The first Sebring 12-hour race took place in March of 1951 and within a short ten-year period the annual racing event held on a former World War II training base for B-17 pilots and crews was being touted as the premier sports car event in North America.
During those first ten years, and well into the 1960s and ’70s, the Sebring race began to draw some of the most famous national and international drivers and cars ever seen in one racing event in America. The race also began to draw entertainment celebrities like CBS broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite to the 5.2 mile racing circuit. Cronkite not only broadcast the race during a three-year period but also drove in the 1959 12-hour event at the wheel of a Lancia Appia Zagato which finished 40th overall.
Another CBS celebrity to race at Sebring was the comedian Dick Smothers who drove a Porsche 906E in 1969. One year later movie icon Steve McQueen’s car came in second in the 1970 race. Other Hollywood elite to get behind the steering wheel of a race car at Sebring included Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, James Brolin, Bobby Carradine, Craig T. Nelson, Lorenzo Lamas, and Patrick Dempsey. In 1959 the movie Road Racers was released and it used actual racing footage taken at the Sebring 12-hour. Even actor Robert Redford filmed movie scenes at Sebring for his 1975 movie The Great Waldo Pepper.
Even some of the spectators who came for the race when they were young would turn out to become celebrities later in life. People like former U.S. President Jimmy Carter who would take his entire family to the race in the 1950’s and early ’60s. Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, attended Sebring in the early 1960s while a student at St. Petersburg Junior College studying philosophy and psychology. It is even rumored that Elvis once attended the Sebring 12 hours.
Missing from this star-studded list are the female celebrities of the day who actually attended the event. While not suited up and behind the wheel of a race car, an impressive list of women entertainers made the trip to Florida to watch the race or, in their own way, participate in the pageantry of the event.
One of the most famous female entertainers to grace the grid at Sebring was movie star Marilyn Monroe. Miss Monroe flew into the Sebring Airport in the 20th Century Fox company plane in 1957 on her way to Miami for a special screening of her movie Bus Stop. She hitched a ride from the airport to the track in the flight tower’s surplus military jeep and showed up during Thursday practice for the race. She signed a few autographs, posed with cars and drivers much to the astonishment of all. Some at the track couldn’t believe it was really her and she departed for Miami after spending less than an hour at the track.
In 1960 “blonde bombshell” Jane Mansfield arrived at the track with husband Mickey Hargitay. Hargitay was a sports car buff and wanted to see the race. In the photo she posed standing next to the NART Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta that belonged to NART owner Luigi Chinetti, Sr. Hargitay was so interested in the car he offered to buy it after the race if Chinetti could arrange shipment to California.
French actress Brigitte Bardot attended Sebring the same year that Mansfield did in the company of husband Jacques Charrier. She became an international sensation in Europe with the release of controversial film And God Created Woman in 1957 but at Sebring she was able to move about with little attention paid to her. Her husband had her pose on another NART car in this case a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa that was to be driven in the race by Chuck Daigh and Richie Ginther.
Before the photo was taken NART boss, Luigi Chinetti, Sr., introduced Ginther to Bardot. She commented, in broken English, about how cute Ginther looked with his abundant freckles which caused Ginther to blush so deeply his face matched the color of his car.
In 1965 English actress Diana Dors showed up for a photo shoot designed to promote the re-release of her film Blonde Sinner. She was accompanied by her second husband, English actor Richard Dawson, who would rise to fame that same year as Peter Newkirk in the TV series Hogan’s Heroes. Californian Dan Gurney was gracious enough to allow Miss Dors to use his All American Racers Lotus 19J for the photo shoot. This was arranged by Richard Dawson who was friends with Gurney.
Two years later Miss Dors returned in spectacular fashion during the classic car parade lap prior to the start of the 1967 Sebring race. She donned a bikini and did one lap on the short course riding on the front of a Shelby Ford GT40 Mark IIB that was specially outfitted with hand holds. She was now divorced from Richard Dawson and was trying to revive her movie career with publicity stunts. The officials at Sebring welcomed the publicity but more than one of them kept their fingers crossed hoping she wouldn’t fall off and get run over. If you were in the pits when she started her tour you could tell by the cheering of the crowd whenever she passed a large group of race fans.
Not to be outdone by this B-list actress one of the Sebring race queens decided to give riding on a car a try but the ride was cut short when she began to lose her grip on the less than adequate handholds provided for her. She flattened herself on the top of the car facing aft and holding on to the door’s window frame for dear life while her short skirt billowed around her waist exposing her posterior much to the delight of the race fans. Her screams of fright could be heard over the car’s engine noise and her torment was stopped only when nearby corner workers noticed her distress and stopped the car so she could get off. She had a few choice words for the driver, which can’t be repeated here, but her tirade elicited a round of applause and cheers from the nearby race fans. Race workers escorted her from the track and into the spectator paddock where she was warmly greeted by the assembled crowd.
Over the past six-and-one-half decades the Sebring 12 Hour Grand Prix of Endurance has attracted an impressive list of celebrities from all walks of life and that list will continue to grow. No doubt safety concerns and insurance demands will preclude riding on top of cars for the female celebrities so the only celebrities you might see at the track will either be driving a race car or walking around the paddock. Don’t forget to stop and say hello.