Over the past 60-plus years the legendary Sebring 12 Hour Grand Prix of Endurance has been surrounded by numerous myths, fairy tales, legends and folklore.
One such story involves the legend of “Big Mo” the monster alligator that crossed the track during the 1978 race causing racing legend, Peter Gregg, to lose control of his Brumos Porsche 935 wrecking the car. Another myth involves the story of the 6-wheel Alfa Romeo T33/6/12 that was stolen from a garage on the Sebring race course by local teens in April of 1970. They removed the engine and shoehorned it into a hot rod and used it to tear up the roads of Highlands County until the sheriff’s department tracked them down and arrested them.
The Sebring Raceway has devoted some time and effort on its website to reporting valid historic stories and dispelling others. One of those stories the Raceway tried to dispel is the supposed discovery of some World War 2 era live ammunition and explosives found when the raceway tore down the old pit garages in June of 1999. These materials were supposedly left over when the Army Air Force B-17 training base, known as Hendricks Field, was shut down at the close of the war.
However, history shows us that some interesting items were found in several of those old barracks, work buildings and storage buildings over the years as buildings were torn down and areas renovated and improved.
One such find occurred in 1958 during the construction of a vehicle crossover bridge to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds attending what was becoming America’s premier endurance race. The approach road to the new bridge started in the spectator paddock and traveled to the new bridge which went over the race track and ended in the west end of the pits. For years the completed bridge was known as the Martini & Rossi Bridge.
During the bridge construction project several old military buildings were either moved or dismantled to make way for the approach road. In one building they found a storage room containing all sorts of military flotsam and jetsam including an old military foot locker with the name of the owner stenciled on it. The name on the locker was that of an Army officer, Major James Sfarnas.
The construction foreman, a military vet, felt compelled to try to find officer Sfarnas and he enlisted the help of a history teacher at Sebring High School who was also a veteran. At the suggestion of the teacher they began the search by checking the old air base military newsletters, magazines and yearbooks that had been donated to the city library when the base closed. They were able to find out that the owner of the foot locker came from a prominent Greek family in nearby Lake Wales, Florida.
A few phone calls later and the teacher was able to locate some Sfarnas family members in the Lake Wales area and eventually it led to James Sfarnas who was now an officer in the Florida Highway Patrol. After talking to him the teacher was able to make arrangements for him to visit the teacher’s history class to
talk to the students about his time in the service as well as take possession of the locker.
The talk at Sebring High School went as planned but the students were aware of why officer Sfarnas was there and asked if the foot locker could be opened in their presence. Officer Sfarnas agreed but the teacher had to get a lock cutter from a custodian to remove the badly rusted padlock on the foot locker.
Once opened they found the typical military clothing and boots which were in remarkably good condition. There was also a German Luger pistol that was obtained as a war souvenir when officer Sfarnas was stationed in Europe. Also, several girlie magazines were found much to the embarrassment of the officer and the teacher quickly took them out of the hands of the smiling 11th grade boys and put them in his desk. No idea if they were ever returned to the owner.
In the bottom of the locker, wrapped in old German newspapers, was a Germany Army stick grenade known as a “potato masher.” This scared the wits out of the teacher, but the students thought it was interesting enough to play around with and toss back and forth. Officer Sfarnas assured the teacher that it had been deactivated and was harmless. The teacher was skeptical but kept his mouth shut in the presence of the students.
The strangest thing found in the foot locker was a bundle of old German currency from the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). The officer said the teacher could have the worthless currency to use in the world history class he also taught. It would make a great teaching tool for when the class covered the hyper-inflation that affected Germany after World War I and the resultant economic catastrophe that may have led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
Now fast forward to the Fall of 1980 and the history teacher had recently passed away due to a heart attack. His 25-year-old son was in Sebring, from his home in St. Petersburg, to deal with his father’s estate and clean up his house in preparation for putting it on the market.
He discovered what was left of the bundle of the old German currency in a box in the garage and what was left were quite a few of the notes but most were in small Mark denominations and also in very good condition. He fondly remembered how he and his friends had played with what they called “funny money” when he was young, and it saddened him.
