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When in Doubt, Camp Out: A First-Timer’s View of the 12 Hours of Sebring

By  April 11, 2015

The folks who were there just to cover the final race were probably there and gone within 24 hours, but we camped out early to check out the full experience and to place ourselves within the non-stop 24-hour party that is the 12 Hours of Sebring. For me, it would be a first; three days of wonderful exhaust sounds, shooting photos, eating salty camping food, and sweating, out in the Florida heat, to bring you the sights and experiences of the 12 Hours of Sebring from Sebring, Florida.

Start/Finish line as seen from a foot bridge
This shot was thanks to a fellow fan who showed me where I could get a nice view of the start/finish line between the boards in the foot bridge. 

It has always been a curiosity to go to Sebring, but money was never available for it. Thankfully, this year a friend won two free “supertickets,” which were good for up to four days at Sebring International Raceway for the week of the 12-hour race. He was unable to attend, and was kind enough to send them to me. I then took it upon myself to capture as much of the event through my lens as possible.

DeltaWing driving through a hairpin turn
The DeltaWing seen in a rare moment of not breaking down. Kidding…I still rooted for them.

The 12 Hours of Sebring is known as the longest-running sports car endurance race in America, and has been running since 1950. The Sebring 12, as some of you might know, is often used as a shakedown for cars and as a warm up for drivers prior to running in the 24 Hours of LeMans, due to the punishing track surface and the intense Florida heat. This is where motorsport goes to break things!

Camp Hoon

That Thursday, my wife and I arrived at the track and set up camp. We walked the perimeter of the entire track to get an idea of the size of the place and to see where the good viewing mounds were located. The historics cars screamed by as the sun slowly sunk below the horizon.

Historics

Jagermeister Porsche 935
Jägermeister Porsche 935 is nothing if not extreme

POOF, a cloud of dust appears
POOF! A big cloud of dust suddenly appears…

Porsche emerges after lifting off the throttle too much
…because somebody apparently lifted…

Looking back over Thursday and Friday’s races, the slower and older historics were a favorite. There’s no anti-lock brakes or stability control to bail you out in many of these cars; nothing but skill is keeping the driver from lifting their foot off the accelerator mid turn and sending the rear end of that 911 on a big step out into the dusty regions off track, and that’s just way happened to the little blue 911 a couple of times. For those of us of a certain age, nothing beats the sound of an air-cooled boxer 6 cylinder being revved out to redline. These historics provided that old engine sound as well.

Praga versus Porsche Carrera
Praga R1 and Carrera RS, an unlikely pair to be racing head to head

GT40 replica
Bailey GT40 may have been a replica but was blowing out genuine flames around the track all week.

From a photographer’s point of view, the week would provide a fun opportunity to capture the creativity that people put into their camps and practice and experiment with high-speed and low light photography. In getting a decent photo from the race conditions, especially in low light, it can be a challenge, which is the reason that the starting material for this article’s images totaled over 8,000 in number. When you’ve never shot something traveling so fast or in this case, haven’t done so in a year, it can be easy to get an itchy shutter finger in trying to capture what you were seeing in a fleeting moment.

Funny Camp
This camp was quite something with it’s miniature wild west tavern, complete with front porch with a view of the track.

This wasn’t just race week. For many, it was a party. Although sometimes loud, some of the campsites were practically works of art, with lots of effort put into a theme and construction. Some folks would still be rocking out at 4am or happily cruising around the track all night while chatting with their friends and listening to music. It was obvious then that sleep was going to be a challenge inside the tent. We would have to sleep in the back of the van if we wanted some temporary silence and air conditioning. That break from the heat alone was worth the price of the rental.

LaBomba Racing
According to their Facebook page, La Bomba Racing, have been building art cars for Sebring since 1981! This year it looked like a Corvette C7.R.

MX-5 Cup

MX-5 Cup cars driving toward the hairpin

The next morning, we were up early to watch the MX-5 Cup race. The Mazda MX-5 is one of the most raced cars ever produced and is also owned by the author of this article, being that Friday morning was the second and final race of the week for them, it was something not to be missed.

Skip Barber MX-5s kicking up dust

The MX-5s were divided into two classes, the MX-5 Cup cars and the Skip Barber racing school cars. The Cup drivers lead the way and behind them seemed to be some drama going on with the Skip Barber cars. Braking going into the hairpin turn seemed to happen less smoothly for them, as though they were having to re-gauge their braking distance, sometimes more than once, on the way into the sharp turn. They also seemed to be less concerned about putting a tire off into the dust on the left side.

