Written by Jackie Martin
I am not what you might call a “petrolhead”. Nor would the idea of going on a holiday based around a motor sport event ever have occurred to me until I met my partner some twelve years ago. Indeed, up until that time my exposure to motor sport had been restricted to a few laps of the odd Grand Prix or a bit of the World Rally Championship seen on TV on a Saturday afternoon when I was a child. But who could resist the offer of a holiday to Australia – even if part of it entailed going to watch the Melbourne Grand Prix? That led to me joining the pilgrimage to the Le Mans 24 Hours with a group of other couples and this excursion quickly became an annual fixture. Well, you know: “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” and a relationship is meant to be all about shared interests and experiences isn’t it? Besides, going with my partner to watch motor sport gives him the opportunity to show off his considerable knowledge and that makes him feel good. And on top of all that, it’s quite entertaining really!
So this year, because of family commitments, we were unable to go to Le Mans. Shock! Horror! The first time in fifteen years that he hadn’t been to Le Mans. What to do? Fortunately there exists now a whole series of endurance races, run to Le Mans regulations, in which the Le Mans teams and cars take part. These take place throughout the year in various locations worldwide as part of the FIA World Endurance Championship. We decided to go to one of these races as a panacea for not being able to attend the Mecca of endurance racing. As we had no idea which would be a good race to watch, I tweeted one of the drivers who is part of the all-conquering Audi sports car racing team. Allan McNish replied that either Sebring or Road Atlanta (Petit Le Mans) were, in his opinion, the best events after Le Mans.
There was no question about to whom we would go for our travel arrangements. We have relied on the wisdom and expertise of Travel Destinations to cater for all our wants and needs for our trips to Le Mans for many years, so it was obvious that we would consult them about our intended expedition across the pond. Richard told me that, because the rules for the American Le Mans Series & FIA WEC were changing this year, he wasn’t sure whether Petit Le Mans would still attract all the large and well-known manufacturer teams. In addition, the 12 Hours of Sebring was this year celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, so the race was likely to be a bit special. And so the decision was made: Sebring 12 Hours for a week in March. We also decided to stay on for an extra week in order to see something more of Florida, where neither of us had been before (I had never even been to America before). This wasn’t a problem: the package around the race itself – flight, hire car, hotel – was the standard Travel Destinations offer, but they would also arrange the additional time on the car rental plus the flight back on whatever date we chose. All we had to do was to find and book accommodation for the second week. I was very determined that I was having nothing to do with Disney, or any other theme park for that matter. Helen at Travel Destinations knows the area around Naples on the Florida Gulf Coast well and she made it sound very tempting, but in the end I knew that we had to be not too much of a drive away from Orlando, which was where we flew in to and departed from. I also suspected that, like Australia, Florida would turn out to be one of those places that looks quite small on a map but which in real life is actually the size of the British Isles! We ended up opting to spend our second week in Saint Augustine on the North-East coast. But that’s a whole other story.
We followed the excellent advice given to us by Travel Destinations and made careful preparations for our trip: we followed the Sebring International Raceway Twitter feed and we downloaded the Sebring Raceway iPhone app. In this way we were kept up to date with the pre-race build up and the preparations that were under way. Very disappointingly we discovered that Radio Le Mans would not be covering the race live and that there was no free WiFi at the circuit, so we would only be able to listen to the Radio Le Mans commentary by paying for WiFi access. In the event, we did try to sign up for WiFi but failed miserably and we missed badly being kept informed of competitors’ progress and the incidents during the race that we couldn’t see from our viewing points, as we had become so used to receiving at Le Mans. There is much that the Le Mans 24 Hours can learn from Sebring 12 Hours, but Radio Le Mans race commentary is one aspect where the French event wins over the American event hands down.
Anyway, I digress. We sorted out our ESTA applications and travel insurance and checked baggage allowances. We decided to stay the night before we travelled at a Gatwick hotel in order not to have to suffer the panic of getting stuck on the M25 with the clock ticking down to flight departure time.
