For sure we live in strange times, perhaps it is the change of the seasons, perhaps some other wild cosmic shift in the Solar System. Whatever, the Mojo wire has a steady stream of bizarre stuff tumbling out, as might be expected when the first Grand Prix of the year is on, the hype dials are set to eleven. But there is more……
Bruton Smith, is normally a very sharp businessman and CEO/Owner of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI), an organisation that has a portfolio of Speedways at Charlotte, Atlanta, Bristol, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Texas, plus Sears Point. So reports that he is going to recreate the Nordschleife in Nevada are to be treated with some respect, though the question is why? Where will he put the Pistenklause and will the beer be cold enough? What about sand in the Schwalbenschwanz?
Even more weird are tales that Pamela Anderson is heading towards sportscar racing.
Pamela Anderson, a renowned petrolhead, has launched her own motor racing team, Downforce1 by Pamela Anderson, with plans to enter this years’ European Le Mans Series (ELMS) with an Aston Martin Vantage GT2, the International GT Open Series and NASCAR for 2013. Austrian Markus Fux is the first driver to be named.
I suppose she will be a visual improvement on some of the Team Principals I have known but………………..according to one social media group that I am linked to she is something of an veteran when it comes to handling drivers…..Paul Gentilozzi • Her interest comes from her dating Eddie Irvine a few years ago. She was our guest at the Long Beach Grand Prix and was immediately drawn to the sport.
Strange Days Indeed, Mama.
How appropriate then that I have spent the best part of a week in motorsport’s version of Saturnalia, the 12 Hours of Sebring. For those who did not attend or those who did not pick up a copy of the excellent Official Programme, I am allowed to publish some of the pieces that I collected for the publication. Ken Breslauer, PR Director for the place and Track Historian had kindly given me permission and in return I am giving a plug to his latest book the “Sebring 12 Hours Record Book” a comprehensive guide to the results from all the endurance classic held at Hendricks Field.
So starting with my own experiences here are some of the memories that Sebring provokes amongst those who have visited it in the past………….more tomorrow.
The Grand Old Dame of American Sportscar races has reached Senior Citizen status. My own involvement with the annual trip round the clock-face is relatively recent, 1999 to be exact. In truth I had visited the Central Highlands a few years earlier, as part of the travelling circus that was the 1997 FIA GT Championship. I was distinctly underwhelmed by the place, remote and scruffy, yet strangely familiar, a race track based on a World War Two bomber base, hello Silverstone, hello Thruxton, hello Snetterton.
Fast forward to March 1999, like many before me, I used the opportunity of a race in Florida in March to have a holiday to try and shake off the European Winter Blues. So as I dropped my wife at Miami International for her flight to New York to visit her brother I wondered what I would encounter up Highway 27. Everyone told me what a great event the 12 Hours was, but my own experience of the place had not been positive,
Most Europeans find on their first visit to the United States of America that the most distinctive feature is the scale and sheer size of the place. So, not for the last time in my travels, what looked on the map like a short hop from Miami turned into a long, and frankly, boring drive. Through the Everglades, past sugar-cane plantations, into and out of Clewiston and Moore Haven, across the Caloosahatchee and alongside Lake Okeechobee. These were places that would become familiar in the following decade but the first encounter increased my sense of apprehension, what was I going to find even further away from the bright lights of Miami? Eventually the cattle fields gave way to citrus groves and then the gates of Sebring International Raceway were in front of me.
The place was transformed from the one I had seen in earlier times, it was bursting at the seams and everywhere there were folks having a good time with motor racing as a background. This was now familiar territory, it had the feeling of La Sarthe in June, now I understood what others had tried to tell me about the 12 Hours of Sebring, it really was a special time and place.
Over the years it has become clear to me that the track action is just a small part of the attraction that drags some 100,000 plus souls back to the Central Highlands around Saint Patrick’s Day. Where else do folks queue outside for weeks prior to a motor race? Shared experiences forge friendships that survive the passage of a whole year or years, there is a generosity of spirit amongst the Sebring fans that is rarely, if ever, encountered elsewhere in the motorsport world. As I look back over the decade or so since my first 12 Hours a few memories come to mind.
