Sebring (1950)
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Sebring Circuit Map

Alec Ulmann

The man behind Sebring was Alec Ulmann. Born in Leningrad, Russia, in 1903, Alexander Edward UImann came from a pioneer motoring family. By the age of ten he could drive the family Benz Landaulette after tuition from the chauffeur. The Bolsheviks forced the Ulmann family out of Russia, and Alec had schooling in Switzerland and the United States. He won a master's degree in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusett's Institute of Technology and in 1930 he gained a pilot's licence.

The Schneider Cup Seaplane Races

Later, he began a business selling aviation products, largely in European countries, and became a keen motor-racing spectator. In 1939, he married an Englishwoman by the name of Mary Foote, who had organised the Schneider Cup seaplane races. Following World War 2 Alec Ulmann was among the 200 founding members of the Sports Car Club of America. He helped formulate racing rules and was chief steward of the original Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton, Floyd Bennett and Westhampton road races; and then came Sebring.

The Sam Collier Memorial

US racing drivers Miles and Sam Collier were looking for a motor racing venue in Florida. Sam, who had trained at the Hendrycks bomber base at Sebring during World War 2, found Alec Ulmann there. Ulmann ran an aircraft parts warehouse at the base and he helped organise an SCCA-sanctioned, six-hour sports car race on 31 December, 1950. The event was known as the Sam Collier Memorial, as Sam had been killed racing his Ferrari at Watkins Glen over two months before the race.

The American Automobile Association

The course was a twisty 5.2-mile affair using wide old concrete runways, plus ordinary tarmacadam roads, all lined by fifty-gallon oil drums. The Sports Car Club of America sanctioned the first event at Sebring in 1950, but in 1952 when Ulmann proposed to lengthen the race to 12-hours, open it to foreign participation and pay prize money the SCCA was not impressed. After all, it had always been their policy to run races only for 'amateur gentlemen'. Ulmann instead turned to the American Automobile Association, who were chiefly concerned with the running of the Indianapolis 500-mile race, for official sanctioning, which they duly gave.

World Sports Car Championship

In 1953, the Sebring 12-hours race was part of the FIA's newly inaugurated World Sports Car Championship. The mid-March date for the Sebring 12-hours became established in the international calendar. It was a glorious time of year in that part of Florida: the weather was usually warm and a great attraction was the sweet smell from the orange groves. However, there was almost a crisis when the AAA withdrew from motor-racing sanctioning following the 1955 Le Mans disaster. The Indianapolis enthusiasts formed the United States Auto Club to look after their interests, but road-racing at that time was not amongst them.

However, despite no official American sanctioning body, the FIA still granted the Sebring 12-hour race international championship status. From 1958, however, the Sports Car Club of America rid itself of its amateur-only policy and sanctioned the Sebring 12-hours, also running smaller meetings on a shorter circuit at the airfield venue from time to time. In 1959, Formula One racing made its bow in the United States at Sebring, Alec Ulmann staging the first United States Grand Prix since the American Grand Prize series of 1908-1916. Sebring's 12-hour race went from strength to strength.

Reggie Smith, Joe Lane and Fred Kingsbury Jr

Alec Ulmann's organisational ability was second to none. He built up a team which included Reggie Smith, timekeeper Joe Lane, publicity man Fred Kingsbury Jr and well-respected residents of Sebring. His wife, Mary, organised the financial side as well as doubling as treasurer of A. E. Ulmann Associates which dealt in aircraft parts. Commercial sponsorship for the race was successfully sought from such companies as Martini & Rossi, Alitalia, Castrol, Amoco and car companies such as Mercedes-Benz and MG. Ulmann's relationship with the SCCA was turbulent.

If he failed to get his own way, he tried methods such as threatening to obtain sanction from the USAC instead, while when Bill France of NASCAR fame ran a 2000 km sports car race a few weeks prior to Sebring at Daytona, Ulmann attempted to persuade the FIA to legislate against the use of banked circuits for the championship. He was not successful, and eventually peace was made with Daytona. Sebring though was growing old. Its bumpy collection of runways and link roads were considered unsafe and the small Sebring town in central Florida lacked facilities. Towards the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, each successive Sebring 12-hour race was said to be the last one.

