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12 Hours of Sebring Racing Florida

The 12 Hours of Sebring is run on an old airport circuit smack dab in the middle of nowhere and has been going on for well over half a century in the small, south central town of Sebring, Florida.

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Sixty five years old and still going strong! Me? No, I'm older than that. I'm going to tell you about one of the least known car races in the U.S. The 12 Hours of Sebring Did you read about it in your local paper? Did you see it advertised on TV? I bet not, unless you are a really devoted auto racing fan. Yet it is the grandfather of endurance racing in this country.

Sebring is a lovely town about an hour or two from the once world famous Cypress Gardens (you may know of it now as Legoland), the Disney parks, Universal and a whole slew of other modern day attractions. It's located toward the southern end of one of my favorite roads in Florida -- U.S. highway 27. This highway wends its way from North to South through the very heart of "Old" Florida. Most of Hwy 27 has been relatively unscathed by the overdevelopment that one finds in much of the rest of Florida. Along Hwy 27 you can still find some of the old attractions and roadside fruit stands -- even a citrus candy factory and store where you can watch the candy being made and enjoy free samples of a dozen different flavors.

But, what has become of the 12 Hours of Sebring? It is still a 12 hour race, starting around 10:30 in the morning and running into the night till about 10:30 p.m. Certainly it has changed over the years and some of the changes are for the better. One of the changes that I was sorry to see was obviously a change for more safety. The old LeMans start was a thrilling, but very dangerous aspect of the race. The drivers had to run, on foot, to their cars, hop in, buckle themselves in, start their engines and go from that standing start. Dangerous for a number of reasons. Think about it . . . slipping or even falling on the run to the car, getting banged up jumping into the car, getting seat harnesses properly fastened, etc.

Now the drivers are properly seated in the car, everything adjusted perfectly to fit the driver, safety gear fastened correctly and no danger of a slower runner.

Probably what I miss most is the loss of the vintage cars. I remember that when I first saw a Bugatti, a Ferrari and a Jaguar (and a lot of other exotics that I didn't even recognize) I was pretty much overwhelmed by it all. As a small town boy from the nearby community of Ft. Meade, Florida, I had no idea these cars even existed until I began to see them drive by my front door as a teenager. When I finally got to my first 12 Hours of Sebring the vintage cars were everywhere and you could just walk around and be amazed by the splendor of it all. This year they had large spaces reserved for Corvettes and Porsches . . . ho hum. O.K., I'll admit I did enjoy seeing those cars as well, but Porsches pretty much look alike and only the newest Corvettes with their Ferrari inspired design really grabbed my attention. The vintage cars apparently are no longer invited to Sebring . . . too bad.

Sebring is a four-day event with the twelve hour race on Saturday. The three days leading up to it are for practice, qualifying and a couple of other races. I didn't have time in my schedule to attend the first two days and I got one report that the first day was kind of quiet. That can be a good thing because it offers great access to the drivers and the cars in the pits.

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This is not just an event for the automobiles. This is an event for people. I talked with folks who have been attending the event for years . . . many years. There were even memorials set up for people who have passed on but their memory is carried on by family and friends who commemorate their Sebring experiences on an annual basis. Many rent the same spaces for their RVs, trucks, campers, tents, make-shift viewing towers, compounds, etc. year after year. This is an event to celebrate and enjoy. I spoke with one fellow who was barbequing a whole 35 pound pig on a spit. He told me he could order any size pig he wanted -- this one would take him about 4 or 5 hours to cook over his charcoal fire.

As you might suspect, beer is a very important part of this event for some. I didn't see anyone behaving badly, but was amused by the various displays of the empties. Some tossed them into a pile in their campground, others tossed all the empties along a fence line, one particularly neat (and apparently still sober) group stacked all the bottles into a very precise pyramid, and others actually placed all their empties into overflowing trash barrels.

But, back to the races. The 12 Hours of Sebring main event is an exciting and interesting race for many reasons. The length of the race itself is significant in that the winners and other finishers will have driven over a thousand miles by the end of the twelve hours. Endurance racing is important because a lot is learned by this type of racing and we can anticipate that some of this will be transferred to the development of normal street cars. You may not know that some of the top endurance racers are Cadillacs and Fords. Would you believe Cadillacs beating Ferraris to the finish line? It happens.

This type of endurance racing is done on a closed circuit track. Not an oval, but a track with long straightaways, chicanes, long sweeping curves and even hairpin turns. To add to the interest is the fact that all the classes run on the same track at the same time. What you see is true road racing with Ferraris, Porsches, Mini Coopers, Mazdas, MBWs, Audis, Fords, Cadillacs and others. What this adds to the race is driving skill that requires a faster car to maneuver through traffic around slower cars while maintaining a lead over other cars in the same class. Slower cars have to watch out and try not to block the faster cars and yet maintain their own competitive advantage over cars in their own class.

And then the sun goes down, the lights go on and the cars race into the night. It becomes harder to tell which cars are which, at least for the drivers. A wonderful innovation for the spectators has been added to the cars. On the sides the car's number is lighted so you can tell which car is zipping past you so fast you hardly have time to read the number. After a while you begin to almost instinctively know when the car you're looking for is coming.

Another terrific feature of the cars is another lighted number on the side of each car which shows where each car is relative to the others in its class. You may see several cars with the number 1, but that means only that they are leading in their class. It may sound a bit confusing, but remember, you have 12 hours to learn the system and it is really not so complex. I think it's a great way to learn more about the different classes. When you see the car's number you just look at the free, color guide to see which class the car is in. Soon you'll be rooting for the car and driver you've decided you'd like to see win.

The 12 Hours of Sebring is an event you don't want to miss. When you go you will be in the midst of about 150,000 others, but the only time you might feel a bit crowded is if you decide to do the Pit Walk shortly before the race on Saturday. This is a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the actual race vehicles. You might meet the drivers, get autographs, have your photo taken with the drivers & cars and actually touch the cars if you wish. Don't forget to look into the cockpit to see what the driver sees for the entire race.

Whether you decide to come by auto and stay in a hotel or by RV, camper or tent and stay on the track grounds you will have an experience like no other. Come for only the 12 hour race on Saturday if that's all the time you -- have, but try your best to be here for at least two days. That will give you time to see the many automotive exhibits, maybe drive a new Corvette, and collect a lot of freebies from exhibitors. And, don't worry about eating -- there are plenty of food vendors and the citrus growers will probably have some free oranges and tangerines as well.

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Bob Painter Robert Painter is an adventure travel writer currently residing in Southern Utah. When not traveling around the globe his time is spent hiking and exploring the wonderful and beautiful red rock surroundings of his new home.

April 1, 2017

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