Pedley: Looking Back And Looking Forward
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Sebring, Fla. – Suddenly, the mass throwing of empty beer cans into the netting on Fireman’s Hill at Road America stopped. Suddenly, all got quiet except for a slight tremor of the sun-hardened ground. And suddenly, all freakin’ hell broke loose in a loud explosion of down-shifting engines.
The unlimited-horesepower Porsche 917s, McLaren M20s, Ferrari 712s, UOP Shadows and Lola T222s were coming out of the woods toward Turn 5 on the first lap of the 1972 race in Elkhart Lake and even God ducked for cover.
Next to me, my college roommate Frank elbowed me in the ribs, smirked and said, “So, what do you think?”
I think that racing turned from an interest to a passion that day at Road America.
On the week I am looking forward to my first 12-hour race at Sebring, I found myself looking back at my first big-time sports car race.
Twenty-six cars would start the race, held in the stifling heat and humidity of Central Wisconsin in late August of 1972. George Follmer, driving Roger Penske’s 917, won that day. His teammate, Peter Revson – an heir to the Revlon cosmetics fortune who would die in a Formula One wreck in South Africa two years later – retired with gear box problems. Jackie Oliver, in one of those menacing as hell Shadows, would finish second.
Those are the statistical memories. The quantifiable recalls. It was more the sounds and smells and sights of sports car racing which stuck in the memory banks about that day.
Sports car race? Why the heck would I want to take a weekend of valuable summer vacation, and the three hours on the road from Madison to Elkhart Lake, to watch MGs and Triumphs creep around the 4-mile road circuit.
Jeez, we had been watching Indy cars, the big boys, at State Fair Park in Milwaukee since high
school. Sports cars?
I found out why on Fireman’s Hill. And in Thunder Valley. And in The Carousel. And in the Hurry Downs. And walking between all those points they way you only can at road races.
And later in the camp grounds and in the eateries and drinkeries in the of little old Elkhart Lake.
Why would I give up a good vacation weekend? I never would again when the Can-Am cars came to Road America. Which, unfortunately, occurred just a couple years later.
Can-Am, with its insane 1,500 horsepower cars and dashing, death-baiting drivers, would fade and vanish a couple years later; a victim of an industry-manufactured energy crisis.
But sports cars would roll on for me to the present day.
The Rolex Grand-Am Series is highly entertaining because of its relatively high car counts and its competitive playing field. The races – even the 24-hour race at Datyona – almost always come down to close, thrilling finishes.
It’s weak point, however, is the machinery in the prototype class. The cars are just plain plain. Ugly, relatively low-tech, under powered and panache-free.
The reason, of course, is cost. The series has opted to go for high car counts and close races at the expense of exotic machinery. It is probably a great business decision.
But for some, sports car racing has always been equal parts of machinery and driver. Unleash the engineers and let the drivers go and speed flow.
This weekend in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hour of Sebring, the closest thing to what for me was the golden
era of sports car racing will be held.
High-tech, factory-effort prototypes by Audi, Peugeot, Honda. Not quite up to Can-Am levels of romance but really cool sports cars with absolutely terrific drivers.
And in record numbers, too. Across all classes, a projected 56 cars will be on the track Saturday and Saturday night.
That alone could be interesting, said Audi driver Allan McNish.
“This is the most cars we’ve had at Sebring as long as I’ve been coming,” he said. “I think the last time we were here there were 34 cars in 2009, so we’ve nearly doubled the number of cars. At Le Mans, you tend to overtake the cars on the straights because there are a lot of big, long straights. At Sebring, you don’t have that luxury; you’ve got to overtake anywhere you can and that can be around the outside of Turn 10 or sliding to the inside into Turn 13. So, I think the traffic and anticipating the traffic will be a bigger factor here than it ever will in Le Mans, even though the speed difference is probably bigger at Le Mans.
“The other thing is with Sebring being the first race of the year, there’s going to be drivers there we don’t know and we’ve got to learn them very quickly. We’ve got to learn who’s going to do what – what the actual line of a GTC car is relative to a GT car or where the LMPC is quick and where it’s not so quick. That’s something that we get a little bit of a feel for in testing leading up to the race but in reality, it’s when you get into Hour 3 and 4 of the race that you get a bigger picture.”
And I hear the scene is tilted decidedly toward the side of fun.
Driver Bill Auberlen said of attending Sebring: “And surrounded by one of the world’s great races is the world of the infield. It is always mayhem and always worth a visit (or two).”
Can never get enough mayhem, I always say. It was always in abundant supply at Road America and after hours in downtown Elkhart Lake.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.com Comments