As the sun began to set around 6:30 p.m. the starter put out the signal for all cars to turn on their lights. Some had already come in to have headlight and driving light covers removed. To do that too early risked having your lights damaged or destroyed by debris from the crumbling track thrown up by leading cars. Some cars were equipped with the best driving lights they could afford because at night certain areas of the circuit were pitch black and the vast areas of concrete runway and taxi ways looked for all the world like a dark ocean with no landmarks or lights showing the way. Just about every year the race was run some poor soul would get lost on a remote part of the circuit. In the March/April 2016 issue of Vintage Motorsport noted German driver Jochen Mass, in his Memories of Sebring wrote, “….some drivers had lost their bearings (in the darkness) and one of them got lost for almost 30 minutes, trying to find the track again, his orientation obscured by the tall grass.”
On lap 149 Larrousse’s Martini 917 finally passed the Alfa T33/3 of Galli and Stommelen to take the lead and they would not relinquish it for the rest of the race. Having the lead, the Elford – Larrousse Porsche would travel another 110 laps and 572 miles to before taking the checkered flag at 11 p.m. This was the first victory for Porsche at Sebring since 1968. Those final six hours were without the drama of the first six and one motorsports writer referred to the last half of the race as “dull”.
That’s not to say the last half of the race for Martini was without incident. As the last hour of the race approached some in the Martini pits were keeping their fingers crossed while others began getting themselves cleaned up in anticipation of looking good for the photographers in victory circle. It was then they had one of those “Oh, no!” moments when the car pitted and was diagnosed with a broken exhaust manifold. Nothing could be done so the car returned to the circuit with Larrousse at the wheel while Vic Elford kept his vigil by the pit wall looking worried. Except for a quick refueling with minutes to spare the big flat-12 Porsche engine ran flawlessly and cruised across the finish line 3 laps ahead of the second-place Alfa T33/3 of Galli/Stommelen. The winning Porsche covered 260 laps beating Mario Andretti’s 1970 record by 11. It also racked up almost 1,347 miles which was another record and posted an average speed for the 12 hours of 112.500 miles per hour.
Nino Vaccarella and Rolf Stommelen came in third in their factory Alfa T33/3 and this 2-3 finish for Autodelta was their best showing at Sebring ever. The best the Gulf Porsches could do was 4th and 5th and some felt that if not for that incident with the Penske Ferrari 512M that Pedro Rodriguez and Jackie Oliver, in their Gulf 917, could have possibly been in the top three.
Despite some hard driving to make up for lost time Donohue and Hobbs finished a disappointing sixth overall in their Penske 512M being continually hampered by long refueling times due to the fuel cell vent damage. The Corvette of John Greenwood and TV personality Dick Smothers came in seventh and first in the over 2.5-liter grand touring class followed by George Eaton and Luigi Chinetti, Jr.’s Ferrari 312 P. The Porsche 911T of Jim Locke and Bert Everett finished ninth overall and first in the under 2.5-liter grand touring class.
One of the top finishing independent teams was Bruce Behrens Racing’s Chevrolet Camaro driven by John Tremblay and Bill McDill both of Orlando, Florida. They finished 13th overall and first in the over two-liter touring class. Bruce describes his time at Sebring in ’71 as follows:
“Our 1971 class win at the Sebring 12 Hour race was the culmination of a three-year effort. 1969 was a real heartbreak when the engine blew just 20 minutes before the finish. In 1970 it was very frustrating due to team personality conflicts and lug nut problems.
I feel that 1971 was our team’s crowning achievement especially since we overcame having to change engine parts on Friday night and into Saturday morning and then the problems with the brakes during the race. We were blessed to have raced during the ‘Golden Age of Racing.’”
In the above quote Bruce kind of glosses over the difficulties his car faced in winning its class. During practice and qualifying the heads cracked and there were no spares. A machine shop in Orlando worked all night Friday to supply new heads and they were dispatched to the Speedway at 5 a.m. on race day which was a two-hour drive under the best of circumstances. After they arrived the heads had to be installed and the engine was still being worked on when the car was pushed toward the starting grid.
For one reason or another the rear brakes on the Camaro never fully worked during the race and all the breaking effort ended up on the front brakes and tires. They went through eight front tires instead of the usual four as well as extra brake pads. The fact that they finished as well as they did and won their class spoke well of the entire team.
While the fireworks blazed overhead and the crowd celebrated, champagne was being served at the green and white patron’s tent in the paddock. More than one toast was made to the memory of Sebring and for many veterans of the race it was a sad moment sometimes interspersed with humorous stories about Fangio, Moss, Shelby, Castellotti and other legends from Sebring’s past.
After the ’71 race Alec Ulmann announced plans to build a new circuit if funding materialized. Some quietly speculated that Ulmann was trying to con the FIA into giving him an extension so he could hold another race on the same dilapidated race circuit. Well, it worked and a FIA sanctioned race was run in 1972 but the FIA, after realizing that Ulmann would never be able to build a new circuit, finally pulled the plug at the end of ’72 and that year was truly the “…last Sebring.” Maybe it was the last traditional Sebring for a few years but, like the Phoenix bird of Greek mythology, Sebring would rise from the ashes to regenerate itself and run again.