He initially thought that collectors might be interested in the old money but during a visit to the Sebring city library, to do some research concerning the value of the German money, he came across a publication by the Society of Paper Money Collectors. While the publication was several years old It indicated that the old currency had little value to collectors in America due to large amounts of it still available from sources in Germany. However, Nazi era currency, with swastikas and other Nazi symbols on it, seemed more desirable.
When he attended the University of Central Florida in Orlando in the 1970’s he worked part-time at Disney World to help pay for his expenses and was well aware of that tourists from Europe initially had trouble with exchanging their English Pounds, French Francs and German Marks at local banks in the Orlando area and currency exchange businesses had spouted up to fill the need of the European tourists. The banks were doing catch up to address the needs of the tourists but were far behind the commercial currency exchanges even in 1980.
Just out of curiosity he wondered if any of Orlando banks might not be as knowledgeable or experienced as the commercial money exchanges and might accept the old German currency. So, he took a day off to drive up to Orlando where he went to a Barnett Bank branch near the theme parks and asked about the exchange rate. They asked him how he obtained the money and he told them he had just returned from an engineering internship in Germany working at the Porsche factory in Stuttgart. The bank official didn’t question him further but had to call the Barnett Bank in Jacksonville, FL, which dealt with currency exchanges for all Barnett banks in Florida. The people in Jacksonville indicated that he could get one dollar for every 1.82 German Marks which was the current exchange rate that day but it could change. All he had to do was sign a form, which he did, and they didn’t even ask for identification. He asked if he could keep the form and return later with more money. The bank official said, “No problem.” As he was leaving the bank the bank official said that there would be a small fee for the conversion to dollars and promised it was better than the commercial businesses.
Before leaving Orlando he stopped by Florida National Bank, Citizens Bank of Florida and one other to spin the same tale and get any forms needed for the money exchange.
At this point he had not made up his mind to go forward with his con but on the way back to Sebring the idea of putting one over on the banks was becoming too great to resist each mile he traveled. At the end of the week he returned to Orlando on a busy Friday afternoon and hit no less than 9 banks or their branches and all, except one, exchanged the German currency for dollars. At the end of that Friday he drove back to his father’s home in Sebring with $17,472 dollars in U.S. currency minus the exchange fees. This was far more than he made as a city employee in St. Petersburg. He hoped that the German currency would not reach the main banks for several days due to the weekend and would not be processed and discovered for a day or two after that. He did his best to disguise himself at each bank with different hats, shirts, eye glasses, etc. However, deep in the back of his mind he thought he would be caught at any moment and never felt so scared or thrilled in his life. One advantage he had going for him was that banks back then didn’t have the number and quality of surveillance cameras they do today.
For most of a full week he worked in his father’s house in Sebring cleaning and painting with the television on all the time and with the purloined dollars hidden in the attic of the house. At any moment he expected a news bulletin on the TV about what he did and a description of him broadcast to the general public. Each evening, when he went out to dinner, he would buy a copy of the Orlando Sentinel newspaper and read it from cover to cover.
Well, nothing ever happened. Six weeks later he was back in Sebring for the closing on his father’s house. The closing was in a lawyer’s office in downtown Sebring and across the street was a branch of a bank he used in his hometown. He took the check for the sale of the house across the street to deposit it in his account and noticed in the teller’s cage a color Xerox notice showing a picture of his German currency with the words, “Do Not Accept.”
With the bank deposit receipt for the sale of his dad’s house in hand he casually walked to his car in the bank parking lot while looking around at many of the old downtown buildings he was so familiar with in his youth.
It dawned on him that this might be the last time he would come to Sebring now that his father was gone and his actions regarding the old German currency might also deter him from returning. Plus, the old currency was now truly worthless now that the banks were alerted. He took one last look, got into his car and began the long drive to St. Petersburg.
Just a few months ago the Sebring Raceway tore down the old Green Park vehicle bridge and have replaced it with a wider and better built one. No word yet if they found anything of note during the demolition and please no Jimmy Hoffa jokes here.