Little Eva, Camille and Louisa May Alcott's Beth have nothing on Sebring. Only in the most morbid literature has anything died more slowly than America's premier endurance race. But last week, by cracky, they put the pistol to the old nag's head. Yes, indeed, it was the last, last annual 12 Hours of Sebring, or so swore Race Director Alec Ulmann as he crossed his beblazered heart. Spot on, old buddy, and we'll see you next year.
The race was most memorable for its overwhelming aura of anticlimax. All the real tears had been shed a year before, and even when the magical mystery team called Ferrari swept home one-two last Saturday, there was little emotion left to be spent.
When the FIA restricted the engine size of the hot prototypes that dominate endurance racing to a mere three liters of displacement this year, it seemed at first glance that the sport had been grievously maimed. It was as if the NBA had ordered every basketball team to trim its various Jabbars and Chamberlains down to six feet. Gone were the overpowering Porsche 917s—the champions of 1970 and 1971—along with the burly Ferrari 512s that had given the German factory some fascinating competition. In their place were smaller cars that the skeptical described as "roller skates"—tiny Alfa Romeo Spyders and Ferrari 312Ps built around watch-charm engines suitable for Formula I sprints but, seemingly, not for the wrenching grinds characteristic of the Enduros.
The FIA itself seemed to recognize this fact by implying yet another condition: that no endurance race endure more than six hours or 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), whichever came first. Needless to say, neither the classic 24 Hours of Le Mans nor Sebring, with its once-around-the-clock heritage, went for any such diminution.
April 3, 1972
But those who felt that endurance racing had been emasculated by these new rules reckoned without the resiliency of the racing factories. The dark red Alfas, which seemed to have the edge in reliability, having been on the scene for two seasons already, suddenly found themselves outlegged by the newer, previously fragile Ferraris. Over the 1,000 kilometers of Buenos Aires and the 6 Hours (formerly 24) of Daytona, the Ferraris waggled their tail pipes at the Alfas, winning both races by wide margins. Ah, but Sebring would prove to be the Ferrari factory's Caporetto, reckoned the cognoscenti. Sebring, with its bumpy roads and washboard runways, promised 12 hours of the most brutal automotive punishment that weedy concrete and bad maintenance could provide. And if the Alfas could not turn the trick as the Ferraris flew to pieces, perhaps Jo Bonnier's Lola or John Wyer's new Gulf Mirage could.
If the Ferrari drivers were worried, they sure didn't show it. Belgian Jacky Ickx, who was teamed with Mario Andretti in the quickest of the red devils, turned up in the pits one morning wearing a fake but fearsome gorilla head over his choir-boy phiz. Pit kittens screamed with delight as they fled from the pint-sized King Kong. Clay Regazzoni and Ronnie Peterson, the rising young Formula I drivers who were assigned to the other two Ferraris, wore less imaginative but equally impressive masks: their own cool implacability.
The Alfa drivers, meanwhile, busied themselves with final adjustments for the rough 5.2-mile course and enjoyed as best they could the pleasures of Sebring. Sicily's Nino Vaccarella took his friend Antonio Sansone, the director of the Targa Florio race, to Ho-Jos for an introduction to American roadside food. "Wait till you try this thing they call the milk shake," said Nino as Signor Sansone chowed down.
"No, no," replied Sansone, "it cannot compare with our superb Sicilian gelato." Right on, Signore.
At a lesser level another rivalry was brewing between the two top Grand Touring contenders—the Corvettes and the Ferrari 365 GTB-4s. And there was fun for all in the blue Camaro entered by Bolus & Snopes of Jackson, Miss., in the sedan class. The chief wrench was Flem Snopes, of course, a familiar figure to those who study Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Ovid Bolus is a bit more obscure. According to the literary young Southerners who front for the team, Bolus was a pre-Civil War lawyer who specialized in bilking Indians "not by the individual, but by the tribe." In addition to stickers that read "Bolus & Snopes are Good & Nice," the B&S team claimed to own a blimp called the Graf Bolus and a steam packet, the Robert E. Snopes. More importantly, they possessed a well-prepared car that had finished strongly in earlier races. It qualified 28th overall at Sebring, where Andretti and Ickx captured the pole with a surprising 123.64 mph—a new qualifying record that was a touch faster than Mark Donohue had run last year in the bigger Ferrari 512.
The slower but supposedly sturdier Alfas shared the top of the grid with Ferrari, and the credentials of their drivers were beyond reproach. Vic Elford, last year's Sebring winner with a Porsche, was in one Alfa, but the quickest of the marque was under Peter Revson, who has been driving up a storm this year on the Formula I circuit. He was to do the same at Sebring, but in a different sense.
To no one's surprise, the Andretti-Ickx Ferrari jumped off to a quick lead at the drop of the green flag, with the other two 312s right behind him. The Alfas held their cool, waiting for the supposed Ferrari fragility to manifest itself. With the race less than two hours old a minor collision in the Esses brought out the yellow flag. A steward then claimed that the Alfas driven by Revson and Vaccarella had passed on the yellow, which is illegal, and both cars were black-flagged in for brief punishment. When Revvy pulled up to the chief steward, one Charlie Earwood, he denied passing illegally, and in the course of the dispute Ear-wood's hat got knocked from his head. Revson drove off, but when he came in for his next driver's change he was hauled before the assembled stewards and charged with unsportsmanlike conduct. According to the official report of the incident, "It was alleged also that an obscene gesture was made."
"That's an outright lie," Revvy said later, and two disinterested witnesses backed him up. But it was to no avail: Revson was banished from the race. The Alfa team manager, Carlo Chiti, formally apologized for Revson, but as Peter said, "Nobody had to apologize for me. I did nothing that a professional racing driver should have to apologize for." The expulsion did indeed seem biased, if not plain bush.
And so the race wore on. There were a few brief moments of surprise: Peterson's Ferrari ran out of gas as his co-driver, Australia's Tim Schenken, raced along the pit wall signaling a warning, but was refueled and ultimately finished second. Regazzoni's Ferrari inexplicably burst into flames, creating hysteria among the fans closest to the fire, but Regazzoni was unhurt. The Gulf Mirage died of ailments of the gearbox but showed promise for the future, and Bonnier's Lola succumbed to a succession of troubles. So in the end the Ferraris proved sturdier than the Alfas. Only one of the four Alfas finished the race; the others broke down. Fittingly enough, the third-place car was the Alfa driven by that grand Sicilian milk-shake freak, Nino Vaccarella.
Even with a hole in its engine leaking oil, the Ferrari driven by Andretti and Ickx was too quick. Andretti took the checkered flag with a look of near boredom. His winning speed of 111.508 mph was not much slower than Elford's record of 112.5 set in the bigger, healthier Porsche of last year.
The miniwar of the Corvettes and the GTB-4s was won by the more powerful American cars, and the Bolus & Snopes Camaro performed creditably, finishing 23rd overall and second in its class, a victory for wit and chicanery. It was a nice upbeat note for a race that has been dying so long it almost deserves to be born again. And if Alec Ulmann can find a new site and the money to build a track on it, you can bet it will be.