A visit to the annual 12 Hours of Sebring is not unlike a week with a maiden aunt. An ancient and slightly dotty aunt, who lives in a drafty pink stucco mansion, who breeds bull mastiffs and recites Robert Browning and tools around town in a vintage Ferrari, never paying her traffic tickets. One suffers her bad cooking and the faulty plumbing, her endlessly querulous monologues, the odd dog bite: it is worth it, well worth it, for that one mad dash through town in the Ferrari. Worth it if only to see the years fall away as her eyes rev higher than the engine, to watch that frail, translucent hand slam through the gear changes as she grosses out the motorcycle cops who follow in vain, dumbfounded pursuit. Secretly, of course, we hope to inherit the Ferrari when she passes away, but all we end up with are the dogs.
Last weekend the old gentlewoman died. When the checkered flag fell at the end of Saturday's race, it flashed a finish to 21 years of world-class racing at America's dowager road course. Even if the race is renewed next year—a big if—it will be on a new track and probably under new management. Alec Ulmann, Sebring's organizer and thus the man who turned on the nation to European-style sports car competition, hopes to salvage the race by going public. He must build a new road course before the sanctioning bodies will approve the race, and in his part of Florida—indeed, in much of the land—construction money is not easy to come by. Even should Ulmann succeed, it would not be the same old irritating, litigious, grandly exciting race.
During the days before this last race Ulmann could be seen as usual, stalking through the pits in his usual blue blazer and ice-cream pants, flashing the usual warm grins and firing off bursts of greetings in four languages, clamping his powerful embrace on drivers young and old. "I cannot promise anything," Ulmann replied to all questions about the fate of the race. "If local backing doesn't materialize, I'll have to make the inevitable decision I hate to make and say that this is the last race in Sebring."
Whatever the future, last week was a fine time for Sebring buffs to indulge themselves in that most recent of American psychic trips: nostalgia. It took many forms. "Hey, dig," said one dude waving a notebook, "I just added it all up. If you were to lay every Sebring endurance race end to end, it would run for 246 hours and cover about 22,000 miles. That's like from here to Dnepropetrovsk if you go by way of Samoa." Average speed? "Wait a minute...." Scratch, scratch. "Uh, 89.4308 miles per hour—that's not so fast, is it?" Well, considering the equipment that ran in the early years of the race, it is fast enough. The very first Sebring, a six-hour event held on Dec. 31, 1950, was won by those immortals, Fred Wacker and Frank Burrell, in a Cadillac-Allard at the dizzying pace of 66.65 mph.
March 29, 1971
But statistics are to nostalgia as too much vermouth is to a martini. Raw speed was never what Sebring, or what sports car racing in general, is all about. What Sebring gave to American motor sports was a cavalier quality, in the best sense of that word. The European drivers who came to race in the hot, flat, redneck country of south central Florida were men of panache and élan, dead cool and irritatingly aristocratic in many cases, bluebloods with, well, insouciance. The image rapidly waned to cliché, but in retrospect it is obvious that men like Wolfgang von Trips and the Marquis de Portago and even Porfirio Rubirosa were the inheritors of the romantic European tradition that allegedly died with World War I. These were cavalry officers, not tank drivers—Royal Flashes with slim waists and kinky love lives, well-bred wastrels compounded of champagne and courage with a dash of snobbery in lieu of bitters. It was all so exotic, and, if one is to believe the poppsych prattle, erotic as well.
Much of that original glamour has worn off sports car racing in the 21 years since the first Sebring. The early cars, with their open cockpits, allowed the racing fan to watch his hero do all of his heroic number. It was possible to compare driving styles—Juan Manuel Fangio with his massive forearms wrestling his 4.5-liter Maser through the Hairpin and into the Warehouse Straight, Baron Huschke von Hanstein negotiating the tricky Esses with Bismarckian aplomb in his no-nonsense Porsche.
