If you're a sports car or racing fan and you live within a few hours of Sebring, Florida then you have no excuse for having not attended this race. Seriously, go buy tickets for the 2013 race, disregard the fact that it has a yet-to-be-announced field. The race is a must-attend for anyone in North America who wants to see both the spectacle that is world-class racing and the spectacle that is the infield.
I was heading down to Sebring to cover the 12 Hours of Sebring for BMWBlog.com and after last year, where a drunk guy hit my car while it was in the media lot, I had to sleep in my car and I netted about an hour's sleep before getting up at 6:45AM to cover the full race, the aftermath and then drive 4 hours home - I was hoping to avoid a lot of those hang ups. So, I got up at 3AM, dropped a Nikon D90, rented 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, and a few others into the front of the Cayman, gassed up on some Shell Premium and hit the road by 4AM. Being a finance and accounting guy, I'd already mapped out my route - I-95 to I-4 to US-27 South straight into Sebring - and mapped out an aggressive time and speed to hit the front gate within an hour of the gates opening on Saturday morning. God willing and with the help of a 997 Turbo and Corvette as lead cars - I managed to break my pre-conceived time and was walking thru the front gate by 7:30AM. The Cayman performed admirably - returning about 26MPG, comfort and a lot of fun for my first road trip in a Porsche.
A quick tram ride later and I was into the circus that is the infield, standing atop the Gurney Terrace overlooking the pit lane, paddock and a bit of the infield. It was time for morning practice and a few shots in the lovely Florida morning light as the drivers and teams got one last shot at getting it right before the curtain went up on the 60th 12 Hours of Sebring.
For the start of the race, I tucked back into a front row seat on the Gurney Terrace, just above BMW Team RLL's pit boxes. Sitting third and sixth in GT, the team at Rahal Letterman Lanigan had their work cut out for them. With guys like Auberlen, Hand and the two Mullers(Jorg & Dirk) - it was almost a forgone conclusion they'd make it around the Vette's and Ferrari's impeding their progress. My other major interest in the race? Watching what the trio of Audi R18's were going to do.
When trying to take shots I had to remember a few things about the R18's: They're always leading the pack by a good few seconds and if I look away for a second, I could easily miss them bounding between turns. They're literally so quiet that if I looked down to change camera settings - a mechanical whoosh would brush by me only to look up and find an R18 right on top of me and already too far gone to get a shot. The R18's alone are worth trying to make it to an FIA WEC race before they go the way of Peugeot.
I spent the afternoon wandering the infield, grabbing shots from a few small bluffs overlooking a handful of turns before finding a luxurious clump of trees at the edge of the run-off just beyond the Gurney Bend between Turns 6 & 7. From there I could people watch during the full course yellow from an accident a few turns away. Young and old, drunk and sober, clothed and partially nude - the 12 Hours of Sebring has it all in terms of people. The infield is a sea of beer bottles, cook outs, and pick up trucks mixed with high priced automotive exotica. The whole feeling is a enormous dichotomy that unknowingly still manages to work - even with guys wandering around, drunk and in cow costumes. Rumor has it The Pit in the infield of Sebring has been a very raunchy place over the years but it would seem the current iteration has scaled it back somewhat - perhaps less sex on top of RVs in front of everyone to make it more family friendly?
By early evening, there were still seven GT cars on the lead lap and contending for first in class with a pair of BMW's some Corvettes and Ferrari's all pushing each other. Ironically, not much later the pair of Luxury Racing Ferrari 458's went out - I'm not sure what the problems were but their day ended prematurely. I found my way back over to the BMW Hospitality chalet on the edge of Turn 17A where I was treated to gourmet food while indulging in deafening racing mixed with another long full course yellow as one of the GTC 911's managed to have an off and plow directly into the tires. No injuries but it definitely took out the GT3 in addition to a big chuck of wall.
Dinner was followed by a quick climb into the BMW Team RLL guest racing suit and it was into the pits right after a driver change with Dirk Muller coming out and Joey Hand going in to close out the last two hours of the race. In addition to the driver change BMW was able to get both cars out ahead of the Corvettes who had been some of the biggest competition over the previous 10 hours. Joey's car was beginning to develop a possible misfire so concerns were growing that the engine's health would quickly deteriorate before reaching the end of the race. Ironically, as everything seems to in ALMS, it came down to the last lap and it wasn't an engine problem which reared it's head but an AF Corse of Gianmaria Bruni who, 90 laps down, tried to make an improbably pass on Joey where there was no room to pass. Thus, Joey was bounced off-track while Bruni's teammate Olivier Beretta, who actually could have taken the lead from Hand after the spin, inexplicably spun as well and gave Joey the chance to rejoin the race and ultimately repass the limping Bruni and take first in the GT class. Amazing - after 12 hours of flat out racing, it still came down to the closing corners of the last lap.
Despite an invite to camp out in the infield, I had to work the next morning. Piling all of my gear back into the Cayman, I extracted it out of the back of Lot 2, a grass and mud pit, and hit the road again drafting behind a Corvette Z06 most of the way to Orlando before getting slowed by late night traffic. Opening back up from Winter Park onward to Daytona and then onto Jacksonville I was hustling to just get home and into bed. Parking the Cayman, I realized I'd just driven over 7 hours in a day along with the fact that I'd been awake for about 23 hours and paced much of the full Sebring track. Yes, I was exhausted but to witness a sports car race of the caliber of Sebring? I'll sleep when I'm dead.
For the full gallery - check out my 2012 12 Hours of Sebring.