Don, Shirley, Nan and I decided that we need to try to experience each of the racetracks that constitute the International Motor Sports Association racing season to watch the Corvettes race. So far I’ve been to Long Beach, California (Long Beach “Gran Prix”), Monterey, California (Laguna Seca), Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (Road America), and our amazing trip in 2016 to Le Mans, France (24 Hours of Le Mans). This summer we are going to Watkins Glen, New York (Watkins Glen). In March we went to Sebring, Florida (12 Hours of Sebring). Here’s the story:
Sebring is one of the three endurance races of the IMSA twelve race season, beginning with the 24 Hours of Daytona, followed by the 12 Hours of Sebring, and, toward the end of the season, the “Petite Le Mans” 10 Hour race in Braselton, Georgia (there are four endurance races if you count the non-IMSA Le Mans event in France, in which the GT Le Mans Class participates). The Sebring track occupies a section of the Sebring Regional Airport, an active airport for private and commercial operations. The track covers 3.74 miles with 17 turns and two long straights. Some areas of the track are especially bumpy making this course very tough on the cars. Cars have been racing at Sebring since 1950 earning the track the title of “. . . the birthplace of endurance racing in America . . .” Our visit was the 66th consecutive running of the endurance classic. We tried to experience as many of the traditions as possible in two days – we discovered a few traditions that were a surprise!
The main goals were to: experience a legendary track; spend as much time as possible watching the Corvette time trials and the race, itself; visit with the Corvette drivers (past and present); see our Corvette friends at the Corvette Corral; and check out the newest Corvette, the ZR1.
We spoiled ourselves at this track by taking advantage of the “Sebring Club”, one of the suites at the start-finish line above the pit areas, and also by purchasing the VIP reserved parking pass. The Club provided a most civilized way to spend two full days at a race track with its real bathrooms, a spacious air conditioned suite with comfortable stadium seating, a well-stocked open bar, continuous food service, big screen TVs, a great sound system playing the official IMSA radio broadcast, proximate access to reserved parking, fantastic view of the main straight-a-way, and patios for the times when you wanted fresh air or to have your ear drums pierced by the sound of the cars screaming by. The staff members were attentive and so nice.
On Thursday we flew from San Diego to Orlando, and then made the drive south to our hotel. Up bright and early on Friday morning, Don drove us past countless lakes to the city of Sebring and its famous track. Once we were settled in the Club, and had reserved our front-row seats, it was time to go touring. The Corvette Corral was well attended just as we witnessed it at Laguna Seca. Rows and rows of Corvettes, a big tent filled with faithful Corvette fans, and lots of activities. Doug Fehan, Program Manager, Corvette Racing, gave everyone an update on the 2018 racing program and introduced the six drivers. Everyone received autographed posters and got autographs on photos, hats, shirts, and anything else they wanted. It is still amazing to me how accessible the GM and Chevrolet executives, engineers, program managers, and race team members are to the public. I guess they really appreciate the dedication of their customers to the Corvette brand.
We stopped by the Corvette Racing garage area just in time to see the cars being towed out for qualifying.
Don likes to see the topography of the tracks we visit by walking the perimeter. There are 17 turns at Sebring. We had heard that “Turn 10 is party central”. As we walked from turn to turn, we soon discovered why. For years the same groups of people have come to Sebring for the endurance race camping in the infield. Each group tries to outdo the next with outrageous, tacky, humorous, campsites, each one positioned for watching the race. We saw flatbed trailers loaded with used living room furniture, old school buses converted to travel campers, a dilapidated Winnebago painted to look like a home-made US Army tank (complete with turret guns), a plywood diner complete with a live rooster, and everywhere hundreds and hundreds of empty beer cans.
Soon another Sebring tradition came upon us – the herd of Sebring Cows. We learned that there were no prerequisites for becoming a Sebring Cow, but that “. . . not everyone is cut out for the job . . .”
After the track tour we went shopping to see what was new in race apparel, and I bought a newly produced yellow Jake logo for Buff (the yellow Fox Kart). Next we headed for the huge Chevrolet tent to see the high performance cars (including the ZL1 Camaro), and GM performance parts (including the LS7 505HP crate engine). Then danger struck!
