The 12 Hours of Sebring is a “bucket list” event and driving the track itself is a must for NASA racers.

As winter sets in across most of the nation, a few areas remain warm and bright, even as snow begins to fall up north. Perhaps one of the motorsports world’s favorite destinations during the holiday season is sunny Florida, which is home to one of the most storied tracks in the world and the subject of this month’s “Motorsports Tourist,” Sebring International Raceway.

 

History

The track at Sebring got its start borrowing swaths of runway from an airport, and that heritage can still be seen today as there are active runways just a few yards from the racing surface. The first race at Sebring in 1950 was the brainchild of aeronautical engineer Alec Ullman, a sports car fan who felt the runways of the former Army Air Force training base for B-17 bomber pilots could work for auto racing. That event, the Sam Collier 6-Hour Memorial race held Dec. 31, was the first sports car endurance race staged in the United States.

In 1952, Ullman got the bright idea to put on longer, European-style endurance races, and a legendary series of events got underway. The 12 Hours of Sebring has been a “bucket list” event since its inception and has seen some of the best road-course competition in the nation, including epic battles between Porsche and Ferrari that carried on when the marques returned to the European continent to contest the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Today the 12 Hours of Sebring is still a major event on the professional motorsports calendar and the infield parties in Green Park during the event are the stuff of legend.

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Getting There

Sebring is pretty much smack in the middle of Florida, so getting there via air requires flying into one of the larger cities on either side of the state, the most convenient major airports being Tampa and Orlando. Sebring is around two hours from either one with much of the journey on two-lane state highways, so make sure to budget plenty of time to get to and from the airport if you are flying in. Orlando can be a little painful because of all the Disney traffic, so Tampa might be a better choice, even though it’s a few miles farther away.

 

Staying There

Although there are serviceable chain hotels in the town of Sebring, the best way to go is to book a room at the Chateau Élan, which is located on the grounds of the airport. The rooms are nice and you are literally walking distance from the racing surface, which always cuts down the stress level on a race weekend. If you like to get away from the track, downtown Sebring is quite charming, and there are some nice smaller independent motels about 15 minutes away down Kenilworth Boulevard.

Downtown Sebring has a city roundabout, with quaint shops and restaurants.
Downtown Sebring has a city roundabout, with quaint shops and restaurants.

For instance, nestled on the shores of Lake Jackson, Banyan Bay Club is a gated motor court hotel also located on the lakeshore. However, the premier historic hotel in Sebring is the Kenilworth Lodge, which overlooks Lake Jackson. Part of the National Register of Historic Places, the Kenilworth offers accommodations that range from a standard efficiency to cottages and penthouse suites.

Downtown Sebring is nestled on the shores of Lake Jackson.
Downtown Sebring is nestled on the shores of Lake Jackson.

 

Eating There

The restaurant and bar at the Chateau Élan are nice, but you would be missing out if you did not sample a little local Florida cuisine and culture at Cowpoke’s Watering Hole in town on U.S. 27. Cowpokes does add a fair amount of garlic to its entrees so make sure to bring everyone who will be in your hotel room with you, so as not to offend. You certainly won’t have to worry about vampires, but you might be stinky for a bit. You can also try such regional delicacies as alligator and frog legs if you are brave.

North of Cowpokes and right on Lake Jackson, the Sunset Grille has a deck overlooking the water, with century-old oaks draped with hanging moss to provide shade and atmosphere. Sunset Grille serves seafood, barbecue and American cuisine.

For breakfast, locals all will point you toward Charlie’s, which used to be called Sandy’s Circle Café. Located on U.S. 27 in Sebring, Charlie’s has some of the finest biscuits and gravy and corned beef hash you’ll find anywhere.

 

Driving There

Sebring’s airstrip origins show through on the southern portions of the track surface. The surface itself is asphalt and concrete, with some rough patches where the old concrete blocks have been sealed together, but still are slightly pitched from the ravages of time, weather and sheer horsepower. Make sure you can soften your dampers if needed, and I would strongly recommend a thorough “nutting and bolting” prior to arrival and after every few sessions so nothing falls off the car. It is a bumpy track, which some racers view as part of its charm.

Turn 1 is also a hang-on-to-your shorts adventure because the entry is a bit blind.
Turn 1 is also a hang-on-to-your shorts adventure because the entry is a bit blind.

With that said, the track is a hoot to drive with hairpins, sweepers, and some big speeds down the back straight into the nearly impossible-to-master Turn 17. Turn 1 is also a hang-on-to-your shorts adventure because the entry is a bit blind and perspective is a tough to attain for your first few laps. You can really feel some ghosts riding shotgun as you blast along the storied raceway, dreaming of chasing down Steve McQueen or Mario Andretti during the glory days of the 1960s.

Turn 1 is also a hang-on-to-your shorts adventure because the entry is a bit blind.
Turn 1 is also a hang-on-to-your shorts adventure because the entry is a bit blind.

As for local services, the town of Sebring does have auto parts stores and some OEM dealers a short drive away. There are also some outfits over at the airport that can weld whatever fell off back on, and tire service is usually available at all NASA events.

So, as the birds and racecar haulers head south for the winter, so should you. Give Sebring a try and remember to watch out for the gators if you get too far off course.

The full-course 17-turn racetrack measures 3.7 miles long.
The full-course 17-turn racetrack measures 3.7 miles long.

The Facts

 

Sebring Raceway

113 Midway Drive

Sebring, FL 33870

800-626-7223

www.sebringraceway.com

 

Chateau Elan

150 Midway Drive

Sebring, FL 33870

863-655-6252

www.chateauelansebring.com

 

Banyan Bay Club

141 N. Lakeview Drive

Sebring, FL 33870

863-382-2021

http://banyanbayclub.webs.com/

 

Kenilworth Lodge

1610 Lakeview Drive

Sebring, FL 33870

800-423-5939

www.kenilworthlodge.com

 

Cowpoke’s Watering Hole

6813 U.S. Hwy. 27

Sebring, FL 33876

863-314-9459

www.cowpokeswateringhole.com

 

Sunset Grille

2650 U.S. Hwy. 27

Sebring, FL 33870

863-471-3900

 

Charlie’s

3030 U.S. Hwy. 27 North

Sebring, FL 33870

863-382-1942

 

NASA Florida Spec Miata series leader John Adamczyk takes a slow lap around Sebring to demonstrate the line and turn-in points.

One hot lap of two quick TT cars lapping Sebring International Raceway.

Images courtesy of Highlands County CVB and Sebring Intl. Raceway

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