In March of 1971 I was attending the University of Florida on the GI Bill and in our free time my wife and I worked as race officials for Central Florida Region of Sports Car Club of America (CFR/SCCA). The region was blessed with providing race officials for both the Daytona 24 Hours as well as the 12 Hours of Sebring.
In 1970 we had officiated at what many today agree was one of the best if not the best Sebring 12 Hour Grand Prix races ever run. We were looking forward to the ’71 race although with a little apprehension and foreboding.
It was common knowledge among veteran race officials that the Sebring facility, with its storied 5.2-mile circuit, was on borrowed time. The international sanctioning body for motorsports (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or FIA) had repeatedly warned Sebring race founder and promoter, Alec Ulmann, that unless improvements were made to the track, pits, paddock and spectator accommodations that they would decline to sanction any future events at the facility. This loss of sanctioning would effectively kill the race as an international event and seriously undermine the ability of the track to survive.
Even the most die-hard supporter of the Sebring race would readily admit that the “Old Gal” was showing her age and the facility and environs were long overdue for a major overhaul and it was looking more and more like that was not going to happen.
For those who were there early in race week you just might have seen Alec Ulmann, in his blue blazer, riding around on his BMW motorcycle or talking to folks in the pit area. He was conversant in four languages and greeted a variety of people in those languages and fielded questions from them. The question of the day, from reporters, drivers and team managers alike, was if this was going to be the last Sebring. His response was always the same, “If local backing doesn’t materialize, I’ll have to make the inevitable decision I hate to make and say that this is the last race in Sebring.”
When Ulmann referred to “local backing” he was talking about the Sebring Airport Authority which held title to the airport and property containing the track. Each year Ulmann leased the property from them to put on the race. He was not about to put up his own money for track improvements or willing to hustle for the funds. He felt that the track owners had the responsibility to maintain the facility and make the necessary improvements.
As if the demands for improvements by the FIA weren’t enough the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had notified Mr. Ulmann and the track owners that they could no longer shut down the active runways of the Sebring Airport to use as part of the 5.2-mile circuit. The race surface would have to be shortened or an entirely new circuit would have to be built. In 1971 we were afraid that America’s premier sports car race was coming to an end.
As usual we arrived at Sebring early during race week to get a good camping spot but also to get up close and personal with the drivers and cars without the hassle of what was expected to be a record crowd of race fans. As we wandered through the pits and paddock we noticed a hand-made placard on the wall of one of the pits that said in Italian, “In memoria di Ignacio Giunti”, along with a picture of a driver. It was pretty obvious that this was a memorial to Italian factory driver Ignacio Giunti who won Sebring in 1970 and died in an accident at the 1000 km of Buenos Aires two months earlier. He was driving a factory Ferrari 312PB prototype when he plowed into the rear end of Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s Matra 660 who was ilegally pushing his stalled car in the center of the track. Beltoise was not hurt but the impact with the Matra and subsequent fire were fatal to Giunti.
The death of one of Enzo Ferrari’s favorite drivers put a strain on the relationship between the factory Ferrari team and the Matra team. Ostensibly to honor Giunti’s memory there was no factory Ferrari entry at Daytona in ’71. There was also no Matra factory team there either with word coming through sources that Matra decided to skip Daytona and Sebring in order to concentrate on Le Mans. Not having Matra at Sebring in ’71 probably saved all of us from a nasty encounter between the Italians and French. Time was needed for the Italians to cool off.
The line-up for Sebring in 1971 promised to be great with a good selection of first-class cars, drivers and teams. If this indeed was the last Sebring it was going to go out with style. Representing factory Porsche and returning to Sebring were two J.W. Automotive Gulf Porsche 917s, plus a spare 917 “T” car. The Gulf/John Wyer Team had won 10 of 12 World Manufacturers races and were favorites to win Sebring.