For those competing in the Big Race, the Sebring 12 Hours is a largely frenetic affair, pre-race testing in the run up to the gates being opened to the public, then all day track action on Thursday, followed by Friday Qualifying, prior to the race day itself. Friday afternoon is however a time of rest for the drivers, if not the mechanics, so most disappear to their accommodation but one or two of the more adventurous go out to see close up what they have passed at racing speeds. This was how I came to pick up a couple of blondes on the Friday afternoon in 1999.
No my luck had not changed, the blondes in question were JJ Lehto and Tom Kristensen, team mates at BMW. I caught them hanging around outside team hospitality, I knew JJ pretty well from our GT seasons together but Tom less so. We were all a bit bored and bit curious to see more of the madness that was happening just over the bridge. So off we went for a few hours that could only be described as “different”.
Cutting a long story short, I signed the drivers for the 2000 season with La Bomba Racing, helped them read Playboy and Penthouse (only the motoring sections of course) in the Stumble Inn and watched some goldfish in, rather than on, the television. Finally we ended up at that Floridian motor racing Mecca, Turn Ten. This was my first encounter with the citizens of that particular town and thankfully not the last. As you would expect the Blondes were treated as if they were royalty, everyone was pleased to have the Pole Position winner (JJ) drop in for a beer and a snack. To round off a perfect introduction to the Sebring 12 Hours the Blondes won the race the next day, my weekend was just about complete.
Two years later I was at the track on race morning before the sun rose, there is always a photo briefing to look forward to, a great assembly of grumbling, groaning snappers. I understand that the collective noun for motorsport photographers is a Moan. 2001’s raceday photo meeting was an unexpectedly solemn occasion though. First to arrive, and in those pre-digital days, first to leave, the vast majority of us snappers had not heard the news, Bob Wollek was dead. It was unbelievable, Wollek had survived during a truly dangerous period in motorsport and now, as he contemplated retirement, he was killed in a pointless traffic incident.
Just how pointless was soon evident when the circumstances emerged. Bob was a keen cyclist and would use that method of transport to get to and from the circuit. In fact he would ride to Le Mans every year from Strasbourg, and then back after the race, over 400 miles each way. So on Friday afternoon he left the Sebring paddock en route to his lodgings, west along Highway 98 towards the small town of Lorida. An 82 year old local resident driving a pickup truck collided with the Frenchman, killing him instantly.
The Florida Highway Patrol reported “Wollek had been riding close to the edge of the pavement marking and the van, travelling in the same direction behind other traffic, hit the back of the bicycle. Wollek was taken to Highlands Regional Medical Center with fatal injuries.”
The whole paddock was in a state of shock, things like this no longer happened to drivers. A minute’s silence was observed before the race as a token of respect and there were not many dry eyes amongst those who had known him. Tributes from the fans appeared on the walls, it was the other side of the soul of motor racing. The race went on and was won by an Audi as expected, it was the R8 driven by Dindo Capello, Laurent Aiëllo and Michele Alboreto. As if we needed any further evidence of how brief our time here on earth is, former Grand Prix star Michele was killed in a testing accident a few weeks after his victory at Sebring.
2002 marked the 50th Anniversary of the 12 Hours of Sebring. As might be imagined the boat was pushed out all round with celebrations and commemorations everywhere. For my part top of the list was a ride in Nine-O-Nine, a B-17. During World War Two, the current track location was known as Hendricks Field, a B-17 Flying Fortress crew training base of the United States Army Air Force. So what more appropriate way of marking 50 years of the Floridian classic than the appearance of this fabulous aeroplane, paying tribute not only to the race itself but also to the men and women who served their country and who passed through the base during its years as a military establishment.
The Flying Fortress idea was facilitated by Vintage Porsche Guru, Kevin Jeannette, who persuaded The Collings Foundation to bring their extremely rare war bird along to raise money for various deserving charities. The B-17 arrived to much fanfare on Friday with Kevin’s son, Gunnar, hitching a ride with the crew on their journey South. To support this worthy effort the team painted up their Panoz LMP01 in a USAAF camouflage dull green and raised more funds for Services’ charities.
