The Classic 12 Hour At Sebring Was No-Frills Vintage Racing At Its Finest
Photography by Ben Ratliff
Have you ever been somewhere for the first time and thought “This is cool, but not what I expected”? That was my experience recently after a weekend spent watching the Classic 12 Hour at Sebring.
I’ll put that in more context: I grew up on race tracks. To be more specific, I grew up on drag strips. From the age of eight to eighteen, I traveled with my family to just about every major one in the country, and among a few other things I learned that motorsport is markedly different depending on the media coverage and spectator accessibility. The track looks and operates differently, it even sounds different.
At the Daytona 500 or the Rolex 24 you are surrounded by entertainment, the infield is packed with people, the grid is thick with cars, the announcers mix with the sounds of strained engines developed by the best racing engineers out there. These big-time, TV-type events are fun and exciting, but they come with a lot of fluff.
I’d never actually been to Sebring before this race, and all I had to go on was coverage from IMSA, i.e. modern big-budget endurance racing. This was totally different. I pulled right into registration without a single person ahead of me in line, met a kind person at a small window, handed over my ID, and got my media pass. No forms, just a smile: “Go have fun!” Getting my bearings inside, it doesn’t take long to realize this is not like the Sebring on TV.
There is an infield that resembles a college tailgate party during IMSA weekends, but today it looks like a golf course in those early morning hours before anyone’s arrived. The fog is heavy, adding to the isolation. There are a few RV’s parked across the track on the general parking side, but they aren’t finishing up a night of partying. Without anyone coming in to build massive impermanent spectator seating, all that’s left are the small stands built years ago. Back when the fence was the spectator seating area. And if you had one of the few actual seats then you were sitting pretty. 65 years of racing history are etched over the pit boxes, and from the looks of things, not much has changed at all really. When the big crews are gone it seems to go back in time here.
Some things remain the same, the track still winds around with the classic blue and white tires along the barricades. It’s still the same ex-Airforce base that used to train WWII bombers. It still operates as a municipal airport, and indeed between turns 15 and 16, you look across to the runway where planes are parked up looking like race track props. The weekend had an aerial element to it along with the historic racing, and it was pretty wild to see GT40s and old NAVY war birds doing their respective things together.
The cars that have gathered here for the HSR’s 12-hour race span 1952 to relatively modern LMP prototypes, and this might be one of the only times you will get to see a 1966 McLaren M1B fly past you and an hour later a 2017 Porsche GT3 Cup Car. It’s not a bunch of rich retired guys playing with their toys either, there are plenty of seasoned racers in the ranks. And you don’t have to be a millionaire to race here; there are guys operating out of an open trailer with a decades-old truck pulling it. This is truly a melding of classes, in more ways than one.
The “12 Hour” aspect of the race weekend was a bit unconventional as well. Here’s a rundown: first, the cars don’t actually race for 12 straight hours. They do 40 minutes at a time with their own class. Each class heat starts on the hour, and they go round-robin style until they’re done. it makes things much tighter on track; there isn’t a steady stream of engines roaring by like in most endurance races when the pack spreads, instead you have about a two-minute break between each passing. I love this because you get to hear them in the distance as a single unit, and then they begin to separate as they approach and become distinct again.
Before the 12 hours of racing begins with all the era-specific cars there are a few sprint races featuring some entertaining combinations, like NASCAR machines battling it out with GTLM classics and modern Ferraris. Other sprints include ’80s Porsches alongside a ’60s Lotus formula cars. Odd pairings, plenty of fun to watch all the same.
Then the heats for the main event get underway, and I spend the majority of the time spent shooting almost completely alone, since the area is closed off to the public and not many others are with me as I move from turn to turn. The racing is even better to watch in this atmosphere, it’s more intimate with fewer people, fewer jumbotrons. Group A (1952-1973) is my favorite class to watch of the lot, and I was particularly fond of a green and white 1969 Lola T165 (#27) that was tangled in battle with its counterpart, the white and green Lola T70 MK IIIb (#7). Watching them come around corners together is like watching a couple that have been married for 60 years having a respectful debate, not an argument. Every move is deliberate and competitive, but respectful at the same time.
One of my favorites cars from the class though is a bit slower than those two. The little light green machine that brings up the rear of the class, a 1966 Volvo (#46), was a barn find car that the was revived while retaining its patina. The gentleman racing it was the same who’d restored it, and though he may not have been the fastest, I guarantee he was having at least as much fun as anyone.
The next group, Group B (no relation), combined cars from 1973-1993, when wide bodies and hard lines ruled. The way they built cars back then made it seem as if the vehicles themselves had huge egos like some of their drivers. I was half expecting Maverick to step out of one and high five me, and to do so without any irony. The class is led by the prime color combo of two red and yellow Chevrons. The yellow #26 is a 1974 B26, and its red #94 counterpart a 1979 B23/36. They gleam through the evening light into the dark when their headlights come on and add to the mood. It really does feel like the cars are having fun out here, even as the visibility fades a bit more and more into blackness. Call them inanimate objects, but It’s hard not to see a flicker of a soul in these things.
Among the Europeans (read: Porsches), is an American badass that cuts through them without so much as an “excuse me,” or an “entschuldigung.” You can be a bit rude driving a black 1976 Stingray Corvette, and this open-cockpit beast channels dragsters on the straightaways here. She doesn’t need shiny paint and cool graphics either, she’s flat black and doesn’t need your compliments.
The fading evening light provides some amazing light that hits the cars in just the right spots, accentuating their lines and really making some cars live up to their “silhouette” nicknames. The only thing that’s more fun to watch than a 935 visibly hit peak boost is to watch it happen when the sun’s setting next to it. But the sun falls too fast, and pitches Sebring into night soon enough.
Remember, this is not a super speedway with permanent grandstand lights lining every inch. Here it takes some extra guts to run in front, because there isn’t much to go on in terms of land marks either, and the headlights don’t have much to help them. There are one, maybe two lights at each corner that give off just enough illumination to let you know that yes, there is in fact a corner here. Without the crowds of RVs and campers sardined in the infield, you can stand and watch the lights of the cars outline the track clearly. If it is sparse in the photographer areas during the day, it is desolate at night—I run into one or two others, but beyond that I feel like a kid at the theme park after hours who stowed away and now has the place to his giddy self.
Saturday night becomes Sunday morning, and the event finishes up without much ceremony. There was a podium, but most of the teams are gone already. No one is popping champagne, hoisting huge trophies in the air, or drinking out of a shoe. The racers here came to race, and that’s really it. So when the checkered flag fell and it was over, it was over. All that was on the minds of the competitors is packing up the trailers and heading home. It’s a track with a huge amount of notoriety, a long history, and thankfully, as my time at the Classic 12 Hour proved, among the national broadcast weekends it hasn’t left the diehards out to dry.