History lesson: Anything can happen at Sebring
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History lesson: Anything can happen at Sebring

IN THE MANY CHAPTERS OF AMERICA’S GREATEST SPORTS CAR ENDURANCE RACE, THERE HAVE BEEN SURPRISE ENDINGS NOT EVEN A HOLLYWOOD SCREEN WRITER COULD DREAM UP.

Dan Gurney led the 1966 race until his Ford’s engine expired on the last lap, only a few hundred yards from the finish. He pushed his car the remaining distance, but the team car driven by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby passed him in the final minute. A heart breaking second-place that was later stricken from the record books (pushing your car was illegal).

At last year’s Sebring 12-hours Intercontinental Le Mans Cup race, Hugues de Chaunac’s Oreca team orchestrated an upset win, finishing ahead of the two factory teams. They were the first Sebring winner in 25 years to win the race after starting outside the first two rows. Not a major upset, but certainly a surprise to most people who thought the factory teams would be impossible to beat.

In 1954, Lancia brought a four-car factory team to Sebring with a stellar driver lineup that included legends Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari. They confidently predicted victory. Twelve hours later, three of the four Lancias had dropped out and a little OSCA MT4 owned by Briggs Cunningham won the race, driven by Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd. The newspaper headline the next morning read “OSCA the Giant Killer.”

The Ford GT win in 1969 for John Wyer’s Gulf team was a “mild” Sebring upset. Ferrari and Porsche were the clear favorites, and the aging Ford’s were expected to tool around the 5.2-mile circuit to perhaps a top five finish. Drivers Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver had other ideas, and they ended up in victory lane, thanks in part to some misfortune suffered by the favorites.

Of course, Steve McQueen and Peter Revson came within 24 seconds of a monumental upset the following year. Their Porsche 908 took the lead in the final hour, but Mario Andretti chased Revson down in a Ferrari 512S in perhaps the most exciting Sebring ever.

Sebring’s biggest upset, and perhaps the biggest upset in endurance racing history, came in 1983. A GTO-class Porsche 934, qualifying only 14th on the grid, found itself in the lead in the final minutes, coming back from 11 laps behind thanks to their steady pace and heavy attrition in the GTP class. With its suspension on the verge of collapse, Wayne Baker guided the battle-scarred Porsche across the finish line for what he thought was a class win. It was only then his crew chief let him know they had won OVERALL. His co-drivers Kees Nierop and Jim Mullen were in disbelief. And when the car was loaded into the transporter after the race, the entire suspension fell apart!

The following year was an upset of nearly equal proportions as an aging Porsche 935 driven by Stefan Johansson, Hans Heyer and Mauricio DeNarvaez won, starting from 16th on the grid! Once again, the brutal Sebring circuit had taken its toll on the favorites.

The 3.74-mile circuit of Sebring, originally a World War airfield that trained B-17 pilots and crews, is the toughest road racing facility in the world. The winner of the opening FIA World Endurance Championship race will certainly earn their victory. Perhaps the chapter to be written this year will again tell the story of a surprise.

Ken Breslauer, Sebring International Raceway Historian

Photo :  SEBRING (FLORIDA, UNITED STATES), INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY, 12 HOURS OF SEBRING, RACE, SATURDAY MARCH 19 2011. Oreca give Peugeot his first 2011 victory.