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Times May Change, but Sebring’s Allure Never Wanes

IMSA.com Contributor Reflects on What Has Made the Famous 12-Hour Race Special for Decades

By Holly Cain

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – They are a bit yellowed and well thumbed through. But 31 years after covering my first Twelve Hours of Sebring, I still treasure those earliest newspaper “special sections” I have kept all these years.

They bookmark a portion of racing history – the legend of the biggest event to roll through this otherwise quiet Central Florida town. “The race,” as it is known locally, is a subtle title for its renown and regard around the world.

Even as a rookie sportswriter covering my first race in 1990, I quickly realized the eyes of the racing world were following what happened in Sebring. As the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship looks forward to the 69th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts in three weeks, I couldn’t help but reflect back.

The absolute biggest names in sports car racing – along with some of the most famous celebrities in the country – have long embraced the opportunity to be a part of the famed 12-hour race; behind the wheel or excitedly pit side.

In addition to all the sports car legends who form the historical nucleus of the Sebring 12-hour race – Derek Bell, Hurley Haywood, Brian Redman, Peter Gregg, Hans Stuck, Chip Robinson and Juan Manuel Fangio – the record books read like a racing Who’s Who List.

Formula One champions Mario Andretti and Phil Hill have hoisted trophies along the front straightaway still used today. Indy 500 champions from A.J. Foyt, Bobby Rahal and Arie Luyendyk to Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay have included Sebring wins on their resume.

NASCAR greats such as Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte have sought this treasured trophy. Hydroplane racing legend Chip Hanauer and Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner have competed during race weekends, too.

And for whatever reason, the allure of this setting has always drawn a long list of celebrities eager to leave the Hollywood glitz for a shot at Sebring glory. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Paul Newman, Craig T. Nelson, Jason Priestley and Tim Allen exchanged the glam for a week of Sebring appeal.

The legendary newsman Walter Cronkite competed in the 1959 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Comedian Dick Smothers was part of winning GTU team in 1971.

Derek Daly and Bob Earl won the first race I covered in 1990 – something I will always remember because Daly is Irish and that race was run on St. Patrick’s Day. Looking back, the irony seems another fitting chapter at Sebring.

There was no internet and certainly no Twitter then, not even the fantastic flag-to-flag TV and streaming coverage we can now expect as a means to keep up with the competition. The local papers with the Twelve Hours of Sebring race stories in bold front-page headlines – a “hold-the-presses” Sunday edition – were the important handheld records of achievement for decades.

Even in the early 1990s, Sebring was still a one-McDonald’s town. The first “mall” had just opened. The “Circle” in downtown Sebring hosted a few locals’ favorite restaurants.

The more adventurous are prone to drive north on U.S. Highway 27 – still a main thoroughfare through Central Florida. There, the Wild Turkey Tavern, appropriately named and generously beloved for its cold beer and gator tail, still hosts Sebring race parties.

The area is bustling today, but there were only a couple of hotels – drive-up motels – in the area a couple decades ago. The drivers and big teams stayed at the Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park or the Kenilworth Lodge on Sebring’s Lake Jackson, a nice walk from the Circle downtown.

The Kenilworth advertised itself as the closest hotel to the racetrack and offered “direct dial phones” as a huge draw to the lodge even in 1992. The Civic Center was within walking distance, and on Wednesday or Thursday of race week, the entire community would host a huge event welcoming all the teams.

Longtime residents and Sebring aficionados recall that, for decades, teams drove the race cars to the Circle where officials conducted the technical inspections. Once given the race “OK,” the cars made the 10-minute drive to the track. In recent years, a transporter parade has included a lap around the Circle before heading out to take their positions in the paddock.

From driving cars to the track, to Le Mans-style starts, the Sebring scene is markedly different now – both at and away from the famed racecourse.

Sebring International Raceway boasts its own luxury hotel. The Seven Sebring Raceway Hotel overlooks the famous Sebring hairpin turn – the sounds and lights of the famous race only a few hundred yards away.

The venerable track facility has gotten a massive, unmistakable upgrade. There are freshly paved roads leading to brand new suites for corporate hospitality. There is a revitalized and expanded media center to accommodate the scores of reporters that come from around the world – yet another confirmation this race is considered as essential and significant as it has ever been.

The track layout has had eight variations and is now a 3.74-mile, 17-turn challenge. The track surface, however, on the former World War II military runway, has varied little. Its bumps and sharp turns give it “character” – a postrace conversation topic shared by both the race winners and those forced to exit early.

Outside of the current COVID-19 existence, Sebring International Raceway has consistently been able to boast huge race day crowds and a week-long crowd that easily exponentially increases the city’s entire non-race-week population.

Many who make the trek to Sebring – the closest airports are more than an hour away – don’t necessarily show up as racing fans. They come to Sebring for the vibe and dig the fast cars. They are prone, however, to leaving as race fans.

And those who come to this unique race setting already sports car fans know they are at one of the most iconic facilities in the world, watching fantastic, close-quarter racing among the absolute best drivers.

It’s a win all the way around.

And in nearly seven decades of this historic race, that one-of-a-kind Sebring allure is something that has never changed.