Sebring itself is a rather pretty, soporifically quiet town, a throwback to the Florida of the prewar years. By contrast, Indianapolis is Fun City. In the early days of the race many fans stayed in private homes while the big bread boys like John Perona, the late owner of El Morocco, put up at Harder Hall, a golf resort that has since fallen on evil times.
Speed buffs who get tired of sitting around the Hall's pleasant bar bad-mouthing the rest of the hotel often end up at Sebring's one good restaurant. Clayton's, on Route 27 south of town, serves up good food cheerfully, and its long horseshoe bar is the best place to pick up the latest on the race—often from the drivers themselves. The parking lot is a veritable museum of racy cars. Indeed, for the man who loves fine automobiles, from seamless old Mercedes 300SLs through ancient but elegant Ferraris to the latest glossy Jag XJ, Sebring is a car watcher's nirvana.
The best way to beat Sebring's housing and dining problems is the old way: Bernard Cahier, the worldly-wise French racing journalist, rents a house during race week. It comes replete with mounted deer heads, resident lunker black bass, and one Janie Green, a crackerjack housekeeper and topnotch cook of the ante bellum Southern school. The scene chez Cahier is so civilizedly comfortable that after lunch on the eve of race day Jackie Oliver dozed off in his chair. "It takes about 20 laps of hard driving to get used to the Sebring bumps every year," he apologized later. "After that a man needs at least 20 winks."
Oliver, who co-drove the winning Porsche 917K with Pedro Rodriguez at the Daytona 24 Hours in January, had to be rated on form as the prerace favorite. But one of the magical things about Sebring is that the results rarely follow form of any sort. This year was splendidly typical. The Gulf-Wyer Porsche team, which had won 10 out of 12 straight World Manufacturers races, was certainly the outfit to beat, and there were plenty of cars on hand to try. Foremost among them was the lone factory Ferrari, a three-liter open-cockpit car designated the 312 BP. FIA rules for 1972 restrict engine size in the production sports (i.e., "big car") category to three liters, and this machine represented the wave of that future. Driving the car: Mario Andretti and Jackie Ickx. "A simple case of driver overkill," was the reaction to that tough teaming.
Tough, too, was the spiffy Sunoco-blue Ferrari 512 of the Penske-White racing team. During pre-qualifying tests the weekend before the race Mark Donohue took the car around a damp track fully three seconds faster than Andretti's lap record of 121.954 mph set last year. Then the car was shipped back north to home base for more work. Later, while he was loading the car on a transporter prior to driving back down from Philadelphia during race week, Donohue sprained his right ankle. "It would have made good copy if we had just poured some Sunoco on it and slapped on some gray tape," said a Penske man, "but we got in a trainer from the Miami Dolphins to do the honors." As a precaution, Penske himself—who had not raced since 1964—took out a license and underwent his prerace physical. "Yeah," said the wags, "the doctor unbolted Roger's chest plate and discovered that all the transistors were in good shape."
The field of top competitors was rounded out by a trio of trim, reliable but relatively slow Alfa Romeo three-liter Spiders; four rather sloppily prepared Ferrari 512s entered by Luigi Chinetti's North American Racing Team; and a single silver Porsche 917, jointly entered by Porsche-Audi of Austria and Martini & Rossi Racing of Saarbrücken. At Daytona, Martini & Rossi had entered two cars. Now, by concentrating on just one machine, with Vic Elford of England and the young French rallyist Gerard Larrousse driving, it became an unremarked but definite contender.
A line squall fraught with tornado warnings rumbled through Sebring the night before the race, and the morning air was bright, clear, electric. The best of the Sebring races have inevitably been marked by fantastic strokes of luck—good and bad—and laden with controversy. This was no exception. Early on, Jo Siffert, in the second Gulf-Wyer Porsche, clipped off a new lap record of 124.418 mph, and then a few laps later ran out of gas on the course. Defying the rules, Siffert thumbed a ride back to his pits on a passing motorcycle, then lugged gas back out to the car. Oldtimers recalled that Stirling Moss had done the same thing back in 1959 when his race-leading Lister Jaguar ran dry. Moss was disqualified. Siffert was merely penalized four laps—double the amount of time he had saved. There were mutters of disapproval from the purists.
Next, in a flicker of fate that made one wonder if Roger Penske has not been hexed, Mark Donohue got involved in another accident like the one that had cost him a victory at Daytona. While attempting to pass Pedro Rodriguez on a back straight, Donohue refused to yield and was rapped three times on the left flank. The blue Ferrari's fuel cell was damaged, and the Penske-White team lost 53 minutes in the pits repairing it. They also lost the race right there, ultimately finishing sixth. Donohue, usually all grins and goodwill, was too furious at Pedro to speak, but the talented Mexican was quite vocal. Walking down to the Penske pits, Pedro said: "Why don't you teach your drivers how to drive?" It was nearly the Mexican War all over again.
Meanwhile, Andretti and Ickx were tearing up the course in their factory Ferrari. But before the race, Mario had described his car as "delicate," and that proved to be true. By midafternoon the gearbox went blooey and the superteam retired—another instance of Mario's bad luck with transmissions at Sebring. Other Ferraris also met with disaster: the Peter Revson-Swede Savage car went out with a fractured shift linkage; Gregg Young flipped his 512 spectacularly on the Hairpin and was dragged from the car just as it burst into flames that rivaled the sunset.
Suddenly there was Vic Elford in the lead, challenged only by the No. 33 Alfa driven by Nanni Galli and Rolf Stommelen. Nostalgia loomed again. It would be so fitting if an Italian marque could win the last Sebring. But Elford is one of the most underrated of drivers, and he could not be denied. When the flag fell, he had covered 1,352 miles at a record speed of 112.5 mph, a mark that will be retired along with the old course.