I had seen photos of the new 2019 ZR1 Corvette and had read press releases and read articles about “. . . the most powerful Corvette ever produced . . .”, but had never seen one in real life. There it was, in a corner of the big Chevy display tent. Looking at the photos in magazines or on websites I didn’t care for the front grill area because it looked overly aggressive. At Sebring I learned that the large air intake area was necessary for cooling the 13 heat exchangers that were needed to permit driving a 755 horsepower supercar on the street. I also didn’t realize that the twin turbocharger cover on top of the engine protrudes through a massive hood opening, reminiscent of the “shaker hood” treatments on the 1960’s muscle cars.
I was fortunate enough to meet Corvette Product Manager Harlan Charles. My Corvette social media buddy, Charley Robertson, introduced me to Harlan. Harlan patiently explained the features of the car to me, walked me through all the option packages, and gave me advice on how best to outfit a ZR1, especially one painted Corvette Racing Yellow Tintcoat. Harlan should know all about the ZR1 since he helped design it and he drives one every day (even in the snow) in Detroit!
While sitting in the driver’s seat I wondered, “What would Bob Vollmar do with a car like this?”
Then Harlan started the car. Damn. I’m told that in “Track” mode blue flames shoot out of the four exhaust pipes. The engine is certified (independently) at 755 HP with 715 foot pounds of torque. You can get a 7-speed manual transmission, but the performance is better with the 8-speed paddle shifter automatic. Zero to 60 comes in 2.8 seconds, zero to 100 (you know, for the freeway on-ramps) is 6 seconds flat and the top speed is governed at 212 MPH because that’s as fast as they feel safe going with the street tires. Don and I could take one to Bonneville and join the 200MPH club, right?
Here is the video of Harlan starting the ZR1 at Sebring for Corvette fans. I was here during the videotaping, but just off camera:
Eventually I had to tear myself away from the ZR1 since it was dinner time. We met Charley and a bunch of her Corvette fans at the Sunset Bar and Grille for dinner and a beautiful Central Florida sunset. Surprise! Harlan was at Charley’s dinner party and sat with me to configure the perfect ZR1 for my garage.
On Saturday morning we were up at 5:00 AM and arrived at the track at about 7:00 AM for race day. The crowds were larger than on Friday and the race was well attended. The big event for fans is the pre-race “Grid Walk” permitting fans got get up close to the cars, pit crews, and drivers.
Chevrolet has made it clear that the only GTLM car that is made in America is the Corvette. I like the flag treatment on the side of the car and the fact that the mechanics bring an American Flag to the pits!
The race officials finally cleared the pits of all the fans, and the 12 hour race began promptly at 10:40 AM. A yellow Corvette Z06 was the pace car (of course).
Three classes of cars race simultaneously on the track: Prototype; GT Le Mans (GTLM); and GT Daytona (GTD). To be honest, we only care about GTLM. Corvette had won the GTLM Class at Sebring in 2016 and 2017 and we were hoping for a three-peat. We spent our 12 hours alternating between watching the cars from the Club seating area, and touring around the pits.
The #3 Corvette had problems from the very first lap when “contact” from another car punctured a tire, and the long day only got worse from there. At the 6 hour mark the #3 car was in last place and running 45 laps behind the class leader. But they kept going. At the 9 hour mark they were still -45 laps and last. By the end of the race the #3 car had managed to overtake the #66 car and we cheered like crazy that despite all their problems Corvette didn’t finish last!
The #4 Corvette ran flawlessly all day and night, had perfect pit stops, and didn’t make any on-track mistakes. But the BoP penalty prevented them from finishing on the podium.
Porsche is running their mid-engine 911RSR for the second consecutive year. Their cars ran really well and sounded nearly as good as the Corvettes. They finished 1st and 3rd.
In 2017 BMW finished in 2nd place for season, closely behind Corvette and ahead of Porsche, Ferrari and some other small manufacturer from Canada; I can't remember their name. This year BMW is upping their game by racing the new BMW M8 and it is running really well – well enough that the #25 Car finished in 2nd Place at Sebring between the two Porsches.
By 10 PM on Saturday night we were ready to say goodbye to Sebring and head back to San Diego. It was great to have experienced all the history, lunacy, and legacy that is Sebring!