Saturday morning and the call came from Kevin, a real dream come true.
“Get over to the airport and you can have a ride in the B-17, if you want.”
“Try and stop me.”
So an hour or so into the race I, and a few other lucky dogs, took to the skies over the temporary city of Sebring International Raceway. The abiding memory of the short flight was of how small the plane was inside and how vulnerable the crew would have been, flying for hour upon hour over enemy territory. As the plane droned along, tracing the outline of Lake Jackson and the shopping malls on Highway 27, a silence descended over the passengers. Each of each us started to gain a small appreciation of the courage of the very young crews who had endured such terrible casualties in the skies during the War. It was a sobering thought and there are not many of those to be found in Highlands County during race week. It was a rare privilege to be a passenger in such an aircraft and a memory that I shall always treasure.
I have seen many strange things during my time at the tracks but a wedding is definitely in my top ten list of oddities. But perhaps I should not be surprised at any of the antics that the real Sebring fans get up to. So in 2005 I gathered with all the other guests in the Florida sunshine to celebrate the institution of marriage. Of course this being organised by the gang at Turn Ten, this was no conventional ceremony. Unusually for weddings in Florida’s Central Highlands it was reported in the London Daily Telegraph, not I grant you in the Court and Social pages, but in the Motoring Section.
“It was a moving ceremony. The bride wore vaguely white and carried a bouquet in one hand and a large Budweiser in the other. The bridegroom wore an Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals. He had one arm in a sling and a 10-pin bowling ball chained to his ankle, convict style. But he looked very relaxed.
The flower-girls looked particularly fetching – male, admittedly, and more heavily stubbled than is usual, but nicely turned out, especially the taller one in the American football shirt, faded jeans, unlaced Caterpillar boots, flowery headband and lime-green tutu. The maid of honour was colourful, too, in a floaty off-white dress with fluorescent green feather boa and shocking-pink wig – like a psychedelic and visibly better- developed Shirley Temple.
The bride arrived a little late and walked the length of stair-carpeted aisle to warm applause from the large congregation, accompanied by the best man, looking frighteningly like the Elwood half of the Blues Brothers. And in a touching if oddly ethereal moment, the strains of Here Comes the Bride crackled out on loud hailers, led by a choir of Friesian cows with prominent udders, truck-drivers’ caps and very large cocktails.
The candles, in Jack Daniel’s bottles on a flag-draped altar that doubled as a substantial coolbox for emergency beers, were ceremonially lit, as the preacher, in full gorilla suit, pronounced the blessing through another megaphone. The gorilla invited the groom to kiss the bride (which he managed with some enthusiasm) and the Friesians proposed another toast, warmly taken up. Twenty feet away on the other side of the barriers, the racing cars thundered past, apparently oblivious to the solemnity of the moment.”
What more can I add to the late Brian Laban’s purple prose?
I witnessed the other side of the human experience on my last visit to the 12 Hours, back in 2010. The news had come at the end of February that one of great characters of Sebring’s annual race was not at all well. A few days later there was an announcement that Norm “It’s a dry rain” Koury had passed away. He was a true eccentric, even by Sebring Fan standards, but much loved by the nomadic community. So to celebrate his life and to assuage some of the grief and sorrow of those left behind, it was decided that there would a Wake For Norm on the Thursday evening. As a guest but not a member of the Turn Ten clan, I felt that I would show up, pay my respects and proudly display my “2002 Year of the Norm” beer cover. So I did, as did many, many others. The ceremony was given a dignified start by Richard Anderson (also now sadly departed), from Motorsport Ministries, who said a few words and prayers for Norm. It seemed a very appropriate way to mark the passing of such a Sebring Citizen.
When someone mentions Sebring to me these days I think not of the cars and track action but of the fans who make the atmosphere of March in the Central Highlands of Florida unique.
Remember Steve McQueen may have acted at Le Mans but he raced at Sebring, that tells you all you need to know.
John Brooks, March 2012