We treated ourselves to the more upmarket, but further from the race circuit, hotel option offered by Travel Destinations. We had been warned that this particular hotel – one of the Hampton Inn and Suites chain which is owned by Hilton Hotel Group – was about an hour’s drive from Sebring but in the end this really wasn’t an issue: we had a very decent hire car and the roads were nowhere near as clogged up as British roads. (And it wasn’t me who was doing all the driving so I was quite content!). When we arrived at the hotel it was evening and I was immediately entranced by the strong and glorious scent of orange blossom which greeted us as we got out of the car. The staff at the hotel were very friendly, helpful and efficient. They immediately located our reservation details and within ten minutes of arriving we were settling into our enormous room, equipped with comfortable beds, fridge and a microwave. And of course icy cold air conditioning!
What were my initial impressions of the Sebring Raceway? I suppose that ‘unsophisticated’ is the best way I could put it. I don’t mean that in a negative sense: I suppose, it being America, I had been expecting glitzy, razzamatazz, & corporate. But it wasn’t. That first visit, the overriding memory is of golf buggies! Admittedly, the primary objective of the first time we went to the circuit was to collect our race tickets, so I was very focused on where the temporary parking was and where to go to pick up tickets, as well as what ID or evidence of the purchase I would be expected to produce. In the end there was no queuing and a very helpful lady at the ticket collection window quickly found our tickets without any fuss. Even though we had parked in ‘temporary’ parking there was no-one walking around checking cars and telling people to move on after twenty minutes, so we decided to get our bearings and see how the land lay. That was when I realised that absolutely everyone was riding around in a golf buggy. At other big motorsport events that I have been to, especially during the pre-event build up when the people at the circuit are mostly the teams themselves preparing for the race, the predominant mode of transport is the pit bike. The various spectators who are trying to get a glimpse of pre-race action wander around on foot. But at Sebring, there was almost no-one on foot, there were few, if any, pit bikes and everyone either seemed to have their own golf buggy or was riding around on someone else’s golf buggy. Indeed, when we tried to walk across a bridge leading towards the paddock area, we were told by a very polite and helpful security guard that no pedestrians were even allowed that way and the only way to get to the paddock was to hitch a ride on a golf buggy. With that, our helpful security guard then flagged down a passing buggy and told us (and the chap driving the buggy) to hop on board. It turned out that the buggy in question belonged to Sam Smith who was the marketing manager for the Lola manufacturer. He was delighted to find out that his passengers were fellow Brits and he took us right into the paddock and gave us some really helpful pointers about where to go and what to see. He also showed us where the footbridges were, which was, of course, useful when we left the paddock, not having a golf buggy to hand.
So Sebring is.. friendly, well organised. Big, but low key. The officials had everything well under control but without being over-zealous or officious. They saw to it that the public played by the rules but they were relaxed in their attitude. The whole atmosphere, even on race day with thousands of people at the circuit, was relaxed, friendly and you could tell that everyone was there to enjoy the racing. I think that one example that really shows how chilled everyone was is that the day before race day itself was St Patrick’s Day. The Americans at Sebring seemed determined to celebrate ‘Paddy’s Day’ with even more enthusiasm than the Irish themselves. Everyone wore green: anything and everything green. A lot of people even dressed as leprechauns. The Sebring Raceway staff walked around handing out necklaces of shiny green beads and it seemed to be everyone’s chief objective – male and female alike -to acquire and to wear as many of these green necklaces as possible. It was completely bizarre, but it just epitomised the determination that everyone there had to really enjoy the race and the whole event.
And what of the race? Travel Destinations had advised us to arrive at around 7am on race day in order to be in plenty of time to see the cars lined up on the starting grid before the race. This was quite an exciting prospect so, having got up at stupid o’clock, we arrived at the circuit as dawn was breaking. Getting out of the car, I heard a very strange sound nearby and then, in the misty half-light of the overflow car park field, I saw two enormous birds standing. I later found out that these were Sandhill Cranes, native to Florida and quite a rare species. It was a surreal way to start the day.
It was an unusual experience, also, a short while later and before the race to walk onto the grid where the cars were parked in echelon formation in starting order. There it was possible to mingle with the teams, the press and the drivers. I had my ‘Martin Brundle moment’ when I actually shook hands with one of the drivers in the Audi team. I wished him luck for the race and it must have worked because his car ended up winning. Much more satisfying than standing in line for an hour to get an autograph.
