A visit to the annual 12 Hours of Sebring is not unlike a week with a maiden aunt. An ancient and slightly dotty aunt, who lives in a drafty pink stucco mansion, who breeds bull mastiffs and recites Robert Browning and tools around town in a vintage Ferrari, never paying her traffic tickets. One suffers her bad cooking and the faulty plumbing, her endlessly querulous monologues, the odd dog bite: it is worth it, well worth it, for that one mad dash through town in the Ferrari. Worth it if only to see the years fall away as her eyes rev higher than the engine, to watch that frail, translucent hand slam through the gear changes as she grosses out the motorcycle cops who follow in vain, dumbfounded pursuit. Secretly, of course, we hope to inherit the Ferrari when she passes away, but all we end up with are the dogs.
Last weekend the old gentlewoman died. When the checkered flag fell at the end of Saturday's race, it flashed a finish to 21 years of world-class racing at America's dowager road course. Even if the race is renewed next year—a big if—it will be on a new track and probably under new management. Alec Ulmann, Sebring's organizer and thus the man who turned on the nation to European-style sports car competition, hopes to salvage the race by going public. He must build a new road course before the sanctioning bodies will approve the race, and in his part of Florida—indeed, in much of the land—construction money is not easy to come by. Even should Ulmann succeed, it would not be the same old irritating, litigious, grandly exciting race.
During the days before this last race Ulmann could be seen as usual, stalking through the pits in his usual blue blazer and ice-cream pants, flashing the usual warm grins and firing off bursts of greetings in four languages, clamping his powerful embrace on drivers young and old. "I cannot promise anything," Ulmann replied to all questions about the fate of the race. "If local backing doesn't materialize, I'll have to make the inevitable decision I hate to make and say that this is the last race in Sebring."
Whatever the future, last week was a fine time for Sebring buffs to indulge themselves in that most recent of American psychic trips: nostalgia. It took many forms. "Hey, dig," said one dude waving a notebook, "I just added it all up. If you were to lay every Sebring endurance race end to end, it would run for 246 hours and cover about 22,000 miles. That's like from here to Dnepropetrovsk if you go by way of Samoa." Average speed? "Wait a minute...." Scratch, scratch. "Uh, 89.4308 miles per hour—that's not so fast, is it?" Well, considering the equipment that ran in the early years of the race, it is fast enough. The very first Sebring, a six-hour event held on Dec. 31, 1950, was won by those immortals, Fred Wacker and Frank Burrell, in a Cadillac-Allard at the dizzying pace of 66.65 mph.
But statistics are to nostalgia as too much vermouth is to a martini. Raw speed was never what Sebring, or what sports car racing in general, is all about. What Sebring gave to American motor sports was a cavalier quality, in the best sense of that word. The European drivers who came to race in the hot, flat, redneck country of south central Florida were men of panache and élan, dead cool and irritatingly aristocratic in many cases, bluebloods with, well, insouciance. The image rapidly waned to cliché, but in retrospect it is obvious that men like Wolfgang von Trips and the Marquis de Portago and even Porfirio Rubirosa were the inheritors of the romantic European tradition that allegedly died with World War I. These were cavalry officers, not tank drivers—Royal Flashes with slim waists and kinky love lives, well-bred wastrels compounded of champagne and courage with a dash of snobbery in lieu of bitters. It was all so exotic, and, if one is to believe the poppsych prattle, erotic as well.
Much of that original glamour has worn off sports car racing in the 21 years since the first Sebring. The early cars, with their open cockpits, allowed the racing fan to watch his hero do all of his heroic number. It was possible to compare driving styles—Juan Manuel Fangio with his massive forearms wrestling his 4.5-liter Maser through the Hairpin and into the Warehouse Straight, Baron Huschke von Hanstein negotiating the tricky Esses with Bismarckian aplomb in his no-nonsense Porsche.
Today, of course, the really hot cars are usually closed-cockpit, and even when they are open, as was the case with the Alfa Romeos and Mario Andretti's Ferrari 312 BP in this year's race, the drivers recline so far back and are so hidden by their wraparound "bone-dome" helmets that it might as well be Cousin Freddie out there driving.
Technological evolution may be corrosive to glamour, but there is one thing about Sebring that has remained basically the same: the 5.2-mile course itself. Laid out partially on a World War II air base and winding through a burgeoning "industrial park" on the southern outskirts of town, it is one of the most punishing—and poorly maintained—road courses in racing. "My God," said Jackie Oliver, the hard-boiled English Porsche driver, "did you ever see a circuit with grass growing up through the cracks? You're airborne half the time on the approach to the Esses and there's just not sufficient protection for the spectators in a few places. Still, I'll be sad to see Sebring go. The really old, dangerous courses—Spa, the Nürburgring, this place—accrue a mystique over the years. They mean something."
Because of its rough surface and its wrenching corners coupled with long, fast straightaways on the airport runways, Sebring is one of the world's toughest mechanical tests. "It's a shock-popping brake-burner," says Dave Houser, a promising gentleman-amateur who was driving a small MGB last week. "I'm going like this out there"—his hands gyrate wildly—"so you can imagine what it's like for the big cars."
Wicked as the course may be, it can be justified as a meaningful challenge to engineering and ingenuity. The same argument cannot be applied to the town of Sebring and environs. Even though motor racing fans, particularly those who follow the enduros, are suspiciously masochistic, no one in his right mind could enjoy the lack of amenities for which Sebring is justly infamous. Merely getting there is an endurance race all its own over secondary roads from the nearest air terminals at Tampa, Palm Beach or Jacksonville. The ride can be spiced up by keeping a tally on how many dead armadillos and/or live state troopers are sighted along the road. (Betting tip: state troopers predominate.)