The 12 Hours of Sebring, 2011

She’s beautiful: dressed for early springtime, smiling, laughing and talking with friends, hair and makeup just right. She glides down the midway, waving and screaming with delight.

I can tell from her countenance and coif that she’s just come to the track this morning, plans to stay a couple hours and split. Or perhaps she’s just stepped, freshly-varnished, out of someone’s 40-foot RV or California semi-hauled camper palace. Or from a luxe room trackside at Chateau Élan Sebring. Or perhaps she’s a rental. Maybe this year’s Pilsner Urquell spokesmodel, once a Jaeger girl.

She won’t notice me. Not that it matters to this married Dad, but I have not bathed, shaved, slept or eaten right in days. I’m covered in Sebring’s fine sandy loam, my hair’s molded into a ball cap-shaped helmet, and I stink, itch and probably taste bad, if anyone could work up the courage, given my appearance. I limp, too, though this is a recent development, brought on by age, exhaustion, arthritis and walking the racetrack with too damn much camera gear. Again.

I am a dirty old man. Feeling very old, very dirty, and nearing the limits of my own endurance.

There was a time when I looked longingly at these beautiful young girls, and wondered where all these dirty old men came from. Now I know. I’ve been coming to Sebring a long time, in person for the race, and in my mind, when I need to go someplace happy.

I was first introduced to Sebring by my friend Mark Gilvey, back in 1987. Mark, his then-girlfriend Marie and I drove the 15 hours from DC to meet up with some of Mark’s friends at the track. We tent-camped on what is now the site of the Chateau Élan Sebring hotel, outside what was then the nicely-pointed and apparently-terrifying hairpin. Mark taught me much about shooting race cars, how to use a wide angle lens, and how to cross the hot race track without walking a mile, by hitching a ride in a truck bed. He got me hooked on Sebring. And he’s never been back.

There were more tents then, fewer RVs and essentially none of the infield or outfield was off-limits to camping, though fence-spots for trucks and RVs have always carried a premium price. Today, space anywhere at the track is at a premium, and tent-camping more rare. Over the years, camp generators would appear, more and louder, and eventually quieter as people got well-off and bought generators with Honda motors.

Don Panoz’ acquisition of the lease on Sebring and his American Le Mans Series made many changes to his facilities, the track and American sports car racing, not all of them welcome. You can now find a robust and exciting midway, a trailer featuring showers – often with hot water, a modern and well-maintained track, and a reasonably clean restroom (with – wonder of wonders – toilet paper, on race day!) thanks to attendants who staff and clean them. But you can no longer walk the circuit at night, can scarcely find a good spot to tent-camp if you arrive later than Wednesday due to all the reserved corporate and RV spots. And Panoz has introduced *shudder* law and order to Green Park.

Sebring was wild in 1987, and would get wilder and tamer before I came to write this. We knew at the time to venture into Green Park with caution. I’ve always shied away from camping there, but it’s still fun to watch the wildlife.

Green Park always has some kind of insanity going on. Whether it’s a gallery of the skeletons of burned lawn furniture, an ad-hoc 4′ deep mud bog in the infield road for four-wheeling, naked mannequins, naked people, a parade of fifteen people in cow suits, the bigger-each-year flatbed concert by F-Troop, desert-camo BBQ smokers or just plain old good puns (“The Grand Pricks of Endurance Racing”), you have to go see what’s happening in Green Park.

Gotta say, the Greens brought the law down on themselves. For a while it was a matter of partying and pranks, but eventually the cars of unsuspecting tourists started getting stuck in the mud-bog, then for a few years a particular itersection became the spot where the “show us your tits” crowd would snarl traffic and frighten quite a few people. I guess something had to give.

The cops sited a temporary police station on the campsite F-Troop had used for years to play (however poorly) their concert, set up jerseywall to interrupt traffic flow, and parked what for years I thought was an amphibious vehicle outside. The vehicle was, in fact, a riot car.

Green Park has calmed somewhat now, enough that you can walk at night without trouble, though driving’s still slow. It’s family-friendly enough, I suppose, at the expense of much of its wild spirit.

When I first started coming back to Sebring on my own, it was by no means certain that the romance would take. The first year, I tried to camp at what looked like a good spot near a shade tree on the fenceline. A mean couple of drunks pulled in overnight and tried to muscle me out of the spot because “it’s our spot ’cause we’ve been coming here for twenty years”. They worked on me, escalating ’till I finally pulled up stakes and moved after they pissed on my tent.

I was pretty ready to be done right there, but instead, found another shady spot, and a sympathetic ear in Windsor Graves, with whom I subsequently camped for several years. Win listened, let me talk, and was a good enough and easy friend that I shrugged off the first experience and looked forward to the race yearly. I haven’t seen Win at the track in years. I hope he’s well and happy.

One of those early years, I learned a valuable life lesson. Two tough guys, bikeresque electricians from Miami, pulled in right next to my campsite. I grew up with a few biker-periphery friends, and figured that if I had to be friends or enemies of these guys, I’d rather be friends, and I had about 30 seconds to make things go one way or the other. I hauled out beers for each of them, turned on the charm: mission accomplished! No trouble from these guys all weekend. Though they did eventually get thrown out of the track when one of them threatened his ex-wife’s boyfriend with a gun. Yeah. Want ’em on my side, not somebody else’s.

Oh! Did I mention there’s a race?

Sebring the event, my own challenge of endurance, has over the years eclipsed the racing action for me. Though I love the race, and shooting the cars, years go by with no real challenge at the front of the pack. Often the biggest money wins. On the other hand, the action in GT is just great – lately incuding door-handle to door-handle sprints for victory at the end of long races.

But I didn’t fall in love with the race. I fell for the place, the time, the season, the sounds. The scent of race exhaust and orange groves in moist, cool spring air. The orange glow of brake discs and the pop, squeak and flame of downshifts as cars slow for the hairpin after dark, where I, finally out of energy, stop shooting, and hang out at the fence and just watch…watch…watch, beer in hand, blissful in the cool evening breeze of a March Saturday night.