Classic Car Capital

1970 Sebring 12 Hours – A Race to Remember

A Race To Remember – Recollections of 1970 12 Hours of Sebring

By Louis Galanos

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.

Steve McQueen at the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours
Steve McQueen at the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours

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.

Steve McQueen in pits at 1970 Sebring 12 Hours
McQueen in front of his pit with his foot propped up on the pit wall while a mechanic works on the leather and metal boot they fashioned for him.

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.

Ferrari 512s of Mario Andretti and Arturo Merzario, Porsche 908/02 of Steve McQueen and Peter Revson
The #19 Ferrari 512s of Mario Andretti and Arturo Merzario side by side with the Porsche 908/02 of Steve McQueen and Peter Revson. Both Andretti and McQueen can be seen in their cars. This photo was taken near turn 11 on the old 5.2 mile airport course.

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.

Peter Schetty and Mario Andretti at 1970 Sebring 12 Hours Grand Prix of Endurance
Peter Schetty on the left and Mario Andretti on the right. Don’t know who the fellow is in the middle. Mario is looking at a paper with lap times for the cars in the lead. Both Schetty’s car and Mario’s car were sidelined with bearing problems. Mario wanted to leave and fly back to Pennsylvania for a race he was supposed to drive in on Sunday. Ferrari team manager Mauro Forghieri asks Andretti to hang around for a bit.

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.

To see more Louis Galanos pictures, visit his Flickr photo page at www.flickr.com/photos/smuckatelli.

4/18/09 Update: There is an addendum to this story. Hint: Steve McQueen may have won the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring. Click here for the update.

[Source: Louis Galanos]

Show Comments (21)

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  1. Living in Daytona Beach I love the Rolex 24 hour. Your writting put me at the track at Sebring. Keep the stories coming.

  2. Louis,

    It must have been wonderful to have been there at that time.
    The people that you mention are legends and we may not see their like again. Your photos and words bring it all to life. Thank you.

  3. Lou,
    Bill Coffey forwarded your article link to me, and I am very glad he did. Excellent article, well written, and for me, hugely nostalgic. I was a Junior engineering student at UF in 1970 and along with a Freshman cousin I was living with at the time, attended the 1970 Sebring race. It was a tremendous race, and without question my most memorable race experience. I have many slides I took that day, but never have transferred them to digital. If I were to do that, would you be interested in seeing a hand picked selection of them? They would be yours to do with as you wish. Again, I say kudos for an excellent article.
    Rich Lewis

  4. Great pictures. If any of you have any pix of a guy in a Gulf jacket and matching pants up above the pit, that guy (with hair then) would be me.
    To this day I believe that the 48 car won by almost a full lap and Mr Andretti passed the 48 to get on the same lap between timing & scoring and the finish line. I believe T&S (not being critical) was caught out early in the day when Mr Revson spun and stalled, missing a half-lab on the watch but a full lap according to the T&S flip-clock.
    After the Victory Lane celebration and ride to the hanger on the car, we returned to Mr McQueen’s motor home (luxury in those days). We asked if he wanted to protest the results. He said (roughly) I had a blast. We finished second overall and won our class. No. What a gentleman.
    Thanks again for the pictures.
    John Bradley

  5. Does anyone remember the parallels in this 1970 race to the movie Le Mans that McQueen started filming that same summer? Parallels such as a leading driver whose car conks out during the race and wants to leave the track but is asked by the team manager to stay on for a bit. He then takes over one of the top three cars and helps his factory team to win the event. Did McQueen have this written into the script before the start of the movie or was art imitating life?

  6. Dear All,
    Great to see all these comments, and all these Experiences lived on the Track. Even if I did not see that with my own eyes, I still can imagine how it was. Please do not stop to tell us (jounger generation of vintage racing enthousiasts )these kind of stories…
    Thanks,Special Regards from Europe to Lou.

  7. Lou,
    Kudos all around … on the pix and on the writing. Someone before me was correct: you should keep it up, and this spot might be a good venue.
    Gulf

  8. Great article. I was a teenager at that time and was fortuate enought to land a position on McQueen’s crew doing T/S. I also remember riding through the paddock on the back of his motorcycle. Great fun for a kid! I ended up actually racing in that event three times, but I’ll never forget that race!

    1. Message for Bob Buchler or anyone who knows him. Bob, you didn’t leave your email address. I need to contact you about your experience doing lap charts for the McQueen team. John Bradley, who was also doing lap charts, feels that the McQueen/Revson car was the real winner and not the Andretti Ferrari. Need your take on this. Contact me at:
      [email protected]

  9. Steve was à great star and racer , because he was a very great man , with nobility , kindness and hard working !
    My friend Bernard CAHIER ( racer’s professional’photograph ) was at Sebring with steve and gave me any beautiful photos of steve with peter revson and the famous and excellente Porsche’908-2 No 48 !
    STEVE was able to win Sebring , and was very great at “le mans ” with the Porsche ” 917- K” for the excellent movie.
    I have been often writing with steve at ” solar – productions ” .
    Daniel ROBIN (France ) .

  10. Someone jog my memory…. As college students we had driven from Oklahoma for the 1970 Sebring and during the race a corner worker was struck and seriously injured right in front of us…Who was he and who was the driver that hit him ?

    1. I was a college student at UF at that time and spent that weekend enjoying a phenomenal race. I also saw the corner worker hit. He was wearing all white and had run onto the course to retrieve a piece of body panel in the turn just after the bridge, and leading into the hairpin turn. One of the red Ferrari 512’s clipped his leg and as I watched him fly through the air, the leg of his pants turned red. I was on the other side of the track, and never did see what happened to him afterwards. Very painful to witness.

  11. I was there for that race and was heartbroken that the Porsche’s lost. I met Mario 29 years later and asked him about the race. He said that he was too short for the seat fitting and it was hard to drive as he was moving around in the seat.

    He also told me that the 917 had an aerodynamic advantage over the 512S (not the M) and this was the only track they had a chance to win at.

  12. Great accounting and pictures of that race. I was there. In fact, I lived in Florida from late ’68 through mid-’71. So I attended the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring in 69, 70, and 71. What great racing that was back then!

    What I did at Sebring at each 12 hour race was roam all over the track during day to watch the race from different viewpoints; and then for the last couple of hours, go to the grandstands across from the pits right at start/finish and watch the end of the race from there in the cool of the night. The PA system worked great there so you could hear what was happening. And you had a front row seat to watch the drama in the pits that occurred at the end. It is my favorite race of all time. Thanks for bringing back those wonderful memories.

  13. Wow! What a neat story. It would really be great if someone could prove that Steve and Peter actually won the race. That would be a great tribute to the “man’s man” I was there on my 12th of my 57 years in a row of attending Sebring.