Floridan time warp

End-to-end on Route 27, Sebring is 10 miles long. Land is cheap in Florida, and there's a typical strip of neon lights announcing gas stations (where the cheaper brands are still 99 cents per gallon), diners, motels and liquor stores. "American teams welcome here," proclaimed the illuminated billboard outside one motel, reacting against NISMO's startling success at Daytona a few weeks earlier, and revealing a nasty bout of xenophobia that time will hopefully cure.

Sebring, the sleepy town right in the middle of Florida, has grown lengthways on the 27 but, away from the busy road, remains a pleasant lakeside residential area. Only one thing distinguishes the place, an airfield that is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a race circuit.

Silverstone was a wartime airfield, too, and when the very first World Endurance Championship race was held at Sebring on March 8 1953, the circuits were perhaps at a comparable stage of development. Somehow, though, the Floridian track has been frozen in a time-warp, while Silverstone has become one of the finest Grand Prix circuits in the world.

"Forty years of history untainted by progress,announced one cynic in the ageing, but comfortable and convenient, press room atop the pits. That's a little unfair, of course, because the 3.7-mile track has been upgraded regularly and while not one of the world's better, or safer tracks, there are worse in the States. There are legendary stories about the bumpy runways where competitors actually got lost in the hours of darkness, or found 'planes landing right alongside them as they pounded down the straight. One year, in total darkness and heavy rain, the leader of a dozen cars lost his way and didn't stop until he reached the perimeter, followed by a convoy of puzzled racers.

The race was founded in 1952 by Alec Ulmann, who broke his ties with the SCCA and staged the first one almost in retaliation against his former club for organising a 12-hour race at the nearby Vero Beach airport.

A 4.1-litre Ferrari 340 driven by Briggs Cunningham and Bill Spear led with considerable ease, until the differential broke after 51 laps of the 5.2-mile track, then the two-litre Frazer-Nash Le Mans moved ahead and eventually beat a Jaguar XK120 by six clear laps. Larry Kulok and Harry Gray were the celebrated winners of the inaugural Sebring, at an average of 62.8 mph, and the Frazer-Nash was renamed Sebring in recognition of the success. Briggs Cunningham enjoyed ample consolation in the next three years, entering the winning car each time. John Fitch and Phil Walters were the first Americans to win World Championship points in the fledgling sports car series, driving the 5.4-litre Chrysler engined Cunningham C4R. Hot on their heels were George Abecassis and Reg Parnell in a works Aston Martin DB3. followed by a pair of privately owned Jaguar C-types.

Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd triumphed in the 1954 event in Cunningham's 1.5-litre OSCA MT4, the 'Sebring giant-killer' as it was immediately dubbed. And no wonder, because the Lancia factory had sent an immensely strong four-car team of D-24s to Florida, but all except one failed to go the distance.

Juan-Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari and Eugenio Castellotti succumbed to engine and transmission problems, the three factory Aston Martins went out, and the little OSCA reached the line five laps ahead of the oft-delayed Lancia of Porfiro Rubirosa and Gino Valenzano.

"The 1955 12 Hours was the most controversial race ever held at Sebring," recalls the local historian Ken Breslauer. "It featured the most intense two-car duel in endurance racing history but started and ended in total confusion."

No fewer than 80 cars started the race, plus six reserves who took the Le Mans-type running start without permission, and had to be singled out for black-flagging in the early stages.

Cunningham's new Jaguar D-type was driven by Mike Hawthorn and Phil Walters, and the hour-charts show that it led from start to finish. They were chased, incredibly, every inch of the way by the Phil Hill/Carroll Shelby Ferrari 750S Monza, a powerful three-litre model, and although the Italian car was rarely more than a few seconds behind it led for only one lap.

Surprisingly the Ferrari was declared to be the winner, then officials changed their minds and told Cunningham to bring his car to Victory Lane . . . but it had run out of fuel on the slowing-down lap, and couldn't be feted.

Allen Guiberson, the Dallas owner/entrant of the Ferrari, filed a protest and it took the American Automobile Association (AAA) 10 days to settle the issue in Cunningham's favour, the Jaguar winning by just 25.4 sec. Enzo Ferrari decided to send two works cars in 1956 and did the job properly, Fangio giving the others a driving lesson as he headed for a two-lap victory aided by Castellotti; in their wake was the sister 860 Monza model driven by Luigi Musso and the popular American Harry Schell. The winners averaged 84 mph and were the first to cover 1,000 miles in the 12-hour duration.

In 1957 Fangio triumphed again, sharing a Maserati 450S with Jean Behra, and the top 10 places were filled by cars that would be worth their weight in gold today: Stirling Moss's Maserati 300S, the Mike Hawthorn/Ivor Bueb Jaguar D-type, Masten Gregory's Ferrari 290, another D-type driven by Walt Hansgen, three more Ferraris and two Porsche RSs.

Ferrari dominated again in '58, works Testa Rossas driven by Phil Hill/Peter Collins and Luigi Musso/Olivier Gendebien doing their job well, and in 1959 Dan Gurney's name appeared in the list of winners, sharing a Testa Rossa with Phil Hill, Gendebien and Chuck Daigh.

One Grand Prix was held at Sebring, in 1959, and it was won by Bruce McLaren. It is remembered, though, as the race that made Jack Brabham the World Champion driver for the first time, pushing his broken Cooper Climax across the line to claim his points for fourth place.

Ferrari pretty well dominated the race in the early '60s, but the event of 1965 is well remembered by many people. It was the year of the rain, when torrents of water made the track almost unnavigable in places. Surprisingly it was the Chaparral 2A of Jim Hall and Hap Sharp that did the best job, ploughing its way through the storm to beat the Ford GT40 of Bruce McLaren/Ken Miles by four laps.

Some 20 years ago, the FIA finally ran out of patience with Sebring, heeding the vociferous complaints of the sports prototype drivers who feared for their lives on the bumpy track, made dangerous by the speeds attained by lightweight, Formula 1-engined machines. Mario Andretti and Jacky Ickx won the last World Championship race held in Florida, their Ferrari 312PB leading home the sister car of Ronnie Peterson and Tim Schenken.

It was the end of Alec Ulmann's reign, too. A new start was made in 1973 by Reggie Smith, a long-time assistant of Ulmann's, who joined forces with John Bishop's new International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). Peter Gregg, Hurley Haywood and Dave Helmick were the winners in a Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, and only once between then and 1988 was the 12 Hours not won by a Porsche!