The Race is Dead

Alec Ulmann vowed to build a new circuit. There was talk of utilising the old pits' complex for an entirely new track at the same venue; there was even some talk of a completely new track at a different location in Florida. The FIA then intervened. Permission for the running of the 1972 12-hour race as a championship race was only granted at the last minute and on condition that a new venue was to be provided for the following year. Plans were announced by Alec Ulmann, now almost seventy years of age, but they never materialised. The world was told the Sebring 12-hour race was dead.

Ray Cuomo's Austin Healey crashes out during the 1957 Sebring 12 hour
Ray Cuomo's Austin Healey crashes out during the 1957 Sebring 12 hour.

Sebring was always a high speed circuit, due to its flat layout
Sebring was always a high speed circuit, due to its flat layout.

German Rolf Stommelen in a Alfa Romeo tipo 33 during the 1971 Sebring 12 hour
German Rolf Stommelen in a Alfa Romeo tipo 33 during the 1971 Sebring 12 hour.

The International Motor Sports Association

Reggie Smith, Alec Ulmann's long-time assistant, negotiated a new lease from the Sebring Airport Authority and arranged for IMSA - the International Motor Sports Association - to sanction the 1973 12-hours. It was an event for GT and touring cars, one which was repeated in 1974 and continued for a time in similar format.

The Sebring 12 Hour Race

The Sebring 12 hour was a unique event which began in daylight and was concluded in darkness, conducted over a rough, bumpy and poorly defined 5.2-mile airfield circuit which, perhaps strangely, attracted top-line entries. Sebring's inaugural race was a six-hour race for sports cars on 31 December 1950, over a 3½-mile circuit. Sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America, it was for amateur drivers only and the main award was to the winner on handicap. This proved to be a Crosley Hot Shot crewed by Fritz Koster Ralph Dishon, although the car which ran the greatest distance was a Cadillac-powered Allard J2 driven by Fred Wacker.

The first 12-hour race, on the full 5.2-mile circuit, was run in March 1952 and the only foreign entry attracted was a team of 750cc DB-Panhard machines from France, one of which won the index of performance handicap. Bill Spear's 4.1-liter Ferrari 340 America led the field of 41 cars for four hours before the oil-pump drive broke, leaving victory to the 2-Iitre Frazer-Nash Le Mans Replica crewed by Britain's Harry Grey and American Larry Kulok. Wealthy Briggs Cunningham's team of sports cars were not ready for the inaugural 12-hours, but in 1953 one of the 1952 Le Mans cars, a 5.4-liter Cadillac-engined Cunningham C4R, was down to be driven by John Fitch/Phil Waiters.

Cunningham v. Aston Martin

Chief opponents were two factory-entered 2.9-liter Aston Martin DB3s of Reg Parnell / George Abecassis and Peter Collins / Geoff Duke, plus privately entered Ferraris and Jaguars. It was the first-ever round of the FIA's World Sports Car Championship, a series unveiled in typically bungled FIA fashion a mere five weeks before Sebring! From the drop of the flag - by courtesy of pre-war recordman George Eyston - there was a Cunningham v. Aston Martin contest. At quarter-distance, motor cyclist Duke's Aston held a slender lead, but an incident with a backmarker caused its retirement, and the Cunningham won, chased by the Parnell / Abecassis Aston which had also suffered slower machinery.

The entry for 1954 was superb: four 3.3-liter Lancia B24s, three 2.9-liter Aston Martin DB3s, a 5.4-liter Cunningham C4R plus privately entered Jaguars and Ferraris, and a host of medium and small-capacity machinery. Lancia were the obvious favorites, but problems intervened shortly after the first routine pit-stops when the Juan Manuel Fangio / Eugenio Castellotti car retired with transmission failure and the Alberto Ascari / Luigi Villoresi machine ruined its clutch. With the Cunningham and the Aston Martins out, it was a real race of attrition, but Lancia's honour seemed saved with the Piero Taruffi / Robert Manson machine enjoying a ninety-mile lead over the tiny, Briggs Cunningham-entered 1½-liter OSCA crewed by Stirling Moss / Bill Lloyd.

Then came drama in the closing stages as Taruffi's car had an oil pipe break and its engine seize. The 47-year-old Italian actually pushed the heavy car 2½ miles to the pits, collapsing as he made his goal, while Moss, sliding the brakeless and clutchless OSCA broadside round Sebring's curves, made up ground and eventually took the lead to win. The 1955 race ended in chaos: at the end of the 12-hours, there was dispute as to who had won. Was it the factory-loaned 3.4-liter Jaguar D-type entered by Briggs Cunningham for Mike Hawthorn / PhiI Walters? ... Or was it the 3-liter Ferrari 750 Monza of Texan oil magnate Allen Guiberson crewed by Phil Hill / Carrell Shelby? Following protests and counter-protests, the AAA examined official lap charts plus lap charts from both teams; eight days after the race the Jaguar was declared the winner by 25.4 seconds. Hawthorn / Waiters averaged 79.30 mph, while Hill / Shelby were partly consoled with victory in the index of performance.

