Postcards from Sebring: The sights, sounds, and cultural oddities

By William G. Sawyer
Editor at Large, The Virtual Driver

(March 25, 2017) When the Editor of The Virtual Driver discovered that I was making a trip to Sebring for the 12 Hours along with my son, and ace photographer, Danny, he shrugged off suggestions for a spectator’s view of the race, claiming it would add nothing to the voluminous coverage that would follow on TV and motorsport-focused websites.

But I knew I had to do something. This was Sebring, a cultural touchstone that was parodied by Ron Leibman’s character Murch in the 1972 Robert Redford movie The Hot Rock. While heading down I-75 from The Virtual Driver’s satellite office in Atlanta, I called an old friend in Ocala to compare weekend plans, and that’s when the idea for this feature began to hatch.

“I can’t believe you’re driving nine hours to see a bunch of cars go around in circles,” the voice on the other side of the telephone line sniffed.

Fair enough. Most race fans hear similar admonitions from people who find racing boring, even though those same critics may be mesmerized by The Westminster Dog Show, PGA golf tournaments or most stick and ball sports. What my friend doesn’t realize is that the race is only part of the spectacle, even though it’s pretty spectacular in its own right.

However, in order to understand Sebring, you have to comprehend how one man’s vision of a race in the middle of nowhere drove a nondescript village to international stardom, and the cultural significance of it all.

The Summer of Love lives on. Spectators brought their own mulch, border, flowers, flags and multi-color pinwheels to the race to build Dr. Timothy Leary’s grave….

I’d spent a lot of time in Florida, living there five days of the week and driving back home to Georgia on the weekends while running a company for Don Panoz. On the drive down to the race, I explained to my son that there are several Floridas, with each area having a unique personality. Take, for instance, the seashore communities versus the flat, featureless land in between. The coasts are rich and playful, while Central Florida — with the exception of metropolitan Orlando where a mouse created a tourist Mecca — is rather bland and serious. Florida is an Oreo cookie turned inside out.

Following World War II, Alec Ulmann visited the center of the state looking for a place to convert surplus war planes to civilian use. What he found was a decommissioned air base and a populous eager to fleece tourists, if only they could figure out how to get them to visit. Ulmann drew up a makeshift course on the airbase outside the sleepy town of Sebring, dropped hay bales along the runways for crowd protection, and created an international phenomenon.

…while others built their own city, complete with mailbox!

The event he created has lasted 65 years and shows no sign of losing steam. Years ago when I worked for Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), The Chairman declared every race should be a “happening”, a Sixties term for a major event that attracts people in the same way that Florida black flies are drawn to sun screen or ketchup (ask me how I know). He even went so far as to use his own funds to promote a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, bring in musical acts, and then invited other promoters to witness the spectacle he created.

They weren’t impressed by the few thousand paid spectators who attended, nor the red ink gushing from The Chairman’s pocketbook. What he didn’t understand was that happenings aren’t engineered, they spontaneously combust, just like the Sebring 12 Hour race did when it was discovered by college students looking for a place to party during spring break. And many of those same kids — now grandparents — continue to return year after year in an attempt to hold onto their youth.

The Bus Wreck Bar and Grill. Leave the million dollar Prevost at home if you want to blend in. The school bus is the motorcoach of choice at Sebring.

Those who don’t remember the Sixties (and most who really were there don’t) are doomed to repeat them, and we saw many examples of faulty memories and damaged brain cells in the infield, especially around the infamous Turn Ten. Jack Daniels and Viagra have replaced LSD and Sweet Mary Jane as stimulants of choice, but the party must go on.

Like the State of Florida, the Sebring 12 hour is multifaceted. The paddock and surrounding area are populated by hard workers striving to advance themselves and the sport, while the deep infield is a cultural melting pot Margaret Mead would be hard pressed to explain. Make no mistake, many of the Turn Ten denizens are prosperous. You have to have access to ready cash to afford to drag a tiki bar, smoker, and a fortune worth of pink flamingos down from the Midwest in a converted school bus every year.

Rumors that Cadillac’s hospitality budget have been drastically cut appear to be true.

Today these retired accountants have returned to their natural state, sporting waist length hair, flowing gray beards, and tattoos meant to prove to the world that they were always bad asses, even though they spent the past few decades hiding their true personalities beneath neckties and long sleeved white shirts from 9 to 5.

Sebring is The Last Open Road meets The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as Buddy Palumbo and Ken Kesey party side-by-side in a reclaimed jungle in Central Florida. A half-smashed spectator we encountered while watching the start of the race while — I kid you not — standing alongside a lesbian motorcycle gang from Switzerland commented on the strengthening economy and Sebring’s place in it.

“This place is America’s Goodwood,” he growled beneath a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Didya see the guys in gorilla suits and that bunch dressed up like monks? That’s what this place is all about, expressin’ yerself an’ the hell with everybody else if they can’t take a joke. Forget them Lymies parading around in World War I uniforms sippin’ tea. The only thing they got that’s stiff is their upper lip.

“The past eight years been kinda tough on us, no lie,” he continued. ”They took away our hope and left us scroungin’ for change, but things is changin’. We’re doin’ our part to make Sebring great agin!”

If you ask me, Sebring’s pretty great already.

The Virtual Driver