Today, of course, the really hot cars are usually closed-cockpit, and even when they are open, as was the case with the Alfa Romeos and Mario Andretti's Ferrari 312 BP in this year's race, the drivers recline so far back and are so hidden by their wraparound "bone-dome" helmets that it might as well be Cousin Freddie out there driving.
Technological evolution may be corrosive to glamour, but there is one thing about Sebring that has remained basically the same: the 5.2-mile course itself. Laid out partially on a World War II air base and winding through a burgeoning "industrial park" on the southern outskirts of town, it is one of the most punishing—and poorly maintained—road courses in racing. "My God," said Jackie Oliver, the hard-boiled English Porsche driver, "did you ever see a circuit with grass growing up through the cracks? You're airborne half the time on the approach to the Esses and there's just not sufficient protection for the spectators in a few places. Still, I'll be sad to see Sebring go. The really old, dangerous courses—Spa, the N√ºrburgring, this place—accrue a mystique over the years. They mean something."
Because of its rough surface and its wrenching corners coupled with long, fast straightaways on the airport runways, Sebring is one of the world's toughest mechanical tests. "It's a shock-popping brake-burner," says Dave Houser, a promising gentleman-amateur who was driving a small MGB last week. "I'm going like this out there"—his hands gyrate wildly—"so you can imagine what it's like for the big cars."
Wicked as the course may be, it can be justified as a meaningful challenge to engineering and ingenuity. The same argument cannot be applied to the town of Sebring and environs. Even though motor racing fans, particularly those who follow the enduros, are suspiciously masochistic, no one in his right mind could enjoy the lack of amenities for which Sebring is justly infamous. Merely getting there is an endurance race all its own over secondary roads from the nearest air terminals at Tampa, Palm Beach or Jacksonville. The ride can be spiced up by keeping a tally on how many dead armadillos and/or live state troopers are sighted along the road. (Betting tip: state troopers predominate.)
Sebring itself is a rather pretty, soporifically quiet town, a throwback to the Florida of the prewar years. By contrast, Indianapolis is Fun City. In the early days of the race many fans stayed in private homes while the big bread boys like John Perona, the late owner of El Morocco, put up at Harder Hall, a golf resort that has since fallen on evil times.
Speed buffs who get tired of sitting around the Hall's pleasant bar bad-mouthing the rest of the hotel often end up at Sebring's one good restaurant. Clayton's, on Route 27 south of town, serves up good food cheerfully, and its long horseshoe bar is the best place to pick up the latest on the race—often from the drivers themselves. The parking lot is a veritable museum of racy cars. Indeed, for the man who loves fine automobiles, from seamless old Mercedes 300SLs through ancient but elegant Ferraris to the latest glossy Jag XJ, Sebring is a car watcher's nirvana.
The best way to beat Sebring's housing and dining problems is the old way: Bernard Cahier, the worldly-wise French racing journalist, rents a house during race week. It comes replete with mounted deer heads, resident lunker black bass, and one Janie Green, a crackerjack housekeeper and topnotch cook of the ante bellum Southern school. The scene chez Cahier is so civilizedly comfortable that after lunch on the eve of race day Jackie Oliver dozed off in his chair. "It takes about 20 laps of hard driving to get used to the Sebring bumps every year," he apologized later. "After that a man needs at least 20 winks."
Oliver, who co-drove the winning Porsche 917K with Pedro Rodriguez at the Daytona 24 Hours in January, had to be rated on form as the prerace favorite. But one of the magical things about Sebring is that the results rarely follow form of any sort. This year was splendidly typical. The Gulf-Wyer Porsche team, which had won 10 out of 12 straight World Manufacturers races, was certainly the outfit to beat, and there were plenty of cars on hand to try. Foremost among them was the lone factory Ferrari, a three-liter open-cockpit car designated the 312 BP. FIA rules for 1972 restrict engine size in the production sports (i.e., "big car") category to three liters, and this machine represented the wave of that future. Driving the car: Mario Andretti and Jackie Ickx. "A simple case of driver overkill," was the reaction to that tough teaming.