Enter the Chev Corvettes

For 1956, there was official American representation from a major works team: Chevrolet entered a team of 4.4-liter Chevrolet Corvettes and opposed representation from Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar (via the US dealership), Aston Martin and Porsche. Jaguars made the early running, but they suffered from braking problems which put the 3½-liter Ferrari 860 Monza of Juan Manuel Fangio / Eugenio Castellotti into a lead it was never to lose. The pair cracked both the 80 mph and 1000-mile barriers, covering 1008.77 miles to average 84.06 mph.

The 4.6-liter Corvette SS

Chevrolet's road-going cars were no match for the racing machinery, so in 1957 they unveiled the 4.6-liter Corvette SS, a machine which showed promise but was never developed, as General Motors withdrew immediately afterwards from competition. As the Ferraris wilted under the strain, Maserati took command with the 4½-liter 450S model of Juan Manuel Fangio / Jean Behra, averaging a record 85.34 mph and beating the 3-liter 300S of Stirling Moss / Harry Schell. In 1958, with the works 3-liter Aston Martin DBR1/300 of Stirling Moss / Tony Brooks retiring from the lead at one-third distance with transmission failure, Phil Hill / Peter Collins were left to cruise home at another new record speed of 86.60 mph in their 3-liter works Ferrari 250 TR, heading the sister car of Luigi Musso / Olivier Gendebien.

Small cars starred, too, with Lotus II-Climaxes taking fourth, sixth and ninth places and a 750cc OSCA winning the index of performance. The next year saw almost a repeat performance. Again, an Aston Martin acted as pace-maker, only to retire, while Ferrari TR60s took first and second places. The winning crew of Phil Hill / Olivier Gendebien took over a car driven earlier by Dan Gurney / Chuck Daigh. In December 1959, Sebring airfield reverberated to the echo of unusual cars to American eyes: the European Grand Prix circus was making its first post-war appearance in North America. But it was a disappointingly small crowd that watched the climax to the World Championship fought out by Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks.

The First German Victory

Moss's Rob Walker-entered Cooper T45-Climax led, only to retire with transmission failure, leaving, it seemed, the race and title to Brabham's works Cooper T'g t-Climax. Brabham, however, ran out of fuel on the last lap, leaving his surprised team-mate Bruce McLaren the winner. There were fuel contractual problems in 1960 which spoilt the 12-hours. Amoco, sponsors of the race, had an exclusive arrangement to fuel all competing cars, but Ferrari and Porsche were contracted to Shell and BP respectively. Ferrari withdrew their works cars, while Porsche provided works cars which were entered 'privately' by their drivers. With the Camoradi-entered 2.9-liter Maserati T61 'Birdcage' of Stirling Moss/Dan Gurney retiring after setting a scorching pace, and the privately entered Ferraris running into problems, the 1.6-liter Porsche RS60 of Olivier Gendebien / Hans Hermann triumphed. It was the first German victory at Sebring, and Porsche just failed to make the double, losing the index of performance to a 750cc OSCA by 0.0006 points.

With the FIA amending sports-car regulations year after year, the major manufacturers began to drop out. 1961 was also the last season of the World Sports Car Championship in its original form, but at Sebring there was strong representation by the last stalwarts: Ferrari, Maserati and Porsche. Not surprisingly, Ferrari were the most reliable, with victory going to the 3-liter TR61 of Phil Hill / Olivier Gendebien at a record average of 91.30 mph. In 1962, Stirling Moss / Innes Ireland were disqualified when in the lead: their Ferrari TR60 had apparently been refuelled before time. This allowed an easy win for Jo Bonnier / Lucien Bianchi in a similar car entered by Scuderia Serenissima. Second were familiar Sebring exponents Phil Hill / Olivier Gendebien (Ferrari 250GT), also winners of the GT category.

