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Photo: Jason Reasin

History, Parties and Racing – Being a Fan at the 12H of Sebring

There aren’t any tunnels to transport you back in time. Unlike other famous tracks, like Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Daytona International Speedway, Sebring International Raceway doesn’t have tunnels to prepare you for the jolt back in history. There is nothing that acts as the proverbial time machine as you sit at the gates. Depending on the time of day, you may be looking at darkness, with only a lighted bridge to hint at what’s to come. Or maybe you’ve come at the famous Sebring sunrise, as the Florida skies begin to lighten with various shades of orange and blue. Whenever you arrive, there is a sense of history, a haunting from racing’s greatest ghosts, but you won’t be transported back in time by a tunnel. Instead, it will be the first bump that your tires hit that takes you back.

Sebring International Raceway wasn’t built as a race track. Its original purpose was an air force base during World War II, where B17 bomber pilots were trained. Planes still land at Hendricks Fields, but its fame now revolves around a race that has been happening for sixty-five years: the 12 Hours of Sebring. It’s known as one of the world’s most grueling endurance races, thanks to the incredibly bumpy track surface. The Verizon IndyCar Series comes to test at Sebring and Audi has utilized the track in the past to test their championship-winning LMP1s. It’s often said that if your car can survive the bumps of Sebring, it can survive anything and European drivers who come for the first time are often amazed by the track
surface.

 

#RespectTheBumps is the official Sebring hashtag and I don’t know anyone who thinks the track should ever be repaved. There’s a sense of respecting the history of the track, but it’s also what makes this track special. But it isn’t just the track surface that brings fans from all over the world to Sebring. While the drivers are racing on a punishing track, the fans have come for what I’ve always said is America’s Greatest Racing Party. Fans start lining up days in advance with their RVs, campers, and tents to get set up for four days of partying. Of course, you can’t talk about Sebring without talking about the infamous Green Park, where some of the track’s greatest traditions have been born: the Sebring cows, burning couches/tents, and creative partying. Once referred to as “The Jungle,” Green Park now is the crown jewel of the party atmosphere that many claim rivals the storied Snake Pit at the Indianapolis 500.

Green Park is where the alcohol flows like water, the campsites are at their most ingenious, and the partiers are the least aware of what’s happening on track. I often joke that Sebring is 60 percent people who have no idea what’s going on on-track and 40 percent the biggest race fans you’ll ever meet, and the 60 percent largely live in Green Park. The stories of years past show a place where anarchy reigned supreme and are almost always whispered in tones of mixed awe and disbelief. Couches weren’t the only things burned back then and many of the goings-on were kept far away from the eyes of any officials. As one fan told me, “Green Park was where you went to be free and to live in chaos. We didn’t care about the race, we just wanted to live.”

That chaos spills over from Green Park to the rest of the track in small doses. It comes in the form of pickup trucks with music blaring and alcohol flowing from makeshift bars. Golf carts are decorated to the nines. Fans show up in various costumes (cows, monks, gorillas, dinosaurs, and togas), clutching the beer they’ve been drinking since they set up camp. In the Midway, there are bikini contests, hot men contests, and mud wrestling. Vendors sell beer, various types of food, and souvenirs as the race plays on two jumbotrons. The Midway is where I found the best mix of fans at the track, and it is there I started my research.

It’s no secret that I value the fan experience from series to series, track to track. I go to the races to watch some of the world’s sexiest cars race against the clock and each other for the top step of the podium and to go down in history. But during a four day weekend and a 12-hour race, the senses require a little more. I’ve said before that the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has the best fan experience with open paddocks, pre-race grid walks, and autograph sessions. But at some point, the responsibility of a great fan experience falls to the track, and at Sebring, it sometimes feels as if the track leaves that to the partiers in Green Park. History has shown the campers take care of their own experience, but it’s easy to feel left out of that. More importantly, as times change, as the fans change, it’s important to ask how the sport changes, too.

Sebring International Raceway has always taken pride in its history, as it should. However, sometimes when we remain proud of our past, we can get stuck there. There’s a fine line between clutching the past and honoring it, and Sebring seems to be teetering on that line. Thankfully, the track president, Wayne Estes, seems to see that as well. He has remained committed to improving the fan experience at Sebring, while still maintaining what makes the track famous. From new grandstands to showing the Steve McQueen classic Le Mans to the introduction of the new hotspot, Club 12, he has shown a dedication to improving the fan experience for fans everywhere, not just in Green Park.

