In the spring of 1968, I decided to check out another famous race and venue, the 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida and the World Sports Car Championship. Sebring is located in the south central part of the state, about 60 miles south of Orlando. In 1941, Hendricks Field, a training base for the Army Air Corps, was built near the town.
In 1950, Alec Ulmann suggested using the airport as a site for a sports car race. The Sam Collier 6 Hour Memorial race, held on December 31, was the first racing event ever held at Sebring and the first sports car endurance race held in the United States.
The first 12 Hours of Sebring was held on March 15, 1952. The circuit was 5.2 miles long and included two long airport runways. In 1959, Sebring hosted the first Formula One race in the United States, won by Bruce McLaren. It was McLarenís first ever-Grand Prix win and made him the youngest man to ever win a Grand Prix at the time. Due to poor attendance, the Grand Prix was moved the next year to Riverside, California. The 12 Hours of Sebring persevered and today is still considered one of the premier endurance races in the world.
Two friends from high school, Lee and John, agreed to go along for the adventure even though they were not real race fans. They thought it sounded like a good time. This was fine with me as there was no way I could drive to Florida by myself without taking more time off from work. This way, we had three drivers and could drive straight through.
It was on my birthday, Thursday, March 21st that we met after work and loaded up Johnís car with the necessary supplies. Finally, around 8 pm we headed south. We decided that each of us would drive through a whole tank of gas and we would switch drivers when we stopped for gas. This worked well since we would go through a tank in a little over four hours, which meant we would drive for four hours and get eight hours off. Even so, it was a long trip, taking us a full 24 hours to get to Sebring.
Lee had just mustered out of the Navy where he had served as a Navy Seal and had survived two tours of combat duty in Vietnam. To pass the time on the way down, he told us all about his experiences in training and in Nam. Surprisingly, he said combat was a piece of cake compared to the training he had to undergo to become a Seal. It seemed to me that the Navy basically tortured him and the other "Buds" as they were called. I could hardly believe the stuff he was telling us. He said they had to be tough on them in training so they could stand up to what they had to face in combat.
It was dark when we arrived at the track around 8pm on Friday, but there was a carnival atmosphere. This was probably because there actually was a carnival in the infield of the track. There was a Ferris wheel, and Tilt-a-whirl, and other typical carnival rides. There was a midway with all kinds of food stands and beer stalls and people partying everywhere. We found a place to park and joined the party.
I do not recall what precipitated it or what it was about. All I know is that it was the shortest fight I have ever seen. I recall Lee arguing with three guys. I do not know where John was. I was standing there drinking my beer and watching nervously when one of the three took a swing at Lee. Knowing the fight was on, and Lee was outnumbered, I figured I had better jump in and help him.
I turned and set my beer on the hood of a car. (Hey, I grew up in Wisconsin and there you learn to take care of your beer) I heard some punches land and as I turned back to reluctantly join the fight, it was already over. All three guys were laying on the ground moaning. Lee was standing there alone. He looked at me and said, "That was fun. Grab your beer and letís get out of here." I made a mental note to never mess with an ex-Navy Seal.
I think Lee may have provoked the three guys into a fight just for the fun of it. He had been trained by the Navy to fight and he loved doing it. Why else would someone volunteer for a second tour of combat duty in Vietnam? The Navy had turned down his request to go back for a third tour and wanted him to become a Seal instructor. Lee wanted no part of that, so he got his discharge. Now out of the Navy, he had no outlet for that urge to fight. Fortunately, he did not pick any more fights the rest of the night. We finally spread out our sleeping bags right on the ground under the stars in the warm Florida night and went to sleep.
This yearís race was really two races in one, the World Sportscar Championship with its Sport Prototype cars just like they run at Le Mans, joined by the Trans Am series cars. The factory Porsche 907, driven by Jo Siffert and Hans Herrmann, was on the pole. John Wyer was there with his Gulf-sponsored Ford GT-40s and the car driven by Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman was second on the grid.
The Ford GT-40 is one of the most beautiful racecars I have ever seen. It got its name from its overall height of 40 inches. It had been built by Ford to do one thing, win Le Mans and it did that four times, dominating Sports Prototype racing the last several years. Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt had won Le Mans the year before in a GT-40. But Porsche was on its way back and by 1970, even John Wyer had seen the writing on the wall and switched to Porscheís. But at least this year, the GT-40ís were still competitive and I was rooting for them.
There were a lot of famous names in the race, like Al Unser, Lloyd Ruby, Mark Donohue, Jerry Titus, George Follmer, Sam Posey and Peter Revson, who were all running in the Trans Am race and even included Joie Chitwood, who became more famous for his auto thrill shows. There was also a woman driving in the Trans Am race, Janet Guthrie, who later became famous as the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. The Prototype race had a lot of big names as well, such as Rolf Stommelen, Vic Elford, Jo Bonnier, Jacky Ickx, Brian Redman and David Hobbs.
There was another very unusual car entered in the event as well. This was the Howmet TX Continental, powered by a turbine engine. This was the first time I had ever seen a car with this type of power plant. Instead of a roar as it went by, all you heard was a whooshing sound.
The car was the idea of Ray Heppenstall and was built from a McKee Can-Am car. The engine was a Continental TS25-1 gas turbine helicopter engine. It was campaigned extensively in 1968, and remains to this day the only gas turbine powered car to win a race. In its first race, it qualified 7th for the 24 Hours of Daytona and was running as high as third before hitting the wall on lap 34. Sebring was the carís second race and Heppenstall had put it 3rd on the grid.
