The Sebring Lore

March 18, 2010

The Sebring Lore

March 18, 2010

All the 2010 Michelin drivers are aiming to win the season opener in Sebring. Photo credit: Rick Dole

For sports car fans and enthusiasts around the country, the 12 Hours of Sebring is a legendary event. Its history is rooted in a mix of both racing tradition and fan support.

It is America’s oldest sports car endurance race, dating to 1952. And with a notoriously treacherous surface on a former World War II airfield of both concrete and asphalt that hasn’t been replaced in some parts since its introduction, you have a recipe for a fascinating but intense challenge.

Ken Breslauer, Sebring International Raceway communications director and track historian, provided a background into what makes the opening round of the American Le Mans Series season such a hit.

“We’re working with a really tough surface,” Breslauer said. “There are a lot of narrow spots, plus the day and night, hot and cold. It has got all the elements of a really difficult race. Drivers almost universally say the 12 Hours of Sebring is tougher than 24 Hours of Le Mans.”

The spectators make up such a strong part of the event, so the spectacle of the fans is as much of a spectacle as the race is.

“People call it ‘the Woodstock of auto racing,'” he said. “There’s the interesting combination of college kids on spring break, real serious race fans from all over the world, from all different countries, and the locals, so it’s a really interesting blend of people.”

Generations of fans have passed through the gates and into the infield, dubbed “Green Park,” on the north side of the track. When they arrive in their motor homes, they may be setting up a spot for decades to come.

Breslauer first started coming to Sebring as a spectator in 1975. He recalled driving in a Mazda RX-2 and seeing parts of abandoned airplanes. He climbed on top of an airplane and watched the race from there.

Each year has the potential to provide a new set of Sebring memoires. Breslauer recounted a few that stood out in his mind.

“The 2002 race was really special to me because it was the 50th anniversary and we invited back all the former cars and winners,” he said. “In 1999, the first ALMS sanctioned race, we had a really exciting finish between BMW and the Dyson team, that’s where the Michelin streak started. In 2007 we had the spectacular GT2 finish between Flying Lizard Porsche and the Risi Ferrari. 1983 was an amazing race. I was just a spectator, but it was a big upset when the Porsche 934 won overall. The car that won was 12 laps behind at one point.”

Every year, fans stake out their spot to get in to the track. Breslauer said what stuck out to him was the year a Sebring race was not held, in 1974, on account of the national energy crisis.

“We still had 3,500 fans show up anyway – that shows you something right there,” he said. “We used to allow people to get in line at any time, but now we don’t open it until March 1. One guy who arrived December 23 was the all-time record, and you’d have a city out there for three months before the race.”

Though the time they spend waiting to get into the track has decreased, the memories gained from attending a race at Sebring can last a lifetime.

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