Sebring has no grandstands and a very few ‘bleacher’ type tiered seating stands. But, nevertheless, it is well set up for spectators. Knowing that there were no seats we bought a couple of folding camping chairs from one of the department stores in the shopping mall, conveniently located opposite our hotel. At frequent intervals around the circuit Sebring has constructed grassy viewing mounds. These are in fenced-off areas and are exclusively for spectators; no camping or barbecuing is allowed in these enclosures. The grassy mounds are high enough that you get an uninterrupted view of the race track. Their only disadvantage is that they offer no shade. Those wiser than ourselves (and perhaps with more carrying capacity) brought umbrellas or parasols which they set up beside their chairs. It is also perfectly y possible to get a great view of the race from trackside. Between the Armco and the catch fence there is an inner track which is used by official, press and emergency vehicles. This provides some protection from the track for spectators, but the best thing is that the catch fencing, apart from at the most notorious turns, is only up to chest height, which makes for unimpeded viewing from really very close beside the action. There are a few trees around the circuit which provide some shady spots from where the race can be watched during the hottest part of the day. And as the sun went down there were plenty of other excellent vantage points around the whole circuit.
There were a few other attractions beside the cars, although the vast majority of people were there to visit the paddock before the race (the autograph session was mobbed and there were unbelievably long queues as people waited patiently in the blazing sun to get signatures from the top teams: Audi, Corvette, Flying Lizard) and then simply to watch the race itself. There was a ‘party zone’ consisting of an assault course (for enthusiastic young men) and a stage for the ‘Miss Sebring bikini contest’ (for enthusiastic young women). And, of course, there were very many food stalls selling tempting cholesterol-laden treats, plus an assortment of outlets for authorised and unauthorised Sebring 12 Hours merchandise as well as the inevitable emporia selling model cars.
Returning to the comparison between the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Le Mans 24 Hours, another point worth mentioning is camping. You cannot achieve, in my (very) humble opinion, the ‘complete’ Le Mans experience unless you are camping either on, or not significantly far from, the circuit. For the majority, camping at Le Mans means camping in a tent. As I have already said, for the 12 Hours of Sebring we stayed at an hotel about an hour’s drive away from the venue. Personally, I don’t think that we missed out on anything, race-wise, due to our choice of accommodation. This is not to say that it is not possible to camp at Sebring: a large proportion of the infield area is given over to this purpose. But this is not the ‘tent city’ type of campsite that appears every year at Le Mans on any available patch of ground. At Sebring, actual tents are very few and far between. The Americans rock up in camper vans. Although it was noticeable that classic VW Campers and Dormobiles were very much in the minority. To the American race fans at Sebring a ‘camper van’ means an RV (Recreational Vehicle): Winnebago-type vehicles of articulated lorry proportions providing small bungalow-scale living quarters with all mod cons including (of course) air conditioning. Most trackside camping pitches (parking spaces, really) are sold on a season-long permit basis and so are rarely available to the casual race spectator. But there is plenty of space to park up in the infield and everyone gets a great view from the top of their RV. Apart from actually being alongside the circuit, the best camping spot is at Turn 10, a ‘brake-hard-second-gear’ tight corner following a fast chicane section of the track, where a lot of action (both on and off the track) always happens. The campers at Turn 10 are a crowd of regular Sebring 12 Hours devotees who meet up year after year. They arrive in trucks loaded with scaffolding and plywood and build, in the space of a day, a veritable village, complete with viewing platforms, saloon bar and camp catering facilities where whole hogs are roasted and breakfast and other meals are served for fifty-plus people.
I won’t try to give you a report on the winners and losers in each of the classes at Sebring 2012. I will leave that to the experts or if you have some time to spare you can always ask my partner. He’ll be happy to talk you through it. For me the winners at Sebring were us!
In conclusion, although the 12 Hours of Sebring doesn’t necessarily have the cachet or the history of the Le Mans 24 Hours, the knowledge of the spectators, added to the willingness of the organisers to include the spectators, in many ways puts Le Mans to shame. The track itself has been vastly developed from airport runways and outroads into a very challenging and bumpy circuit which keeps the race spectacular and interesting. The 12 Hours of Sebring deserves its high ranking in the list of great sports car endurance races. We will be back.
Jackie & Andy travelled with us to the 12 Hours of Sebring 2012. If you would like to follow them to Sebring please take a look at our Sebring offers here.