Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Local Sports

An illustrious history of racing


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SEBRING INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY - The best a racing museum can offer its visitors is pictures and video of days gone by. Occasionally a curator can bring in an old driver to share his stories.

But Sebring is different.

The main straightway at the Sebring International Raceway isn't much to look at. It's a long slab of concrete, filled with cracks and the occasional pot hole.

But do a little digging and you'll find it has a history unlike any other endurance track, not just in the U.S., but around the world.

The last time fresh concrete was laid on the straightway, it was 1942. The ominous war drums of World War II were just staring to rumble in the States. Future U.S. President Ronald Regan was little more than a bit actor in B-movies. Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Cocktail" and Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" were dominating the music charts.

It's been more than seven decades since the straightway saw any substantial improvements. But that's just fine with most of the drivers.

"That's what gives the track its charm," said Flying Lizard Motorsports driver Spencer Pumpelly. "Parts of the asphalt haven't been repaved since the 1940s. Some turns are still from the original design. It's like a living track."

The same straightaway fans will crowd to see hasn't been touched since the first handful of dedicated drivers snuck onto the track to race their cars. It's a constantly evolving track that's seen some of the greatest endurance drivers cruise its asphalt.

What would eventually become a world-famous course was originally a U.S. Army Air Force base. Named after Ocala native First Lieutenant Laird Woodruff Hendricks Jr., Hendricks Army Airfield was primarily used as Heavy Bomber Training facility. Pilots were trained to operate behemoth planes like B-17s and B-24s.

Because the planes were so heavy, the concrete laid on the runways was several feet thick. The straightaway has held up surprisingly well, considering that races have been held on its surface almost annually since 1950.

The track's unique obstacles have been a primary factor in deciding which cars and drivers are most capable of moving onto the vaunted 24 Hours of Le Mans. The bumpy roads, combined with the blistering south-Florida heat, are often measuring sticks against which the car's - and driver's - reliability are tested.

For inexperienced drivers and teams that haven't competed in the 12 Hours of Sebring, Pumpelly said the track presents a substantial challenge.

"It's always interesting for anyone who comes out here for the first time," he said. "This track, the event in fact, was born out of guys who had a love for racing but couldn't find the infrastructure. So they were invited here."

The major players in the Mobil 1 62nd 12 Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida all have experience at the raceway. But traversing the course is always a grind.

And this year, with well over 60 cars set to compete on Saturday, it's going to be a madhouse. Teams will need to be acutely aware of the car's health, as a worn down tire or a languid turn in the hairpin could mean the different between being a champion or an also-ran.

bhoward@highlandstoday.com

863-386-5841

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