Highbrow comingles with down-home at Sebring
March 15, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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SEBRING, Fla. -- Fans sporting Dale Junior T-shirts and Chevrolet caps mingled among the German, British and French racing diehards dressed in Ferrari hats and Porsche polo shirts looking over souvenirs and vintage black-and-white photos while cars zipped down the Sebring International Raceway front stretch just beyond.
Winding through the track’s infield roads, Audis and Maseratis creep behind a steady stream of monster truck-size pickups with rowdy fans in the rear throwing beads and raising their beer cans.
Concession stands sell almond milk and fat free smoothies on the same menu as fried chicken sandwiches and sweet tea. The beer offerings include Bud Light and Stella Artois.
Imagine a racing hybrid of the high brow and down home.
"This is where sports car racing began in America basically. The track used to be really bumpy ... but they've updated it to be more like a new race track."
-- Boris Said
“Sebring is what it is and that’s exactly why people love this place,’’ explained Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Pruett, who is looking for his first victory at the famed track during Saturday’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring -- now a featured event on the unified TUDOR United Sportscar Championship schedule.
Pruett, like others on Saturday’s Sebring grid with NASCAR ties, compared the atmosphere and historical significance of the 12 Hour race to NASCAR’s Talladega, Ala., experience.
And the race’s presence on the inaugural TUDOR schedule not only speaks to its importance, but sustains its place in racing lore.
The 12-hour duration is long enough to qualify as an endurance race, yet short enough to produce hours of last lap-like racing.
“It’s not the Daytona of sports car racing, but it’s certainly the Talladega,’’ said Pruett’s team owner Chip Ganassi, who will fly from Sebring to Bristol, Tenn. for Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race.
Just behind Ganassi’s pits are grandstands named in honor of legendary Sebring champions Juan Manuel Fangio and Dan Gurney -- a nod to the Who’s Who list of racing greats that have competed here.
NASCAR champions Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte have raced in the 12 Hours of Sebring as have Cup drivers Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader and most recently two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip. Newly NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Fireball Roberts drove here in 1963 and 1964.
In 2008, Penske Racing became the first team ever to win the Daytona 500 (Ryan Newman) and 12 Hours of Sebring (Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, Emmanuel Collard) in the same year.
With its storied history and unique environment Sebring always delivers -- two men dressed as native Floridian skunk apes posed for photos with drivers on the starting grid -- and it all makes this a must-race destination for drivers and a must-see place for the most tried-and-true racing fan.
“The infield at Sebring is like a mini-Talladega,’’ said a smiling Boris Said, a road racing champion who has two Sprint Cup Series poles in 47 mostly road course starts.
“There are some crazies but it’s not total Talladega,’’ he added. “For road racing this is definitely the biggest crowd, the wildest crowd and the closest thing we have to Talladega. The people would come even if there wasn’t a race here.
“As far as the racing, I think Talladega is a lot tougher mentally. Here it is a lot tougher physically because you’re really busy; there’s a lot of shifting, a lot of braking. Talladega you’re in the pack of 40 cars and you have a headache after the race but they’re both really fun races.
“This is where sports car racing began in America basically. The track used to be really bumpy and they’ve kept some of the bumps but they’ve updated it to be more like a new race track. But there’s still that history of Sebring. I don’t think a racer’s career would be complete without a victory here.”
The list of Sebring winners includes two-time Cup champ Labonte, who won the GTO class in 1984, along with motorsports greats such as A.J. Foyt, Bobby Rahal, Mario Andretti and Sir Stirling Moss. Those four of them descended upon this sleepy town located deep in Florida’s citrus and cattle belt -- a good hour’s drive to the nearest cities of Tampa or Orlando and a couple hours inland from either coast.
High school sports and senior citizen golf scores dominate the sports page headlines in the twice-a-week local paper.
During “Race Week” -- capital letters around here -- the town’s population multiplies tenfold. There’s only one national hotel chain close to the track. And while the majority of race drivers stay in the relatively new 10-year old “Chateau Elan” overlooking Sebring’s famous hairpin turn, other visitors stay in motels, lodges and euphemistically described “bungalows” dotting the one main state highway that runs through the middle of the town toward the Everglades.
There are nearly as many Sebring spectators, however, who prefer staying in tents in the facility’s massive grounds. Campers were lined up for a week before the gates opened last weekend. And it’s a popular -- albeit decidedly alternative -- Spring Break destination for thousands of college students.
Race organizers -- NASCAR Holdings Inc. leases the property -- were prepared for one the largest crowds in the race’s 62-year history -- upward of 100,000 fans.
And fittingly the 62-car starting grid -- thanks to the newly united TUDOR United Sportscar Championship -- is the second largest field in nearly three decades.
And that’s indicative of the high expectations coming with the unification of America’s two sports car organizations, the GRAND-AM and the American LeMans series.
“It’s just great that the two series are one,’’ Ganassi said. “You see it at Daytona [Rolex 24] and you can see it with the big crowd here now.
“And that to me, says it all.”
In many languages and in many ways.