Once again BMW and promoter Greenwood led the anti-Porsche challenge, the latter's Corvette taking pole with a new track record and leading the early stages before slipping back. David Hobbs and NASCAR's Benny Parsons then took over the lead with their BMW, but were thwarted by mechanical troubles, leaving Al Holbert and Michael Keyser to cruise to a two-lap triumph with their Carrera. Next year's win went to the similar car of George Dyer and Brad Frisselle, after the new – and much faster – Porsche 934 turbos that dominated the early going retired.
The bigger news came off the track as Greenwood – increasingly frustrated with the thankless task of operating the race under constant pressure from the aviation authorities and complaints about the track's crumbling infrastructure – ended his involvement. But another competitor, Charles Mendez, stepped in to take over promotion of the race and launched a series of track improvements for 1978, including repaving and upgraded safety barriers. A new era was ready for launch – and Porsche was ready to provide one in the shape of its new 935, which would eventually surpass the record of the Ferrari 250TR for Sebring domination.
Eight of the new Porsches were on hand for the '78 race, although they were bested in qualifying by the McLaren-run BMW 320i, which broke the track record by 8mph (!). The race, though, was an all-935 battle, with Dick Barbour's entry driven by Brian Redman, Bob Garretson and race promoter Mendez (LEFT), taking the win.
Incredibly, Porsches would rule the roost at Sebring for the 13 years, with a string of triumphs by the 935 broken only by a GTO-class 934 scoring the overall win in 1983, driven by Wayne Baker, Jim Mullen and Kees Nierop, before Porsche's take on the new generation of IMSA's Camel GT prototypes – the mighty 962 – moved to the fore.
Prototypes had been gradually expanding their footprint in IMSA competition since 1981, although the more reliable Porsche GT cars continued to dominate the enduro events like Sebring. But by the middle part of the decade, the GTPs had taken over, and dominated the front at Sebring. Despite massive attrition for the 1985 race – nearly half the field had dropped out by the halfway mark – the Porsche 962s maintained their grip. Preston Henn's Swap Shop entry, driven by Bob Wollek and A.J. Foyt, had not been among the quickest 962s, starting only 13th, but surged forward as the race progressed, picking up the lead at the seventh hour and the withstanding gearbox problems to take the win. Foyt's victory made the Indy 500 legend one of only five drivers to win Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona, and would also prove to be the last major race win of his amazing career.
For 1986, Whitney Ganz made it one for the books by shattering the lap record in his March-Buick GTP, setting a pole-winning lap of 133.134mph. In the race, though, it was left to Porsche 962 runners to fight for the win. Three 962s battled up front before two were shaken apart by the rough runways. The last Porsche standing – driven by Bob Akin, Hans Stuck and Jo Gartner – had a fright of its own when it lost its left-front wheel on the last lap, but with the luxury of an eight-lap lead they were able to limp home to victory. It was a fitting “walking wounded” send-off to Sebring's unforgiving runways.
The following year, as the Federal authorities were again demanding that Sebring end racing on active airport runways, a substantially revised Sebring circuit dispensed with most of the World War II concrete in favor of a shortened (4.11-mile) layout running primarily on asphalt. (It would be shortened again in 1991 to its present 3.7 miles via tweaks that opened up the whole track to spectators). Although speeds were down, the new track was easier (or, rather, less hard) on equipment. The winning car – a 962 again, of course – of Bobby Rahal and Jochen Mass averaged 102mph for the 12 hours, some 13mph slower than the previous year's winner.
Porsche's domination at Sebring lasted one more year, as the 962 model withstood the new challenge of Tom Walkinshaw's Jaguar team, with Hans Stuck and Klaus Ludwig scoring a nine-lap victory (RIGHT) in the same car that had won the previous 12 Hours. For 1989, however, they had a new challenge in the form of the Electramotive Nissan GTP.
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
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