In 1970 my fiancé and I were college students and also race officials for Sports Car Club of America.
We volunteered to work the Sebring 12-Hour race and arrived at the track two days before the race so we could get a good camping spot in the paddock as well as see some of the fabulous cars and drivers before the hoards of fans descended on the track on race day.
Once we were settled in at the paddock and got our work assignment for the race we decided to take a tour of the paddock and pits.
We marveled at the variety of cars from the large super fast 5.0-liter factory Ferrari 512’s and Porsche 917’s to the very small Austin Healy Sebring Sprite that was driven by an all-woman team of drivers.
On one of our walking tours we came across actor and racer Steve McQueen. He was in the pit area talking to a gentleman I assume was a journalist. McQueen had entered a 3.0 liter Porsche 908/02 in the race along with co-driver Peter Revson.
Being a huge fan of the actor I didn’t want to be intrusive so I waited until he was done talking to the other gentleman.
Then, when I was able to make eye contact with McQueen I pointed to my camera and asked, “Can I take your picture?”
However, what came out of my mouth was not English but gobbledygook. I had become so tongue tied at seeing this movie legend that I couldn’t speak intelligibly.
McQueen must have thought I was a foreign photographer who couldn’t speak English because all he said to me was, “OK, but don’t ask me to pose.” This was also spoken rather gruffly.
Now this is not the first time I have met a celebrity like Steve McQueen. In 1969 I met James Garner at the 24 Hours of Daytona. He was there with a team of Lola T70’s that he had entered in the race as part of his American International Racers (AIR).
James Garner was very friendly and accommodating and went out of his way to accede to fan requests.
In all fairness to Mr. McQueen he may have had a good reason to avoid fans and photographers; he was in constant pain from a broken left foot suffered in a motorcycle accident two weeks earlier in California.
During the practice sessions prior to the race I noticed that McQueen would frequently get his crew to make adjustments to the leather and metal boot that he crew created to help make driving with a broken foot more comfortable.
At one point the crew spray painted this boot with black paint to make it look like a driving shoe and less obvious as a cast.
Fortunately for McQueen he had a very capable co-driver in Peter Revson and Revson would assume the lion’s share of driving time as the 12-hour race wore on and the pain in McQueen’s foot became more intense.
Once the race started the big 5.0 liter Ferrari 512s and Porsche 917’s dominated the race with the Mario Andretti – Arturo Merzario Ferrari holding first place for almost ten hours.
As the race progressed the rough 5.2 mile airport course took its toll of cars and drivers and one by one both big and small cars retired with a variety of mechanical problems.
As a result, by the 10th hour, the McQueen/Revson Porsche was running 1st in the 3.0 liter class and a surprising third overall behind the second place Porsche 917K of Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert and the first place Andretti/Merzario Ferrari 512s.
What was to happen next has become the stuff of legends. With two hours left in the race the leading Andretti/Merzario Ferrari pulls into the pits with the same bearing problems that sidelined another factory Ferrari. The Rodriguez/Siffert Porsche 917K takes the lead with McQueen and Revson second and the Ferrari 512s of Nino Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti third.
With 27 minutes left the Rodriguez/Siffert 917 retires with suspension problems and the McQueen Porsche is amazingly now in first place.
Ferrari team manager Mauro Forghieri gambles that the now second place Vaccarella/Giunti Ferrari 512s can use its big 5.0-liter engine to overtake and pass the slower 3.0-liter Porsche 908/02 of McQueen/Revson.
To accomplish this he decides that Mario Andretti is the driver to do this and when the Ferrari pits, Andretti takes over as driver.
Andretti drove flat out and eventually passed Peter Revson’s Porsche and won the race for Ferrari with 23 seconds to spare in what at that time was the closest race in the history of Sebring and what many, even today, say was the most exciting Sebring of all.