Howmet TX Continental Turbine
Traditionally, the Sebring 12 Hours starts at ten in the morning and finishes at ten at night. We went over to watch the start, which I knew would be unique. They used a Le Mans start instead of the F1 standing start or rolling start used by most other race series. The Le Mans start tradition began years before at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. All the cars were parked along the pit wall facing out toward the track. The drivers would line up on the other side of the track. When the green flag waved, the drivers would run across the track, jump into their cars, fire them up and roar off down the track to corner one. They used this type of start again in 1969, but that was the end of it. They no longer use it in Le Mans either. I think the end was brought on by the required use of safety belts. In a Le Mans start, there was no time for the driver to buckle up his belts.
I wanted to see this start so I got up early after a somewhat restless night. Sleeping on the ground is not really my thing. Lee, on the other hand, was right at home. I found a concession stand that said they sold bratwurst and ordered one for breakfast. I am not sure what the heck it was that I got, but I can tell you it was not like any bratwurst I had ever had. It did look like some sort of sausage but that is where the similarity ended. No matter, I was hungry and ate it. Washing it down with a cold beer seemed to help.
We made our way to the front straight and found a spot from which we could watch the start. I must admit it was pretty cool watching the drivers sprint to their cars when the green flag waved. Rolf Stommelen was the better sprinter and pulled out onto the track first from fifth place on the grid. Seconds later, they were all screaming past us (except for the one car that was whooshing) into corner one.
During the day, we made our way around the track to check out all the accessible viewing areas. That is one nice thing about an endurance race. You have plenty of time to move around. The track was still a working airport and it was interesting to see the cars racing down one of the two runways with a whole bunch of airplanes making up the background. Most of the drivers arrived at the track by private planes that were all parked on the other side of the runway.
We quickly found out that the hairpin was the most interesting place to watch as cars regularly spun out or crashed into each other in this very tight right hand turn. It was also neat to see the Howmet turbine as it came whooshing past. We could see the heat from the turbineís exhaust shimmering in the air behind it.
About mid-afternoon, the lack of any really good sleep caught up with me and I lay down in the grass in a nice shady spot on the straight that leads the cars back out to the runways. Soon I was sound asleep, despite the scream of Porsche 907s and the GT-40's passing by just a few yards away. I must have slept for over an hour and when I woke up, Lee and John were nowhere around. I wandered back to where our car was parked and there they were, sleeping in the car. I left them there and went to watch more of the race.
Another first for me came in the evening as night fell. I had never seen cars racing at night before. Frankly, there was not much to see - only the front straight had lights and the rest of the track was in darkness. All you could see was a blur of headlights and taillights. Still, I thought it was pretty neat. I heard a noise from above and, looking up, I was startled to see a huge neon-light billboard in the sky. It was the Goodyear blimp. I had not realized they put lights like that on it. The carnival was going full swing and we rode the Ferris wheel to get a unique view of the race from the top. I have never seen anything quite like that at a racetrack since.
Around 9 pm, with an hour to go in the race, John and Lee wanted to head for home to avoid traffic. I was reluctant to leave before the finish, but the two works Porsches had a commanding lead - over 30 laps ahead of the third place sports prototype. Both GT-40ís were out of it. The GT-40 of Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman had managed only 36 laps before losing the clutch. David Hobbs and Paul Hawkins in the other GT-40 were still running, but problems had them 70 laps behind the lead Porsche. That equates to 364 miles behind. I did not think they could make that up in an hour.
The Howmet turbine was also gone after 125 laps with broken engine mounts, of all things. I would have thought that there would be little stress on the engine mounts because of the lack of the vibration you would normally get from a reciprocating engine. I guess not.
I reluctantly agreed to leave and we headed out for home. It probably was a good idea to leave early, since we were facing another 24-hour drive. Sitting in traffic after the race would have added a lot of time to the trip, particularly because there was only one road leading out of the track. We exited the track grounds with no problem and soon were headed north on highway 27. I managed to find a radio broadcast of the race on a local station, so we were able to listen to the end of the race.
Jo Siffert and Hans Hermann won, as expected, in their Porsche 907. In second place, a lap down, was the 907 of Vic Elford and Jochen Neerspasch. A big surprise was that the next three overall positions went to Trans Am cars led by Roger Penskeís brace of Chevrolet Camaros. Third over all and first in Trans Am were Mark Donohue and Craig Fisher, followed by the Camaro shared by Joe Welch, Bob Johnson and Craig Fisher. Jerry Titus and Ronnie Bucknum rounded out the top five in their Ford Mustang for Shelby Racing.
Mark Donahue in the Penske Sunoco Chevrolet Camaro
We pushed on for home throughout the night and, as day broke, realized we would be hitting Atlanta right in the heart of rush hour. We picked up the pace, but even so, it was 7 am when we got to the outskirts of Atlanta. Much to our surprise, there was little or no traffic at all. We were all puzzled about this until I realized it was Sunday morning. We had a good laugh about how dumb we were, and pushed on.
John took over at the wheel north of Atlanta and Lee and I fell asleep. I woke up some time later and asked John where we were. He said we were about 20 miles from Knoxville. "Knoxville!" I exclaimed, "We are not supposed to be going through Knoxville!" John had missed the turn in Chattanooga and we were headed northeast instead of northwest. This added a couple of hours to the drive, but we made it home anyway and I had never been in Knoxville, Lexington or Cincinnati before, so I guess it was ok.
It was a long exhausting trip but I was happy we went. It was a fine adventure and was my one and only trip to Sebring so far. John and Lee never went to another race with me, even though I invited them to join us at Road America. But then, they never were really race fans to begin with and the racing bug did not bite them like it did me.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen