Even residents of the south-central Florida town will admit that Sebring is in the middle of nowhere.
Disney is 73 miles away. Orlando: 87 miles. Tampa: 92 miles. Maybe little bricks are your thing. In that case, Legoland is just 43 miles away. Yes, there’s a nice state park, and yes, there’s a beach, but it’s on Lake Jackson, not the ocean. The big ponds are 90 minutes away, whether you go east to the Atlantic or west to the Gulf of Mexico.
Not to say there’s nothing in Sebring. It has two Dairy Queens, a bustling Walmart, and excellent steaks at Cowpoke’s Watering Hole. Oh, and there are alligators … but almost all of Central Florida is flush with ’em.
Sebring’s real claim to fame—and you already know this—is a racetrack. The town is home to a big, 72-year-old, treacherous, 17-turn racetrack built partially on leftover concrete from a World Ward II-era B-17 base. That hastily-poured slabs are now shared by the Sebring airport, and Sebring International Raceway (though, there is quite a bit of asphalt on the racetrack now). The transitions between the two are, well, rough. Diehards have even adopted a “Respect the Bumps” hashtag.
The surface is profoundly uneven, and will rattle anyone racing during the “Super Sebring” weekend, whether its Friday’s 1000 miles of Sebring—which serves as the lone U.S. appearance of the Europe-based World Endurance Championship (WEC)—or Saturday’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, a crown jewel affair for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The former served as the kickoff race for the WEC season while IMSA’s appearance was the series’ second stop. (The first being the 24 Hours of Daytona).
Since NASCAR now owns Sebring (and IMSA), and it’s NASCAR’s policy to not divulge attendance figures, we don’t know how many people showed up for the two main days at Sebring International Raceway. It may have been well over 100,000. Back in 2006, when numbers were still released, attendance was a reported 169,000 people. This year seemed just as big.
The weather was ideal. Rain predicted for Saturday never materialized. Long before the IMSA sports cars took the green flag, trash bins throughout the infamous Green Park portion of the infield were overflowing, mostly with beer cans. “Twenty-five dollars for a case!” one sign advertised. You didn’t even have to leave the grounds to get hammered.
Fans in Green Park, which is neither green nor much of a park, were packed in tighter than Dick’s hatband. It didn’t matter that they were some 75 yards from the track and a bit too far to actually spectate. Come for the race, stay for the party. Or is it come for the party, stay for the race?
If you were there for the race, you witnessed some incredible on-track action. Sebring always delivers. A pair of Toyotas dominated the 1000 Miles of Sebring’s 36-car the brand’s, delivering the Rising Sun a one-two finish and the 40th overall WEC victory. Even though the Toyota, Peugeot, and Ferrari Hypercars are technically eligible to race in IMSA’s Saturday feature, they abstained, leaving IMSA with a still-robust roster of GTP prototypes from Cadillac, Porsche, BMW and Acura. (Lamborghini will join the fray next year).
In Friday’s race, it’s 1000 miles or eight hours, whichever comes first. This year, the race ran 8 hours and 19.8 seconds (239 laps). One of the brand-new Ferrari 499Ps finished third, two laps (!) behind the two Toyotas. Chip Ganassi Racing took fourth with its Cadillac prepared for WEC competition, followed by two Penske-run Porsche 963s.
In the 1000 (and the 12 Hours, for that matter), it was evident that the Penske Porsche 963s need to pick up some speed to be factors in the 24 Hours of Le Mans—one of the very few wins that Roger Penske lacks on his resume. They may have finished fifth and sixth in the 1000, but they were laps down. In the 1000, the Porsches’ best time was nearly a second behind the best lap of the Cadillac. The U.S.-owned Glickenhaus Hypercar, with the all-star driver lineup of Romain Dumas, Ryan Briscoe, and Oliver Pla never had a chance to show what it could do after being sidelined by ignition issues, finishing 35th after completing just 62 laps.
In GTE-Am (WEC’s top GT class), it was a proud moment for the Chevrolet Corvette C8.R team of Nicky Catsburg, Nico Varrone, and Texas car dealer Ben Keating, who won by a full lap over a strong 13-car class.
As for IMSA’s 12 Hours of Sebring, the safety car was the clear winner, leading for almost one-third of the race, with a total of 12 full-course cautions. The yellow flag waved for a astounding 3 hours and 50 minutes.
Once the smoke cleared and the sun set, it was Cadillac on top of the 53-car field. Caddy won for the third straight year, but it wasn’t exactly a dominant performance. With 20 minutes left, on old tires, the Caddy was in fourth, trailing an Acura and both Penske Porsches.
The leaders were trying to negotiate lapped traffic when Mathieu Jaminet’s Porsche 963 and Filipe Albuquerque’s Acura ARX-06 made contact in Turn 3. The touch sent Albuquerque’s Acura through the grass and into leader Jaminet. Felipe Nasr, in the other Porsche, was collected by its teammate. Analysts were quick to blame Jaminet, but softened their criticism after seeing aerial footage. Instead they borrowed a line from NASCAR land and qualified it as “a racing deal.”
Surviving the carnage was the Action Express Cadillac of Jack Aitken, who held off the Team RLL BMW of Nick Yelloly. Both cars completed 322 laps. Aitken shared the car with Alexander Sims and Pipo Derani, who qualified on pole and now has four overall wins. Crossing the line third overall was the LMP2 winner of Tower Motorsports, led by IndyCar driver Scott McLaughlin. The Riley Ligier of 74 Ranch, led by owner Gar Robinson, won LMP3 by a lap.
The Porsche 911 GT3 R of Pfaff Motorsports took the GTD Pro win, with the Corvette coming in fifth. The Paul Miller Racing BMW M4 GT3 won GTD.
Next up for the IMSA series is the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach April 14-15, while the WEC’s next race is the Six Hours of Portimão, in Portugal.
It’s incredibly expensive for the WEC to ship over its teams stateside for one race. In fact, it’s quite possible that the “Super Sebring” weekend in 2024 might be a little less super, with the rumored departure of WEC from the slate. If this is the case, look for the Michelin Pilot Challenge to move back to Friday from its current Thursday slot. (That race, this year, was won by Robbie Foley and Vin Barletta in Turner Motorsports’ BMW M4 GT4, with the TCR class win going to Tim Lewis and Roy Block in their Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR RS3.)
Hopefully the WEC returns next year. They add a genuine international element to the weekend and this is, after all, Sebring International Raceway. They would be missed. Maybe not by the partiers in Green Park, but by the rest of us diehards.