I grew up in Sebring, a small town in central Florida about 60 miles south of Orlando. Back in those days (the 50’s) there wasn’t a whole lot going on in that part of the world most of the time. But it had its moments.
For two weeks in March the town of Sebring hosted the Sebring 12-hour Grand Prix of Endurance. This was a sports car race run on an abandoned WW II air force training base, and at that time it was one of the races that earned points for the World Championship. Giants–Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Oliver Gendebien, Graham Hill, the Marquis de Portago, the immortal Stirling Moss — and other famous drivers drove prototype Mercedes, Ferraris, Aston-Martins, Porsches, Jaguars and Masaratis in what was truly a road race — no banked turns, asphalt and concrete surfaces, and spectators so close that we could see the racers’ brake drums glowing red during the night portion of the race.
For the two weeks preceding The Race, we were cheek and jowl what would become known as the jet set. Folks moved out of their houses and went to live in tents in the nearby state park, renting their homes to the racing teams and better-heeled camp followers. A family could make $1000 a week that way (big bucks in an era when doctors and lawyers earned $20,000 a year). Local service stations and garages rented out their lifts and floor space to the racing teams, who worked on one-of-a-kind prototype automobiles with us kids looking over their shoulders. And they didn’t seem to mind.
For a few days the elite of the automotive world walked the streets we walked, ate in our restaurants, shopped in our stores. It was not unusual to see Phil Hill, Gurney or Moss — all exceptionally prone to mingling with their fans — sitting in a chair in front of the Nan-Ces-O-Wee Hotel while signing autographs and talking to passers-by. Most of the big names stayed at Harder Hall, the big hotel across the lake, but the Nan-Ces-O-Wee and (perhaps not incidentally) its attached package store were popular hangouts in a town that was virtually without night life. Rolls Royces drove down the street behind Alfred Schlosser’s beautiful Model T Ford — not restored, but kept in its original condition for over thirty years.
On the race days themselves, the town was practically empty. There were qualifications and preliminary races before the 12-hour race, and it seemed as though everyone was at the airport. Many townspeople worked around the pit areas and elsewhere as officials. Others opened stands to sell barbeque, hot dogs, burgers, tee shirts, race medallions, gift baskets of citrus or whatever else they figured the “yankees and foreigners” might buy.
People parked as close to the track as they could get — trucks, buses, cherry-pickers and anything else large enough to sit on and tall enough to see over the crowd. In many cases, that was frighteningly close. In the early 60’s a prominent citizen and a couple of guests were killed when a car left the track and headed into the crowd, a tragedy instrumental in the eventual demise of the race as it was originally run.
Then came the starter’s flag, and for twelve hours the old airfield came alive again…not with the roar of radial aircraft engines, but with the scream of the 12-cylinder Ferraris, the growl of the big six-cylinder Jags, the rumble of the Corvettes and the — snarl is the only word that fits — of the 7 liter Maserati V-8’s. Everyone became coated with a mixture of hotdog grease, suntan lotion, rubber dust, Central Florida clay and cotton candy. Kids ran miles while crisscrossing between the better viewing points on the curvy 5.6-mile track. As evening fell and the cars’ lights came on, the race about 2/3 over, everyone strained to see whose car was behind the glare: was it Gendebien in his Porsche? Moss in his “Maser?” Everyone had a favorite, and boys had fights about who was “the best of the best,” for this was truly a race in which only the best in the world competed.
By the mid-1960’s the cars had simply gotten too fast. Drivers protested at having to drive 200-mph automobiles on a track that had no banked turns, too many spectators too close to the track, limited medical facilities nearby, and straightaways too short to really challenge their cars. The governing body of international racing (at that time the Federation Internationale de l’ Automobile) decided that Sebring was no longer suitable for hosting a Grand Prix race, and the focus of grand prix racing in the US moved to Daytona.
The days of sports car racing — a true gentleman’s sport — were nearly over. Born in Europe before the war and carried on there and in the US and Canada afterward, sports car racing could not compete with the incredible amounts of money and publicity that were pouring into Formula 1 and NASCAR sponsorships. Originally conceived as competition that anyone with a car, a mechanic, a few dollars and some free weekends could participate in, it fell prey to the promoters who discovered that racing was a great way to sell Fords, Chevys, and exotic European marques. With the little guys priced out of the field, and cars too fast for the small tracks, it wasn’t long until Grand Prix racing meant Formula 1. Long before that, big-time sports car racing on an international level had pretty much bitten the dust. There are still races held in Sebring every March, but it’s not the same.