By Bob Harmeyer
Sebring International Raceway, located on a former Army Air Force base situated among the orange groves of south-central Florida, is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the legendary 12 hour endurance classic in 2012.
Sebring has always been one of my three favorite races to photograph, along with the 24 hour races at Daytona and Le Mans. At all three, the lengths of the races provide a wide range of lighting conditions that change and evolve throughout the races.
But Sebring has a distinctive character trait that’s lacking at the other two. More than Daytona or Le Mans, the relentless pounding of Sebring’s singularly brutal track surface has yielded images of wounded cars staggering toward the finish. Sebring’s finishing order is more often the result of true endurance, with outright speed frequently relegated to long stops for repairs, or outright retirements.
The circuit has been reconfigured several times, with the lap distance now pegged at 3.7 miles. That’s less than half the distance around Le Mans and, although it’s a shorter track and just a 12 hour race, many believe that the 12 hour mugging of Sebring is actually tougher than 24 hours around Circuit de la Sarthe.
Among Sebring’s ironies: the 1985 event yielded the final victory in the career of IndyCar legend AJ Foyt.
And among Sebring’s enthusiastic fans: Bobby Rahal, who has described his 1987 victory as one of the emotional highlights of his career.
Porsche has more Sebring victories than any other marque, and Porsches dominate the following photo selection. But Porsche has won just once since 1988, with recent events being dominated by the classic duels between Audi and Peugeot. Unfortunately, Peugeot’s unexpected closure of their racing program sets the table for another Audi romp to the podium this year.
Always run during March, Sebring is perfectly scheduled as a “spring break” for both students and adults who’ve grown weary of several months of northern winters, and the infield party atmosphere has a long history and richly deserved reputation. Coupled with the track’s classic endurance racing action, the 12 Hours of Sebring is a multi-sensory experience that should be sampled at least once by every serious racing enthusiast.
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Celebration of the 12 Hours of Sebring – Photo Gallery
Track owner John Greenwood qualified his Chevrolet Corvette third for the 1975 12 Hours of Sebring, but was leading the field toward the first turn when the green flag fell. The car completed just 42 laps, though, and was classified 56th at the finish.
The 1977 example of Sebring’s signature “sunset” photograph — perhaps one of the more iconic images in endurance sports car racing.
The Porsche Carrera RSR 911 of George Dyer and Brad Frisselle won the 1977 12 Hours of Sebring.
The Porsche Carrera of Hans Berner and Willy Goebbels completed just 148 laps in 1977 and was classified 31st at the finish.
Brumos Racing drivers Peter Gregg and Jim Busby started on the pole in 1977 and finished 3rd at the end of the 12 Hours. This portion of the Sebring circuit has been reconfigured and no longer exists.
Ted Field was an active participant in sports car and IndyCar racing before moving on to the film and recording industries. Along with co-drivers Danny Ongais and Hurley Haywood, he finished 5th in the 1977 race.
Danny Ongais was one of the best during the 1970s and 1980s, always driving Ted Field’s Interscope entries. In the 1977 12 Hours of Sebring, the team of Ongais, Field and Hurley Haywood finished 5th in a Porsche 934.
The Sebring pit lane in 1977, dominated by the Camel signage of series sponsor RJ Reynolds.
Sebring’s infield party atmosphere is well-known and well-documented, evidenced by this pair of participants in 1977.
The Porsche 911 Carrera RSR of Maurico DeNarvaez and Albert Naon leads a group of cars during the 1977 race. This portion of the track no longer exists.
Gary Belcher and John Gunn drove this Porsche 934 to 4th place in 1977.
The Lotus Elan of Tato Ferrer, Manuel Godinez and Bonky Fernandez runs through the sweeping corner between the old Turns 1 and 2 , a section of the circuit that has been redesigned. The Lotus finished 58th in the 1977 race.
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The Porsche 935 driven by Rob McFarlin, Roy Woods and Bob Akin won the 1979 12 Hours of Sebring, completing 239 laps.
Starting 4th, the trio of Paul Miller, Charles Mendez and Brian Redman drove this Porsche 935 to a 2nd place finish at Sebring in 1979, one lap off the leaders’ pace.
Bobby Rahal drives the Cooke Woods Racing Porsche 935 he shared with Bob Garretson and Brian Redman in 1981 at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Earlier in the race Garretson had spun, nudged into the tire wall at a shallow angle and slowly rolled over. The crew made the repairs visible in this picture, and the car finished 17th.
