When I was studying military history as a young college student back in the 1960’s, my professor told me that if someone asked why I was doing so, I should immediately change the subject. In retrospect, it was both sage and non sage advice.
History, which is truly important (“those who don’t learn the lessons from it are doomed to repeat them over and over again”), gets no respect. Indeed, for the most part it is ignored in a world preoccupied by the present in a near total self indulgent way. And, perhaps even more sadly, when those among us decide to pay attention, they tend to do with such superficiality that they might as well not have bothered in the first place.
All this was brought home to me at Sebring this year. Aside from the fact that its duality as both the season opener for the American Le Mans and the new World Endurance Championship caused it to be possibly the most confusing, difficult to follow long distance event of all time, it marked the 60th anniversary of the first ever 12-Hour in 1952. And, while Sebring has Ken Breslauer as both its press officer and “historian in residence,” the folks at the top all too often pay only lip service to his knowledge and talents.
As an example, despite Breslauer’s efforts, Sebring has yet to put a proper museum together to celebrate its legacy, or even to explore a working relationship with the Collier Museum, one of the finest collections of significant race cars anywhere, that is located in nearby Naples, Florida.
A second example, was the non presence, at the luncheon celebrating the occasion, of my friend Luigi Chinetti, Jr., who lives barely 100 miles from the track, and who, with his father, a three-time Le Mans winner, played a significant role through their Ferrari North American Racing Team, in Sebring’s past.(Among other things, NART fielded the first Ferrari 250 GTO to race at the 1962 12-Hour, the car winning its class and finishing second overall behind a NART entered prototype.)
There are others who weren’t part of the tributes to the now more than six decade existence of Sebring’s famous affair. However, Chinetti would have brought a unique perspective to the happenings this March on the aging circuit, having grown up in and around the race and the sport. For Chinetti, like so many others, the past was a better place to be: a time when humans, rather than computers were the keys to design excellence and design individuality. Yet, just as is the case with other aspects of life, respect for and an understanding of history does not mean we should live in the past, and as I noted learn from its lessons to make the present and the future better.
Over time motorsport in general has made tremendous strides in safety and efficiency while not forgetting the inherent excitement any speed contest generates. Love them, or hate them today’s prototypes are the ultimate in ground bound racing technology, and as such are truly unforgettable. It is that factor, which was present in spades at the 12-hour among the prototype categories, as well as in the production GT entries, that will keep the interest of the fans.
What history does is to polish the tradition that this new wave of racers are carrying on, and thereby enhance their importance. I may be an old fart, but that 250 GTO which Chinetti and his dad put on the 12-hour grid 40 years ago, now is worth well over 25 million dollars: not bad for an obsolete race car that, along with its almost equally valuable contemporaries that some would so casually dismiss as part of the dustbin of racing’s past.
Hopefully as people decide to explore history, I will be relieved of the necessity of having to change the subject when I’m asked why I’m a historian. And, that, as far as I’m concerned can only be a good thing.
Bill Oursler March 2012