I’m one of those fans, of course, but I wanted to hear what other fans thought. I wanted to speak to fans who had been coming for years, fans who had been had come a couple of times before, and fans who were maybe at their first 12 Hours of Sebring. The best place to do this, it turned out in the end, was either the Patron tent or Club 12.  I asked a couple of really simple questions:

  1. What do you think of the fan experience at Sebring?
  2. What changes do you think they could make?

First and foremost, I have to say Club 12 was the hit of the 12 Hours of Sebring this year. I went for lunch on Thursday, when the wind was blowing cold and the fans were looking for places to hide. At first I wasn’t sure of how effective it would be, but over the weeken
d, this full service restaurant and bar became the place to be. There were screens everywhere showing the race broadcast, but also showing live timing and scoring. Prime rib was one of the many delicious options on the menu, and the drinks were great. Fans could sit at the bar or at high tops throughout the tent, watch the race, talk, and generally have a good time. “This place is awesome!” Josh, a twenty-two year old student at the University of Central Florida who was attending his third race, told me. He had come in to escape the heat during the race, and he loved that he could still watch the on-track action. “I ran out of all the good places to watch,” he explained. “This is cool, but why aren’t there more grandstands?”

It was probably one of the most common complaints I heard over the weekend. People wanted more places to watch, and the place they wanted that the most was Turn 1 or along the front stretch. “It’s hard,” one first timer told me as he sipped his drink, “I want to take pictures in turn one but there are campers pulled up right to the fence. That happens a lot around here.”  And he’s not wrong. The coveted space across from the pits and along the front stretch is reserved for campers and there is simply no way to get over there. Sebring is heaven for campers, who can claim the best track side seats, and if you’re not camping, you’re not going to see a lot of action along much of the track. There are viewing mounds, and a walk along the fence for me actually provided me with a lot of viewing areas. But fans want to be able to see the action in some of these incredible turns. I told one fan Turn 17 used to have grandstands but doesn’t anymore and he didn’t get it. “There’s a pretty small space there to watch and it’s such a cool turn.”

I also talked to fans about the party atmosphere of Sebring, and surprisingly, it was the longtime attendees who told me they wished the craziness could be more contained. “You can’t take away the anarchy of Sebring,” a man who has attended the 12 Hours with his family for 30 years told me as we watched the race in the Patron tent. “That’s what makes Sebring Sebring. But keeping it all contained to Green Park would probably make it less overwhelming to new fans and less weird for families.” Green Park isn’t as “crazy” as it used to be, but he explained he still wouldn’t take his daughter through there. The atmosphere of Sebring is a good mix of the craziest spring break you’ve ever heard of, Mardi Gras, the Snake Pit at Indy, and one of the coolest races around. “The Snake Pit has nothing on this place,” Mike, a long time attendee of the Indy 500 who had come to the 12 Hours for the fourth year with his brother-in-law, laughed to me. “Maybe twenty years ago, but now the tamest parts of this track are crazier than the Snake Pit. It’s what makes this race fun.”

It was towards the end of the race on Saturday evening when I talked to Derek, an amateur driver. He’s been coming to the race for decades, and he listened patiently to two young fans list their concerns about the track, which included more jumbotrons, grandstands, better Twitter and Instagram interaction, and overall pushing more fan content. “I view this place differently,” Derek told me. “Sebring’s a party and that’s why a lot of the kids come out here. It’s also a good race. But the history of this place involves the party, you can’t separate that. It’s your typical road course race.” He paused then, watching one of the screens that was showing the rocket launch. “But no one would be here if the fans didn’t come. So maybe you have to keep moving forward.”

And that’s the ultimate question for Sebring International Raceway, for IMSA, and for sports car racing in general. How do you keep the traditions alive when culture continues to evolve? How do you tell the stories of racing while building new ones? How do you bring in the new fans? Do you sacrifice history and tradition for the new and fresh and untried? Can you respect the history of a sport and a track, while also embracing its uncertain future? The fact is, the staff at Sebring International Raceway continue to ask those questions and reply with new ideas. Will 2018 bring new grandstands, a new hotspot, or something completely unexpected? I guess we’ll all have to wait and see. Meanwhile, how many days is it until the next Great American Racing Party?

-KT

katie.mech