Winning MX-5 doing celebratory donuts

On the track, as they are on the road, Miatas are all about fun. At the end of the race, the winning car was joined by another for some celebratory donuts around each other.

Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge

Two Continental SportsCar Series cars making contact

The Continental Tires SportsCar Challenge ran very smoothly from what was seen from a few corners. Very little contact seemed to go on between the cars but a few of them were light and fast enough to “hit the three wheel motion.”

Miata goes up on 3 wheels

Paddock Area

Audi R8 in the paddock

Friday evening, we walked around the paddock area and watched the teams work on their cars. Some cars looked great, even taken apart, others were more like an insect about to strike.

Ferrari in the paddock

It’s important to approach these areas with caution, because people are working, and sometimes they can be rude if you get in the way. Everything went fine though, in fact, this Ferrari team even welcoming us to come up for a closer look.

Mazda prototype in the paddock

12 Hours of Sebring

The start as seen from the ground
“Drivers, start your engines.”

TUDOR cars going through the turn just after the main straight
Some great viewing angles could be had from the top of the Mazda owners lounge, if you could prove ownership of one… Thankfully, they accepted my evidence pulled up on my phone.

Saturday morning eventually came and with it the start of the 12-hour race amongst both production car-based and prototype teams. Many of these cars are on the bleeding edge of technology. The DeltaWing concept, for instance, often does not finish a race, but it’s Batmobile-esque shape seeks to redefine what we think of as the shape of a racecar.

BMW Z4 seen at sunset

With the more production-based TUDOR series cars, even when they are built to world-class standards, 12 hours of running at full throttle is a lot of abuse for any car to take, and that’s what sets the Sebring 12 and other endurance races apart from normal length races, the abundance of time for something to go wrong and the opportunities to see a team of mechanics, engineers, and drivers come up with solutions for whatever is thrown in their way, in order to win it all.

Winning Porsche at sunset

As night fell, more opportunities for photographic experiments presented themselves. Crank up the ISO and wind down the exposure times and see what happens. That was the order of the night and we got some interesting shots as a result. The only tricky part was that many times, when we’d find a good spot to shoot from with good viewing angles, the photo shuttle van would show up with the official photographers and they’d all be in the way soon after that.

Mustang Trading Corvette at night showing glowing brakes

For much of the race, it didn’t seem like any problems would befall the leaders of the Prototype class, as the oddly-named-for-a-Corvette No. 5 “Mustang Sampling” Corvette ran away with the win by at least one full lap over the rest of the field. There was a yellow caution flag here and there but mostly smooth sailing for Porsche for most of the day until night came. One was taken out by gearbox problems, another by a busted center wheel lock. One Porsche, Alex Job Racing’s No. 23, who was incorrectly punished out of the win last year by officials making poor calls, did pull out the win this year in the much contested GTD class at the last moment. It was almost like a karmic victory in that way. The GTLM class went to the No. 3 Corvette C7.R who edged out a Ferrari 458 at the end.

Ferrari 458 is a blur passing flag man

Results aside, when you’re actually there at the race, you don’t really have a great idea of who is winning and who is losing on a track this big. You know when somebody messes up, like when a Ligier skidded head-first into a wall, but you don’t really know when things are going well for a team unless there’s a TV or radio around. Without a television handy or a lot of race-watching experience, it can really be a mystery. But regardless, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Light trails at the end of the race

It all sounds like it happened so quickly now, but it was a long three days. I’m not typically the type to camp out, but this was actually a lot of fun. Despite that, we wasted no time to get back to civilization and a shower, as we packed up right after the race to head home. We were apparently out there long enough that the wind noise in the van on the way home sounded like racecars to us. It’s that weird thing that your brain does when you’ve been around a sound for a few days. In the end, every muscle in our bodies was sore. There were two blisters on my right foot from walking ten miles a day for three days. And I had a mountain of photos to go through. But it was a lot of fun. I’d definitely do it again. After living, shooting, and watching racing for three solid days, the only question left was what to do next… Well, more race photography of course! And that’s just what I did. The next weekend, I shot the Firestone Grand Prix in St Petersburg, FL.

If you’re interested in viewing more of my photos taken at Sebring, they can be seen in the following Flickr galleries:
MX-5 Cup | Historics | Paddocks at Night | Camps | TUDOR & Continental Tire Series

Re-published from Hooniverse, text and photography by Bryce Womeldurf
Copyright 2015 Hooniverse/Bryce Womeldurf

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