Sebring: Rituals of the Race
Racers have pre-race rituals. The same is true of the TV folks who cover the races. No matter where we are, no matter what sort of cars we’re pointing the cameras at, we perform little rituals that summon comfort and ease pre-race/pre-show tensions. It would be nice to have such rituals to fall back on at places where there isn’t much history, legend, tradition or style. At Sebring it’s a much different story; we have to wade through history to do our jobs at Sebring.Since the creation of the American Le Mans Series, ALMS TV director Billy McCoy and I have developed our own private pre-Sebring ritual. It’s fairly elaborate. That’s because Billy, unlike most folks at his level, loves sports car racing and can’t seem to get enough of it. He was seduced by an early Can-Am at Mid-Ohio. Few recall that race was broadcast on television. Billy was part of that broadcast. That’s a component of his Mid-Ohio ritual: he tells the story of setting up Mid-Ohio for the Can-Am broadcast with 1960s TV and telecommunications technology. It’s not meant to be funny but he and I always laugh about the crudity of it all.At Sebring, the pre-race ritual that Billy and I practice isn’t funny. It’s almost private, takes nearly an hour and starts before dawn. We get up too early and walk down pit lane. Sebring is all but deserted at that hour: there’s no noise, no movement, just a chilly and peculiar stillness that allows Sebring’s lustrous history to edge closer to the present.Along our walk I read some of the signs above the pits that list Sebring’s winning cars. Billy likes it when I tell him a story of this race or that, filled with obscure facts that usually tend to make the eyes of nearly everyone else in the TV compound glaze over. These are mostly things that really don’t have a place in the show. But Billy loves that stuff and remembers it and tries to use it in the way he covers the race and cuts the cameras.My stories are usually about Sebring in the ’50s and ’60s: about glorious cars that no longer exist and racers long dead. The ’50s were when I discovered racing and Sebring was a very big deal – especially to a kid with an overactive imagination and an allowance sufficiently generous to buy the occasional copy of Road & Track, On The Grid or Sports Car Illustrated during racing season.It’s usually chilly before dawn at Sebring and the cold makes everything seem quiet and still, and that makes our ritual even better. We walk from pit out to pit in, then turn and walk up the middle of the front straight. We usually pause on the start finish line and look up at the starters’ stand where Dennis Paul & Co. work their magic and keep everything under control . . . as under control as things can be at Sebring.By then I’m usually looking up at my 12-hour perch, on the scaffolding at start/finish, drivers’ left (Dennis’ right) out in the open with the best view anyone ever had of the 12 Hours.Of all the directors I’ve worked for at Sebring, Billy is the only one who doesn’t ask what all the others asked when they saw my wobbly and very temporary perch. He doesn’t ask me if I actually want to be out there where I get hit with chunks of renegade rubber, shot-peened with sand, dust and ground up concrete, baked by Sebring’s midday sun, rained on to the threshold of hypothermia or semi-frozen when the sun hides behind the orange groves on Saturday evening.He knows there’s nowhere I’d rather be and nothing I’d rather be doing than watching every one of the 43,200 seconds that make up the 12 Hours of Sebring from right here; so close that I can feel the aerodynamic concussion of the cars when they’re close to the wall under Dennis’ flags. Bolted to Sebring’s concrete retaining wall, the scaffold shakes when a big group blasts by, leaving a wake of heat and sound and yummy sharp race car-odors that scatter airborne effluvia that gets in my eyes, nose and mouth. There is nothing like this anywhere else in the other two dozen or so shows we do every year.I always end our hike by telling him something he already knows: how the pavement on Sebring’s front straight is the same ancient concrete that Sebring founder Alec Ulmann walked on; the same pavement that Harry Gray and Larry Kulok drove their Frazier Nash Le Mans replica on to win that first 12 Hours 60 years ago, when Harry Truman was the President.The little boy with the moldering pile of Road & Track and Sports Car Illustrated magazines has surfaced by this time. We walk across the front straight in the footsteps of Stirling Moss who always won Le Mans starts, except his last one, here at Sebring when his co-driver Innes Ireland took the first stint in their NART-entered Ferrari Testa Rossa. Sebring ’62 was Moss’ last American race. He and Ireland were disqualified. A month later, Moss’ career ended in a Lotus at Goodwood. At the other end of his career, Sebring 1954 was Moss’ first American race and he won it overall scoring one of Sebring’s biggest upsets driving a 1.5 liter OSCA entered by Briggs Cunningham. That’s one of my favorite Sebring stories and Billy likes it, too. (We’re Americas; we love underdogs.)Billy likes the story of how (and why) Don Panoz founded the American Le Mans Series in 1999 and, naturally, Sebring was the first race of the new championship. He really likes how the American Le Mans Series’ first race here 13 years ago was a blood descendant of that day in 1953 when the FIA created the first World Sports Car Championship and scheduled Sebring as the first round. Billy really likes how that was an all-American victory for John Fitch, Phil Walters and especially Briggs Cunningham’s eponymous Hemi-powered C4R. And now, 59 years later, the FIA has scheduled the 60th Sebring 12 Hours as the inaugural round of the newly minted World Endurance Championship. There’s an elegant historical symmetry about it.My final Sebring ritual is the simplest. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until a few years ago when a spectator asked me . . . “Why do you stand up and take your headset off during the first lap?”Simple: when the leaders come onto Ulmann Straight behind the paddock, I want to hear the cars in the distance. It’s a sound that can be heard only at Sebring and then only on the first lap. It’s an almost melancholy sound that revives ancient memories of sitting alone, listening to Sounds of Sebring 33 1/3rd LP records: Briggs Cunningham and Alec Ulmann are still alive, the Testa Rossa is still the car to beat in long races and Stirling Moss is years away from retirement. Sebring is haunted because we bring our ghosts with us.
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