The following year another Ferrari victory was scored: at first, it appeared Graham Hill / Pedro Rodriguez would take the honours in the 4-liter Ferrari 330 TRJLM entered by the North American Racing Team, but electrical troubles in the closing stages dropped it behind the two works-entered 3-liter Ferrari 250Ps of John Surtees / Lodovico Scarfiotti and Willy Mairesse / Nino Vaccarella. Ferraris took the first six places, plus the index of performance. Ferrari repeated the dose in 1964. Two works-entered 3.3-liter Ferrari 27SPs driven by Mike Parkes / Umberto Maglioli, Lodovico Scarfiotti / Nino Vaccarella beat the 4-liter Ferrari 330P of John Surtees / Lorenzo Bandini. Parkes / Maglioli set a record average of 92.36 mph in covering 112.8 miles.

A Home Win To The Texas Oil Millionaires

In 1965, what the race promoters had been hoping for actually happened: the first 'home' win since 1953. Conquering a torrential rainstorm, the 5.4-liter Chaparral 2-Chevrolet of Jim Hall / Hap Sharp - two Texan oil millionaires - beat a works Ford GT40 shared by Bruce McLaren / Ken Miles. Ferrari were humbled into third place, taken by the privately entered 3.3-liter 250LM which owner David Piper handled with Tony Maggs. In 1966, Ford took the honours, trouncing both Ferrari and Chaparral. Ford won again in 1967. Bruce Mcl.aren / Mario Andretti in a 7-liter Ford GT Mk 4 covered a record 1237.6 miles to average 103.13mph, and beat the older Mk2 model of A. J. Foyt / Lloyd Ruby.

The following year, thanks to revised FIA regulations which all but outlawed the big US cars, Porsche scored a 1-2 result with the 2.2-liter 907 models of Jo Siffert / Hans Hermann and Vic Elford / Jochen Neerpasch, finishing well ahead of 5-liter Chevrolet Camaro Z28 touring car handled by Mark Donohue / Craig Fisher. In 1969, there was a real surprise when Ford scored again, the old-4.9-liter GT 40 entered by the British JW Automotive Engineering firm, and driven by Jackie Ickx / Jackie Oliver outlasting the faster, but more fragile, Ferrari, Porsche, Alfa Romeo and Lola opposition.

Into the 1970s, Sebring began to lose its magic. The entry was never so good, although the big Porsches and Ferraris provided a shattering spectacle in both 1970 and 1971. In 1970 Mario Andretti took over a 5-liter Ferrari 512S formerly handled by Ignazio Giunti / Nino Vaccarella and brought it through to win at a record average of 107.03 mph. In fairytale fashion, a 3-liter Porsche 908, driven by Peter Revson and film-star Steve McQueen, was second. The next year the race was enlivened by a collision between Pedro Rodriguez' Porsche 917K and Mark Donohue's Ferrari 512M, which dropped both down the field and paved the way for Vic Elford / Gerard Larrousse to win at a record 112.50 mph in a 5-liter Porsche 917K.

National IMSA GT Series

The 1972 Sebring 12-hours was the last fully international one, the FIA having decided the Automobile Racing Club of Florida would never find a new venue and giving them this one last chance. This was the year of a new 3-liter limit and Ferrari domination, and Jacky Ickx / Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson / Tim Schenken gave the Italian marque a not- unexpected 1-2 victory. From 1973, the Sebring 12-hours was not run to FIA international sports-car championship regulations, but to the national IMSA GT series rules. Peter Gregg / Hurley Haywood (Porsche 911 Carrera RS) took the honours in 1973, while in 1975 there was a revival of international interest as the German BMW team fielded a two-car works team of 3.5-liter BMW 3.0 CSLs against the Porsches and Chevrolets. The Munich marque won, too, putting all their team drivers - Brian Redman, Allan Moffat, Sam Posey and Hans-Joachim Stuck - in the sole surviving car to head a collection of Porsches.

Porsche drivers were back on top in 1976 and continued their domination for several years. The 1976 winners were Al Holbert and Mike Keyser-heading nine Porsches in the top ten. George Dyer and Brad Friselle upheld Porsche honour in 1977 and in 1978 Brian Redman scored an immensely popular win, on his return to racing following a serious accident the previous season. Redman shared his Porsche 935 with owner Charles Mendez and Bob Garretson; their winning average was 103.978 mph. For a circuit which is so much a part of the American scene, Sebring's early list of winners has a very European flavour!
Corvette's lead the way in the middle of the 1971 Sebring 12 hours
Corvette's lead the way in the middle of the 1971 Sebring 12 hours.
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