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km : Grand Touring

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24 March 2011

On a typical morning it takes two rounds of alarm clocks plus the jet engine whirr of an automatic coffee grinder to get me stirring. On a typical Saturday, even that sort of assault might be a failure. This isn’t a typical Saturday, and I’m realizing V8 race engines make the best wake-up calls. Not only are they effective, they don’t make me want to throw things — not that I could hit a Flying Lizard 911 with a pillow, anyway.



Renting an RV is the only way to do the 12 Hours of Sebring, an event every enthusiast should get to at least once. Beyond the unique rise-and-shine moment, it’s the only way to arrive early and avoid traffic for the rest of the weekend, it provides a cool place to escape the sun and rest mid-afternoon, and the views from the roof can be some of the best at the track. From our spot in Turn 15, the action includes a few spins, a few tire shreds, and countless gutsy passes. Plus, the RV has made possible a three-day trip to the track with zero trips to the public shower facilities.



For those of you not familiar with Sebring International Raceway, it sits a few hours south of Orlando, smack dab in the middle of Florida’s swampy core. Before the first race was run in 1950, it was known as Hendricks Field, an air base where WWII soldiers learned to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress. Since the switchover to smaller but equally intimidating machines, Sebring has been home to the first Formula One US Grand Prix, has been driven on by countless racing legends, and continues to be the home of one of racing’s premier events.



There’s almost no elevation change through the course’s 17-turn circuit, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy track. In addition to a few tricky strings of corners, we’re told the track has always been as bumpy as it was this year. The final corner seems especially problematic. Just watch the suspension of the ‘Vette and 911 leading up to this crash. A friend even managed to get a picture of a 911 with all four tires off the ground coming out of that corner. It has us wondering if making racetracks on swampy soil isn’t such a good idea.



What is a good idea is having the 12 Hours early in the season, when central Florida hasn’t quite reached a boil. It makes wandering the grounds bearable and a cold beer — always within sight — capable of cooling the body. But the temperatures in mid-March are generally warm enough to create the interesting dichotomy of attendees that makes Sebring so thoroughly enjoyable. On the one hand, you have the very serious and well-dressed Europeans, the 911 owners and the suite-dwellers, while on the other you have the lifted pickup crowd, those who fill their truck beds with old couches and shirtless men trying to exchange cans of Budweiser to women for, um, “peeks under their hoods”.



The groups intermingle well though, which adds to the fun of Sebring. We cruised the notorious “Green Park” area of the grounds in a pre-production Audi A7 without being spit on a single time, though not a single person asked to see my boobs. Our favorite spotting in this central party zone was a topless bus with wood cutouts along the sides making it look like massively oversized Audi LMP1 car. Redneck ingenuity meets German engineering.





Our big, bus-sized RV occupies a space in the middle of a different sort of party between the front and back straights. That’s where every team, amateur, professional, and everything in between, maintains a paddock. It’s open to everyone and on the days leading up to the big race, smaller teams can be seen tearing down suspension bits and doing brake jobs right there on the hot tarmac.



On Friday night, the big guys go full steam prepping for the morning and a stroll through the paddocks becomes an emotional experience. In the dark of the night, the glow of spotlights emanates from makeshift structures. A peek inside each shows the automotive equivalent of heart surgery, teams of white-suited men gathered ‘round their subjects with special instruments working against the clock. Some teams seem to enjoy putting on a show, especially the GT class guys. Meanwhile, the teams with the most to lose work like covert operatives behind curtains and barriers. Audi’s LMP1 team in particular is especially discreet, hiding away any car not being worked on with a form-fitting cover. In the pits during the race the next day, the Peugeot factory team stacks its spare body panels in custom-made luggage. Winning or losing can be decided by who best keeps the multi-million-dollar secrets.



The paddock stroll builds a lot of hype for the race start the next morning and when I see a fighter jet preparing for a fly-over on the adjacent airport’s runway, I scurry up to the RV’s roof and get ready for the gentlemen to start their engines.



Initially, the sounds of over 50 different race engines sounds like a single swarm of giant bees flying around our giant campground of trucks and trailers and lifted Jeeps, but it doesn’t take long to start picking out specific tones from behind a wall. The bassy Corvettes shake the ground. The Audis and Peugeots, both diesel-powered, approach with a faint, futuristic woosh. The Jaguar XK team seems to deliver more noise than speed, which cements my belief that these race cars really do reflect the cars each company puts out on the street. The BMW M3s seem to be the softest speakers of the GT class, and they go on to a sweep when the checkered flag finally falls.



After getting a good fill of Turn 15 from atop our home base — highlights include an M3 chucking a tire into the grass and the race’s only Lamborghini getting towed off the course — I wander the grounds, avoiding the temptation of southern raceday delicacies like “gator balls” offered by vendors while I catch views from other vantage points. I learn that while the front straight is a good spot to get a sense of the speed involved in the race, too much exposure to cars screaming from left to right can cause some dizziness. Then, around 5:00 pm, I get a chance to slip into a fire suit and tour Audi’s pit.



At this point, the tent in pit row looks like the Andretti family after Thanksgiving dinner, assuming that all Andretti family members wear fire suits every day. There are rows of weary eyes watching TVs while a few guys are curled up in a corner trying to catch the best nap a sunny 85-degree afternoon will allow. No one really wants to talk or even move, yet the second a car comes screaming in everyone springs to action and fires off a flawless stop. It’s a sight to behold.



The 12 Hours of Sebring timeline is perfectly set. With the final lap happening at 10:30, the tensest hours of the race get the added drama of the sun setting. Each colorful livery fades into darkness as the cars become just noises with headlights and taillights. In the LMP1 class, a factory Peugeot and one of the Audis colliding, plus the other Audi having tire problems, has opened the podium up to privateer underdogs, with an Oreca Peugeot eventually winning a long duel over the race’s only LMP1 Honda.



In those final hours, the GT class becomes the exciting one to watch. Both BMWs, both Corvettes, and a Ferrari F430 (which proved more competitive than the newer 458s) are playing hot potato with the podium spots and I’m cheering hard for the M3s to win. Though the Corvettes should probably be considered the common man’s team, the upright, practical shape of BMW’s coupe makes it look like more of an underdog among such exotic machines. About an hour before the finish, back at home in Turn 15, I see the number 55 BMW come out of the corner losing speed. Out of the darkness, sparks start flying from the left rear tire. Miraculously, it limps through the last two corners and into the pit, gets fresh tires, and claws its way back ahead of the ‘Vettes for the BMW sweep.



After the confetti falls and the champagne is sprayed, I make my final return to Turn 15 and head out with some RV neighbors to share beers on our local corner’s concrete wall. Though the engine roar has left a lasting echo inside my brain, the world outside my head is dead quiet under the “supermoon” that makes its closest pass to earth in years. Two guys wander the grass around the course looking for carbon-fiber souvenirs, and that’s all the indicator left that one third of road racing’s “Triple Crown” had been running for the previous half-day. Then it hits me — I’m exhausted, and everyone else here likely is too. A 12-hour race will do that, even to the beer-drinking bystanders. But it’s worth every second, and I’m already planning my next trip down. You should, too.





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