Tough, too, was the spiffy Sunoco-blue Ferrari 512 of the Penske-White racing team. During pre-qualifying tests the weekend before the race Mark Donohue took the car around a damp track fully three seconds faster than Andretti's lap record of 121.954 mph set last year. Then the car was shipped back north to home base for more work. Later, while he was loading the car on a transporter prior to driving back down from Philadelphia during race week, Donohue sprained his right ankle. "It would have made good copy if we had just poured some Sunoco on it and slapped on some gray tape," said a Penske man, "but we got in a trainer from the Miami Dolphins to do the honors." As a precaution, Penske himself—who had not raced since 1964—took out a license and underwent his prerace physical. "Yeah," said the wags, "the doctor unbolted Roger's chest plate and discovered that all the transistors were in good shape."
The field of top competitors was rounded out by a trio of trim, reliable but relatively slow Alfa Romeo three-liter Spiders; four rather sloppily prepared Ferrari 512s entered by Luigi Chinetti's North American Racing Team; and a single silver Porsche 917, jointly entered by Porsche-Audi of Austria and Martini & Rossi Racing of Saarbr√ºcken. At Daytona, Martini & Rossi had entered two cars. Now, by concentrating on just one machine, with Vic Elford of England and the young French rallyist Gerard Larrousse driving, it became an unremarked but definite contender.
A line squall fraught with tornado warnings rumbled through Sebring the night before the race, and the morning air was bright, clear, electric. The best of the Sebring races have inevitably been marked by fantastic strokes of luck—good and bad—and laden with controversy. This was no exception. Early on, Jo Siffert, in the second Gulf-Wyer Porsche, clipped off a new lap record of 124.418 mph, and then a few laps later ran out of gas on the course. Defying the rules, Siffert thumbed a ride back to his pits on a passing motorcycle, then lugged gas back out to the car. Oldtimers recalled that Stirling Moss had done the same thing back in 1959 when his race-leading Lister Jaguar ran dry. Moss was disqualified. Siffert was merely penalized four laps—double the amount of time he had saved. There were mutters of disapproval from the purists.
Next, in a flicker of fate that made one wonder if Roger Penske has not been hexed, Mark Donohue got involved in another accident like the one that had cost him a victory at Daytona. While attempting to pass Pedro Rodriguez on a back straight, Donohue refused to yield and was rapped three times on the left flank. The blue Ferrari's fuel cell was damaged, and the Penske-White team lost 53 minutes in the pits repairing it. They also lost the race right there, ultimately finishing sixth. Donohue, usually all grins and goodwill, was too furious at Pedro to speak, but the talented Mexican was quite vocal. Walking down to the Penske pits, Pedro said: "Why don't you teach your drivers how to drive?" It was nearly the Mexican War all over again.
Meanwhile, Andretti and Ickx were tearing up the course in their factory Ferrari. But before the race, Mario had described his car as "delicate," and that proved to be true. By midafternoon the gearbox went blooey and the superteam retired—another instance of Mario's bad luck with transmissions at Sebring. Other Ferraris also met with disaster: the Peter Revson-Swede Savage car went out with a fractured shift linkage; Gregg Young flipped his 512 spectacularly on the Hairpin and was dragged from the car just as it burst into flames that rivaled the sunset.
Suddenly there was Vic Elford in the lead, challenged only by the No. 33 Alfa driven by Nanni Galli and Rolf Stommelen. Nostalgia loomed again. It would be so fitting if an Italian marque could win the last Sebring. But Elford is one of the most underrated of drivers, and he could not be denied. When the flag fell, he had covered 1,352 miles at a record speed of 112.5 mph, a mark that will be retired along with the old course.
As the last of the champagne flowed in the green and white patrons' tent and the final fireworks blistered the night over the shaggy airport, the whooping of the crowd slowly died away. There was a moment of quiet. The absence of engine music—that barking, ululating sound of big sports cars changing through the gears—was poignant. The old lady had passed away, sure enough, and we still had not inherited the Ferrari.