Hurley Haywood, Al Holbert and Bruce Leven drove Leven’s Porsche 935 to victory in 1981.
Rolf Stommelen at the wheel of the Andial/Meister Racing Porsche 935 that he co-drove with Harald Grohs and Howard Meister in the 1981 Sebring event. The trio started 2nd, but fell 12 laps off the pace and finished 4th.
Trailing flame from the turbo, the Porsche 935 of Bill Whittington, Milt Minter and Marty Hinze is under heavy braking at the entry to the Sebring hairpin in 1981.
Bobby Rahal drives the Garretson Development March 82G during the 1982 12 Hours of Sebring. Rahal qualified the car on pole and, with co-drivers Jim Trueman and Maurico DeNarvaez, brought the car home in 2nd place.
The old Sebring pit structure was still in place in 1982, allowing this overhead view of cars during practice and the race. This is the Porsche 935 driven by Danny Ongais and Ted Field.
A low angle look at the massive rear downforce tunnels that Adrian Newey designed for the March 82G that was driven in the 1982 race by Bobby Rahal, Jim Trueman and Maurico DeNarvaez. Rahal set fastest lap during qualifying, and the trio finished the 12 Hours in 2nd place.
John Paul and John Paul, Jr. drove this Porsche 935 to Sebring’s victory lane in 1982.
Wearing the distinctive colors of long-time sponsor Coca-Cola, the Bob Akin Motor Racing Porsche 935 is refueled in the pit lane during practice for the 1982 12 Hours of Sebring. Akin, Derek Bell and Craig Siebert drove the car to a 12th place finish.
Danny Ongais sits in the Interscope Porsche 935 entered in the 1982 12 Hours of Sebring by Ted Field. Celebration of the 12 Hours of Sebring – Photo Gallery Continued
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Two standout drivers in sports car racing during the 1970s and 1980s, Al Holbert (left) and Hurley Haywood wait for the start of practice in 1982.
The distinctive “lobster claw” front end of the March 82G is easily seen in this overhead view in the Sebring pit lane in 1982. Bobby Rahal qualified this car on the pole and, with co-drivers Jim Trueman and Maurico DeNarvaez, finished the race in 2nd place.
John Fitzpatrick and David Hobbs started the 1982 Sebring event from the front row in this Porsche 935, but an early accident left them with just a 65th place finish.
Bob Akin’s Porsche 935 brakes for the Sebring hairpin in 1982.
Danny Ongais (left) and Ted Field in the Sebring pit lane during practice for the race in 1982.
David Hobbs drives the Cooke Racing Lola T600 HU1/Chevrolet at Sebring in 1982. Hobbs, along with co-drivers Ralph Kent-Cooke and Jim Adams, finished the race in 20th place after encountering engine problems.
The Group 44 Jaguar XJR-5 004 elbows its way underneath the Grid Plaza S1 GA01/Ford in the 1983 event.
The Porsche 935 of Bruce Leven, Al Holbert and Hurley Haywood shows the ill effects of an off-course excursion at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1983. Despite the damage, the trio finished the race in 3rd place.
Sebring historian and press officer Ken Breslauer has stated the 1983 race was the biggest upset in Sebring history, when Wayne Baker, Kees Nierop and Jim Mullen drove their GTO-class Porsche 934 to victory after most of the prototype class fell victim to the track’s brutal pounding. In this picture the 934 runs in front of the Nimrod NRA/C2 Aston Martin prototype while another Porsche “runs wide” exiting the Green Park Chicane.
Hans Stuck drives Bob Akin’s Porsche 935 during practice for the 1984 race. Stuck, Akin and John O’Steen finished 5th.
John Fitzpatrick’s Porsche 935, driven by Bob Wollek, John Graham, Hugo Gralia, Preston Henn and Al Holbert, started 6th and finished 6th — in spite of the damage suffered in the 12 hour pounding on (and off) the Sebring circuit in 1984.
AJ Foyt at the wheel of the Porsche 962 he shared with Bob Wollek to win at Sebring in 1985. The Foyt/Wollek pairing led by four laps at the finish, and it was the final victory of Foyt’s storied career.
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The Holbert Racing Porsche 962 driven by Al Holbert, Derek Bell and Al Unser, Jr. finished second at Sebring in 1985.
Bob Tullius navigates traffic around the Sebring airport circuit in the Jaguar XJR-5 in 1985. Tullius and co-driver Chip Robinson finished 4th in the race.
