Just as each type of motor racing generates its own peculiar ambience—hip for sports cars, straight for stocks—so, too, does each racecourse breed a particular mood. Take Sebring, for instance. It is a kind of high-octane Woodstock, where everyone from the pinkest matron to the greasiest mechanic endures discomfort: humidity, sunburn, clogged toilets, surly cops. Yet at the same time, everyone is pulled together by the music of the splendid machines. Drivers hate its rough, pounding, inadequately marked 5.2-mile airport course. Spectators find it difficult to follow the development of the race due to the vast, featureless flatness of the course. But the fates love it as a fine place to play dirty mechanical tricks on cars and drivers.
Last week, as the faithful gathered for the annual running of the 12-hour race, a fin-de-Sebring air pervaded the festivities. It was the 20th anniversary of road racing at the old airport—where world-class European-style cars and drivers were introduced in the postwar U.S.—and there were strong rumors that perhaps it might be the last Sebring ever. Or maybe the next to last. The founder and organizer, Alec Ulmann, has just sold off some $196,400 worth of property on which he had planned to build a new Sebring course.
As practice began on the old one, most of the crowd's attention focused on the Porsche 917s, which finished one-two in the season opener at Daytona (SI, Feb. 9), and the challenging factory Ferrari 512s. In an effort to quicken the red machines, Ferrari had pared off 80 pounds of excess metal. The result: Mario Andretti won the pole with a record clocking of 121.954 mph. The Porsche 917 driven by Switzerland's Jo Siffert and England's Brian Redman was a scant 7/10 mph behind. Also impressive among the top 10 qualifiers were a brace of French Matras driven by Dan Gurney and Henri Pescarolo, and a trio of trim Alfa Romeos, out for their first American run of the year.
Much attention also was paid to movie actor Steve McQueen, who was teamed with Peter Revson in a three-liter Porsche 908. McQueen had broken his left foot in six places during a motorcycle race at Elsinore, Calif. just a week before Sebring, but he concocted a cut-down cast that permitted him to drive 40% of the race, and within seven seconds of Rev-son's lap times. Dead-cool and totally professional, he and Revson made the best of a well-prepared but relatively slow machine—and in the end they almost won the race.
Since the running, Le Mans-style start so beloved at Sebring had been banned this year, the field of 68 got under way on a hot, muggy Saturday morning from a rolling grid. Right from the green flag Andretti underscored the new Ferrari fleetness. Only briefly during the early hours of the race were he and co-driver Arturo Merzario headed by a Porsche—and then only because a minor fuel-vaporization problem forced the car into the pits. By the time the race was a third over, Ferrari 512s were one-two-three, and bad luck was dogging the Porsches. Vic Elford dove into the wrenching hairpin turn and tangled with a pokey Lancia, which was nonetheless mean enough to nip a wheel off Elford's car. He proceeded briefly on three wheels—lapping the guilty Lancia once more in the process—and retired. Next, the engine of quick Jo Siffert began running hot. Time spent fixing that, plus suspension trouble, dropped the car back to noncontention.
Then luck swung against Ferrari. Pushing into the sunset, Jacki Ickx' 512—which had been trading first place with Andretti during pit stops—blew a head gasket and dropped out. Third-running Nino Vaccarella's Ferrari blew a tire and bent its suspension, requiring a 24-minute pit stop. That left Andretti leading with what appeared to be the last of the Ferrari chances. A Porsche driven by Daytona winner Pedro Rodriguez and Siffert (who switched over from his car to replace young Leo Kinnunen) was breathing down Mario's neck.
On the 227th lap, with little more than an hour to run, the gearbox of Mario's Ferrari cracked. Great flashes of Italian profanity lit the night. But Mario quickly shifted to the Ferrari of Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti, which was now running third behind the Rodriguez/Siffert Porsche and the McQueen/Revson car. Slowly, slowly Andretti eroded his rivals' edge and, with just a quarter of an hour left, moved into second place. And then fate smiled Mario's way.
On the 241st lap the Rodriguez Porsche had a wheel failure, and Mario Andretti was home—but by the skin of his pearly teeth. His winning margin over McQueen and Revson: 23.8 seconds after 12 hours of racing. The winner's distance (1,289.6 miles) and speed (107.29 mph) were records.
If indeed this was the last Sebring, it was a fitting conclusion—a freaky, tough, exciting race, won by a classic Ferrari. However, there will always be a Le Mans, and you will hate yourselves, racing fans, if you miss the one approaching, in which Steve McQueen and the champion of the world, Jackie Stewart, will be paired in a Porsche 917.
RACER McQUEEN rests cast-encased ankle he had fractured in a motorcycle crack-up.