Little Eva, Camille and Louisa May Alcott's Beth have nothing on Sebring. Only in the most morbid literature has anything died more slowly than America's premier endurance race. But last week, by cracky, they put the pistol to the old nag's head. Yes, indeed, it was the last, last annual 12 Hours of Sebring, or so swore Race Director Alec Ulmann as he crossed his beblazered heart. Spot on, old buddy, and we'll see you next year.
The race was most memorable for its overwhelming aura of anticlimax. All the real tears had been shed a year before, and even when the magical mystery team called Ferrari swept home one-two last Saturday, there was little emotion left to be spent.
When the FIA restricted the engine size of the hot prototypes that dominate endurance racing to a mere three liters of displacement this year, it seemed at first glance that the sport had been grievously maimed. It was as if the NBA had ordered every basketball team to trim its various Jabbars and Chamberlains down to six feet. Gone were the overpowering Porsche 917s—the champions of 1970 and 1971—along with the burly Ferrari 512s that had given the German factory some fascinating competition. In their place were smaller cars that the skeptical described as "roller skates"—tiny Alfa Romeo Spyders and Ferrari 312Ps built around watch-charm engines suitable for Formula I sprints but, seemingly, not for the wrenching grinds characteristic of the Enduros.
The FIA itself seemed to recognize this fact by implying yet another condition: that no endurance race endure more than six hours or 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), whichever came first. Needless to say, neither the classic 24 Hours of Le Mans nor Sebring, with its once-around-the-clock heritage, went for any such diminution.
But those who felt that endurance racing had been emasculated by these new rules reckoned without the resiliency of the racing factories. The dark red Alfas, which seemed to have the edge in reliability, having been on the scene for two seasons already, suddenly found themselves outlegged by the newer, previously fragile Ferraris. Over the 1,000 kilometers of Buenos Aires and the 6 Hours (formerly 24) of Daytona, the Ferraris waggled their tail pipes at the Alfas, winning both races by wide margins. Ah, but Sebring would prove to be the Ferrari factory's Caporetto, reckoned the cognoscenti. Sebring, with its bumpy roads and washboard runways, promised 12 hours of the most brutal automotive punishment that weedy concrete and bad maintenance could provide. And if the Alfas could not turn the trick as the Ferraris flew to pieces, perhaps Jo Bonnier's Lola or John Wyer's new Gulf Mirage could.
If the Ferrari drivers were worried, they sure didn't show it. Belgian Jacky Ickx, who was teamed with Mario Andretti in the quickest of the red devils, turned up in the pits one morning wearing a fake but fearsome gorilla head over his choir-boy phiz. Pit kittens screamed with delight as they fled from the pint-sized King Kong. Clay Regazzoni and Ronnie Peterson, the rising young Formula I drivers who were assigned to the other two Ferraris, wore less imaginative but equally impressive masks: their own cool implacability.
The Alfa drivers, meanwhile, busied themselves with final adjustments for the rough 5.2-mile course and enjoyed as best they could the pleasures of Sebring. Sicily's Nino Vaccarella took his friend Antonio Sansone, the director of the Targa Florio race, to Ho-Jos for an introduction to American roadside food. "Wait till you try this thing they call the milk shake," said Nino as Signor Sansone chowed down.
"No, no," replied Sansone, "it cannot compare with our superb Sicilian gelato." Right on, Signore.
At a lesser level another rivalry was brewing between the two top Grand Touring contenders—the Corvettes and the Ferrari 365 GTB-4s. And there was fun for all in the blue Camaro entered by Bolus & Snopes of Jackson, Miss., in the sedan class. The chief wrench was Flem Snopes, of course, a familiar figure to those who study Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Ovid Bolus is a bit more obscure. According to the literary young Southerners who front for the team, Bolus was a pre-Civil War lawyer who specialized in bilking Indians "not by the individual, but by the tribe." In addition to stickers that read "Bolus & Snopes are Good & Nice," the B&S team claimed to own a blimp called the Graf Bolus and a steam packet, the Robert E. Snopes. More importantly, they possessed a well-prepared car that had finished strongly in earlier races. It qualified 28th overall at Sebring, where Andretti and Ickx captured the pole with a surprising 123.64 mph—a new qualifying record that was a touch faster than Mark Donohue had run last year in the bigger Ferrari 512.
The slower but supposedly sturdier Alfas shared the top of the grid with Ferrari, and the credentials of their drivers were beyond reproach. Vic Elford, last year's Sebring winner with a Porsche, was in one Alfa, but the quickest of the marque was under Peter Revson, who has been driving up a storm this year on the Formula I circuit. He was to do the same at Sebring, but in a different sense.