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Endurance Racing: There's Only One Sebring

18 March 2000

By David Treffer
Contributing Editor, The Auto Channel
SEBRING, FL: In racing, there are venues that host races and then there are venues that are considered to be the "Mecca" of racing. In my ever-so humble opinion there are four venues in the United States that every racefan should visit once in their lives. Sebring, Daytona, Indianapolis and a coin-flip choice between Watkins Glen, NY and Laguna Seca, California. My apologies in advance to anyone offended that my choices do not parallel their personal choices.

Who would have ever thought that a former WWII airfield would turn into a place of pilgrimage for thousands of racefans every third week-end in March. That place is Sebring, Florida. While the physical appearance of the Sebring track has undergone dramatic and wonderful changes under the watchful eye of owner Dr.Don Panoz the one thing that will never change is the diverse race-crowd for the 12 Hours of Sebring. A cornucopia of humankind is the best way to describe the attendees.

To understand Sebring, one must walk, not ride around, the facility. Driving around the public areas in a car is allowable. But to truly receive the entire sensory package you must walk it. Standing outside of Turn 1 as the race starts is a great place to begin your journey. The fury and noise of the field of racecars thundering into a narrow and short chute heading for Turn 2 is almost impossible to describe in words. If your heart is not racing a few beats faster after watching the start you might want to be checked for evidence of a pulse.

Your next stop on this first of two journeys should then be to the famous "hairpin area." This is where you get to observe the drivers decelerating from 170 mph to a crawling 40-70 mph. Knowing when and where to brake is a time-honored learning curve. The track surface changes during the race with the amount of "marbles" thrown onto the racing surface as well as the changeable weather conditions. Watching the cars negotiate the hairpin and then accelerate to the chicane area is a wonderful area to watch.

After a few laps of the "hairpin and chicane" area a trip through the "green park" area is required. While walking through this infamous area try to keep a visual memory of what you observe. Later, when it turns dark another trip will be needed. Some of the motorhomes and rental trucks that you walk-by started lining up at the front gate days ago. Can you say dedicated racefans? Or maybe they just love to party. Whatever the reason they keep coming back year after year.

The remainder of your journey inside the racetrack should take you along the areas where you can observe other turns of the track. Watch how one driver will clip the FIA curbing to find that extra half-second while another competitor may choose to drive the car at a reserved pace. This is after all an "endurance race." The old clich about "to finish first, first you must finish" is paramount at Sebring.

The last stop of your first journey around the track is inside the paddock area. The paddock is where the visual achievement trophies of exotic racecars, expensive trucking rigs and team hospitality areas are reminders that racing is, and always has been, a rich mans sport. It seems that everyone is on display. The paddock is also where you can watch the pitstops that involve driver changes, refueling and repairs to damaged cars.

After that first journey, no doubt you are a little fatigued and need some quenching of thirst and hunger pains. Sebring offers a bountiful selection of foods both inside the paddock as well as on the famous "Midway." Name the food that you want and chances are you will find it. The best thing to do now is settle into an area that allows you to watch the racing and stay out of the "hopefully" sunny skies of Central Florida.

As dusk moves in around 6:30-7:00pm you should return to the area outside of Turn 1. Hopefully the skies are clear enough so that you can watch the racecars and at the same time watch a famous Sebring "sunset" settle into the western sky. Stay in this area until complete darkness falls. Watch as the lights of the racecars, paddock area and midway come alive. It is a carnival of lights.

Now begins the second journey. You may or may not want to make this return journey solo. At night the trip from the paddock into the "green park" area could be likened to entering the "Twilight Zone." To say that a transformation has occurred since the trip earlier in the day is an understatement. A few years ago, a friend of mine once asked if they were filming a sequel to the movie "Mad Max." While no one was being hostile to strangers it was to say the least an interesting place to observe. During one race, not so long ago, the green park area began to resemble a pagan ritual. A bonfire that started as a small campfire turned into an inferno. The smoke from the fire was enveloping the track. Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan described it as "racing into and out of hell." By the time the whole thing was put out some people expected to learn that a virgin had been sacrificed. The lesson from that race was that firewood would be collected at the gate. No exceptions.

The green park area has calmed down since then but none the less it is a stark contrast from the mostly sterile environs of the paddock area. Continuing your second journey the two-hour walk will end again in the paddock just in time to watch the checkered flag fall on another 12 Hours of Sebring. So you have made two trips around the most famous endurance track in America. Just think its only 365 days till you will get to do it all again. Is this a great country or what?

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.