Sebring International Raceway: Where American Endurance Racing Was Born
Saturday, January 21, 2017

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule kicks off with a bang each year with the prestigious twice-around-the-clock Rolex 24 At Daytona. However, a few weeks later is a race that fans and drivers alike consider to be just as iconic, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled By Fresh From Florida.

Deemed America’s oldest road racing track, the 3.74-mile circuit sits just two hours from Tampa, Orlando, and the Palm Beaches, making it easily accessible to much of the state’s population and its incredibly loyal fan base.

“It’s a tradition for people from the office to go out and greet the campers when they come in on Wednesday morning,” said Track President and General Manager Wayne Estes. “When I first got here, I went out to see just how many people I could speak to. Virtually everyone told me how many years they’ve been coming to this race. They roll their windows down and say ‘I’ve been coming here for 35 years!’ or ‘Been coming here since 1965!’ It was great. The third week in March is just as important to people here as their favorite holiday or their birthday.”

While action on the track is the focus of the weekend, Sebring has continuously looked for ways to increase the entertainment value for the fans, and this year’s 65th anniversary of the endurance class is no exception. Along with carnival rides on the Midway and vintage car displays, the Spring Brake Party Zone hosts a range of activities including a St. Patrick’s Day party on Friday, the annual bikini contest and for the first time, a restaurant-by-day, nightclub-by-night concept.

”The Spring Brake Party Zone has been a part of this for many years and adding this concept is going to be an entirely new experience,” explained Estes. “It’s going to create a hotbed of entertainment unlike anything we’ve ever had before.”

HISTORY

In the late 1940s, Alec Ulmann transformed the runways of Hendricks Field, originally a World War II training base for B-17s, into a racing circuit that forever altered the landscape of American sports car racing.

By the end of 1950, Ulmann’s vision came to fruition with the running of the Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix of Endurance, won by Ralph Deshon and Fritz Koster in a Crosley Hot Shot loaned to the team by a racegoer. The contest ran for six hours and marked the first sports car endurance race in the United States. The first 12-hour race followed just two years later.

Despite instant success, Ulmann strongly considered moving the event to Fort Lauderdale in 1957, only to change his mind soon thereafter. He had the same notion again 10 years later with his eyes on West Palm Beach, but the destination circuit was hit with heavy rains and Ulmann ultimately kept the race at Sebring.

Sebring’s popularity continued to rise throughout the years, hosting the first F1 race in the United States in 1959, the circuit’s first Trans-Am race in 1966, its first IMSA race in 1973 and debuted ALMS in 1999. The year following IMSA’s first contest at Sebring saw the famed track’s gates close due to the energy crisis in 1974 and the year following the first ALMS race at Sebring, the father-son duo of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr. tested their Corvette for the Rolex 24 At Daytona, only two months before the former tragically passed away.

Given all the different racing series that have visited Sebring, many cars and stars have taken to the track’s bumpy surface in hopes of winning the famed endurance classic. Atop the manufacturer standings for most wins stands Porsche, Ferrari and Audi, while Tom Kristensen, Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien rank amongst the track’s most winningest drivers. The track has also hosted Hollywood stars looking to step away from the camera and behind the wheel, including Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman and Patrick Dempsey.

“This place is boiling over with heritage and history from the very beginning,” said Estes. “A lot of the things that were here during those army airfield years are still in place and in addition to that, there’s just so much history on the racetrack itself. The winners here read like an international motorsports hall of fame. It’s a very special place and the people who come here take great pride in it.”

DRIVER PERSPECTIVE

Eric Curran, co-driver of the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi: “Sebring International is a pretty special place. It’s essentially been the same racetrack for 50+ years. It’s built on an old runway with big concrete sections that are built into a track and it’s all flat, it doesn’t have any elevation.”

“The most challenging part of it, outside of racing there for 12 hours straight, is just how old the surface is and how bumpy it is. The first thing you hear when you mention Sebring from racing drivers is the bumps. The Sebring 12 hour also runs into the night and there’s no lighting there at the track, so you’re going upwards of 180 mph in our Prototype cars and you’re solely relying on your headlights to see where you’re going. Then you add in 50 some odd cars racing around so it’s just an unbelievable challenge.”

“Last year, in 2016, Dane Cameron and I along with Scott Pruett ran the Sebring 12 hour and finished second. We feel like our brand new Whelen Engineering Cadillac is ready to challenge that place. Our teammates won there in 2015, but we feel like it’s Dane Cameron’s and my turn to win it this year in 2017.”

TRACK PERSPECTIVE

  • Turn 1: A incredibly wide lefthander that seems to barely require any entry braking when viewed as a spectator. Turn 1 is deceiving in that there is really only one fast line through despite its width, as the exit becomes very narrow very quickly if a competitor runs too wide.  
  • Turns 2 – 5, Kristensen Corner Complex: A tight section of low speed corners focused around the recently named Turn 3 where precision is of the utmost importance. Deviations too far from the racing line or improper throttle modulation can easily cause a car to become unsettled to a detrimental level.
  • Turns 6 – 7, Big Bend to Hairpin: A rare corner where the track appears far more narrow as a spectator than behind the wheel. Smooth steering inputs allow this long sweeper to be taken flat, and viewing the corner from closer to Turn 5 provides one of the most enthralling views on the entire circuit. The exit of Turn 6 leads into Sebring’s heaviest braking zone, where cars must haul down from high speeds to almost a crawl right in front of Chateau Elan.
  • Turns 12 – 13, Tower: This quick pair of corners really tests an engineer’s ability to set up a car well and a driver’s ability to maintain control. Entering Turn 13 often sees a car’s suspension heavily loaded on the left-hand side as braking needs to begin. Consequences for a lapse in focus here are great.
  • Turn 17, Sunset Bend: By far the bumpiest section of the entire track, choosing the proper line through this tricky sweeper is imperative for starting the next lap off on the right foot. Cars speed down the Ullman straight directly into Sebring’s famous golden hour, and some drivers have said it feels as though they are literally driving into the setting sun.

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship returns for the 65th annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled By Fresh From Florida on March 15-18, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at https://sebringraceway.com/

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