By: Denise Mccluggage on March 13, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part Autoweek series commemorating the history of the 12 Hours of Sebring, which on March 17 celebrates its 60th-anniversary race. Check back each day this week leading up to Saturday’s American Le Mans Series/World Endurance Challenge season opener for a new installment.
For the uninitiated, Denise McCluggage is the grand dame of American road racing—in terms of both participation and coverage. As a reporter with the New York Herald, she covered motorsports, which brought her to Competition Press, the progenitor of Autoweek. McCluggage’s report on the 24 Hours of Le Mans appeared in our first issue on July 16, 1958. We have benefited from her insights, wisdom and wit ever since.
The incongruity amused me from the start, how the Continental elegance exuded by Alec Ulmann–the man most individually responsible for planting European-style road racing in American soil–had bonded with a seedy backwater town in Florida’s characterless midsection to launch his dream of introducing world championship sports-car competition to America. Actually, the town came with the package. Its airport had been Hendricks Field, which was a B-17 training field in World War II. Airfields were increasingly the sites of sports-car races, given the risks tragically revealed using around-the-houses public thoroughfares.
At Sebring, a test-tube six-hour race was run on a 3.5-mile hay-baled course on New Year’s Eve in 1950. It was a race with built-in appeal for mathematicians, the winner being determined by a complex formula called the Index of Performance. Thus, a Crosley Hot Shot won. Won! Even though the Cad-Allards and Ferraris completed up to 20 laps more than the 724-cc Crosley.
From that trial balloon came, 14 months later, the first 12 Hours of Sebring, on an expanded 5.2-mile course that made better use of the airfield’s vast runways and paved service roads. And winning would depend on distance run (duh), although Ulmann was loath to abandon entirely that European touch of the Index. It’s still there, lasting along with the race for, wow, 60 years. How time flies when engines are revving.
Today the town of Sebring is a charming little city with hardly a seed showing. The racecourse has again shrunk, now at 3.7 miles–apparently, the length of the attention span of today’s race-goers. Predictably, I prefer the longer course that I raced on in seven 12 Hours and in several shorter races.
Some memories of Sebring. Wondering why anyone not a race fan would voluntarily come to such a scruffy burg, I asked (minus the “scruffy”) shuffleboarding tourists at the park. Straight-faced answer and a lesson in relativity: “For the altitude.” I looked it up. Sebring is 137 feet above sea level.
The place to stay in the early years of the 12 Hours of Sebring was Harder Hall, billed as one of the state’s finest hotels.
Harder Hall was then the most ambitious of the area’s hostelries, made obvious by the fact that it was where Briggs Cunningham housed his teams. But the image evoked by what Walt Hansgen told me still makes me smile. He said that he and John Fitch would walk back-to-back along the dim third-floor corridor to their rooms. From time to time, the appropriate one would yell, “Bat!” Both would then duck to avoid the impact of flying mammals that also favored Harder Hall.
The lesser hotel where I often stayed was apparently batless, featuring instead bugs you could saddle, periodic hot water that came in dribbles and, imagine, world champion Juan Manuel Fangio down the hall. I wondered what someone like him, conversant with the likes of Monaco and Spa, thought of basic Sebring and its do-it-yourself racecourse. But then, “in the day,” even Grand Prix drivers were a laid-back, largely amiable bunch. Just there, anywhere, to race. And the meager town boasted welcoming, enthusiastic folks. Perhaps some futurist among them knew that this strange bustling about with race cars would put their town on the map.
John Wyer, of Aston Martin, used the word “dismaying” to describe his first impression of the would-be course, but many willing workers (Sebring’s firemen were early race supporters) and loads of hay bales later, he–along with most everyone–was pleased with the result.
My first race car at Sebring was a Fiat Abarth Zagato double bubble (with Ruth Levy). DNF. My last (I say last, but I’m open to offers) was a pale yellow NART Spyder (with Pinkie Rollo), the only Ferrari—factory or privateer—to finish that year (17th). The best year was 1961. Sax player Allen Eager and I were 10th overall, first in class and the GT winner in my Ferrari SWB 250 GT. (But we said “short-wheelbase” in those pre-LOL days.)
Probably the most memorable year was 1959. It’s not true that Noah was building an ark in the paddock, but biblical drenching filled the week. The race started in tentative clear, but the rain started teeming down again as my turn arrived. I was sharing a 1.9-liter OSCA with Alejandro de Tomaso, Isabel Haskell and—coming in as a closer as the rain ended–Ricardo Rodríguez (his own car had conked out).
The course’s poor drainage left lakes large enough to be named. The lightness of the OSCA meant that the little car planed on every shining spot at any speed faster than an aerodynamic turtle, leaving the rear wheels to buzz uselessly and the steering to go wonky.
We were on our way to win the Index of Performance (yep, that) until the deluge. And a blue, blatting, front-wheel-drive Deutsch-Bonnet–designed for traction in just such conditions–puttered by as I floundered in the flooding.
The younger hermano Rodríguez took over as the rains trailed into a photographer’s dream of a wetly reflected sunset. Ricardo came oh-so-close to catching the D-B. But everyone who ever raced has oh-so-close stories.
Click on my vision bank of Sebring. The giant war planes stored for a while alongside the course. Suddenly, big cars dwarfed … and the orange cones banded in reflective tape replacing earlier hay bales in carving up the runway for racing. An incredible aid to concentration for night driving … and Stirling Moss waving as he lapped me in my sub-100-mph Fiat Abarth. He did that often and, oddly, almost always in the esses. I’d think, “Stirling’s due,” and find a line nothing but a Fiat could use. Wave!
Another year, another sense. Dead whales, or at least ground-up portions of them, filled a warehouse near the Webster turn. Don’t ask. Was it for fertilizer or pet food? An overwhelming, unique reek. Riverside Records should have done a “Smells of Sebring.”
The famous 12-Hour race is this weekend.