General Motors debuted the Northstar LMP 02 001/Cadillac at Sebring in 2002 with a two-car effort. After qualifying 7th, the machine of Éric Bernard, J.J. Lehto and Emmanuel Collard completed 256 laps and finished 27th.
The General Motors Northstar LMP 02 002/Cadillac driven by Wayne Taylor, Christophe Tinseau and Max Angelelli, photographed on Sebring’s long, flat back straight during a test session in 2002.
The #1 Audi R8 601, entered by Audi Sport North America and driven byTom Kristensen, Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro in the 2002 Sebring event, qualified on the pole but faded to fifth by the finish.
The General Motors Northstar LMP 02 Cadillac had its maiden run at Sebring in 2002, with the #8 entry being driven by Wayne Taylor, Christophe Tinseau and Max Angelelli. The trio finished 31st, after starting 8th on the grid.
The #8 Bentley Speed 8 004/3, driven by Johnny Herbert, David Brabham and Mark Blundell at Sebring in 2003, finished in 3rd place.
Franck Freon drove a Chevrolet Corvette C5-R to an 8th place finish at Sebring in 2003, with co-drivers Johnny O’Connell and Ron Fellows.
Stefan Johansson, J.J. Lehto and Emanuele Pirro drove this Champion Racing Audi R8 505 to 2nd place in the 2003 12 Hours of Sebring.
Team Bentley entered a pair of the Bentley Speed 8 004 machines at Sebring in 2003, placing 3rd and 4th at the finish.
Johnny O’Connell sits in the Chevrolet Corvette C5-R during practice for the 2003 12 Hours of Sebring.
In the absence of an Audi factory team, Champion Racing entered a pair of Audi R8s in the 2005 12 Hours of Sebring, taking 1st and 2nd places in both qualifying and the race.
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The Audi R8 driven by Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Allan McNish finished 2nd at Sebring in 2005.
This Audi R8, entered by Champion Racing and driven by J.J. Lehto, Marco Werner and Tom Kristensen, sat on the pole and won the race at Sebring in 2005.
James Weaver, Andy Wallace and Butch Leitzinger finished 3rd with the Dyson Racing MG Lola EX257 006/AER in the 2005 edition of the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Although there were only 26 entries in 2009, traffic was still an issue at times around the Sebring circuit, particularly when a group of prototypes had to work their way past a slower GT entry.
The 2009 race-winning Audi R15, entered by Audi Sport Team Joest and driven by Allan McNish, Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen. The team’s race distance still stands as the event record, and the victory made Kristensen the only 5-time Sebring winner.
Team Peugeot Total entered a pair of Peugeot 908s in 2009, taking 2nd place with the #08 entry driven by Franck Montagny, Stephane Sarrazin and Sebastien Bourdais.
The factory BMWs had a disappointing year in 2009, finishing 22nd and 26th.
Dyson Racing brought a pair of Lola-Mazdas to Sebring in 2009, but mechanical problems left them 21st and 23rd at the finish.
Peugeot senior management cancelled the company’s endurance racing program in January, leaving the Audi team with little competition for this year’s 60th anniversary celebration at Sebring.
Flying Lizard Motorsports entered a pair of Porsche 997s at Sebring in 2009, with the #45 entry of Jurg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Marc Lieb finishing 11th and the companion car of Seth Neiman, Darren Law and Johannes van Overbeek in 12th.
Prototype traffic exiting the Sebring hairpin in 2009.
Following Peugeot’s unexpected withdrawal from endurance racing in January, Sebring fans in 2012 will not experience a renewal of the Audi-Peugeot battles seen in recent years, illustrated by this photo from 2009.
Great set of photos Bob. Your camera work is excellent.
I’ll second Louis’ comments: some great shots there, especially with the airplanes in the background, as a reminder of the origins of the Sebring track. Great piece, thank you very much.
Great shots of mostly Porsche. Didn’t Ferrari run a few cars at Sebring?
Great pics and documentary Bob.
As a UK resident I have been lucky enough to visit the US often in springtime and as a result have been able to attend the Daytona 500, Daytona Bike Week and the Sebring 12 Hours.
All three have a very friendly and special atmosphere. Unfortunately due to family circumstances and now Covid I’ve missed out for last three years but I’m eagerly looking forward getting back there.
Beautiful photos. I really enjoy the shape of the cars from those days. However, I went to a WEC event in Austin and there is no romance for spectating an endurance race when it is 100 degrees. Thanks!