Inspired by Le Mans, Sebring - the 'Concrete Crucible' - is America's sports car classic.
The first and still the oldest European-style endurance race in the Americas owes its genesis to a Russian-born aeronautical engineer (MIT, class of 1928) and entrepreneur named Alec Ulmann.
In the booming years after World War 2, Ulmann was in the surplus aircraft business, so he frequently dropped in at a former military airfield in central Florida where many old planes and parts were still to be found.
But Ulmann also was a car enthusiast, especially of road racing. Sebring's long, broad runways and intricate network of access roads sparked a dream.
He realized it in 1950 - barely. It was December 31st at 3 in the afternoon when a gaggle of sports car drivers executed a "Le Mans Start" by running across the rough runway cement and jumping into their cockpits for a 6-hour enduro.
Many big, fast sports cars - Allards, Aston Martins, Ferraris, Jaguars - raced into that Sunday night, but under Ulmann's "Index of Performance" handicap formula, pure speed wasn't necessarily the key. Tampa resident Vic Sharp had driven over in his Crosley Hotshot simply to watch the fun, but he wound up loaning his 724-cc roadster to a pair of racers named Bob Deshon and Fritz Koster. They painted a big '19' on the nose using shoe polish from a nearby drugstore, stripped off the windshield and bumpers, drove regularly, and won!
Imagine that New Year's Eve paddock party.
Ulmann spent the next 15 months pulling together the first 12-hour race, which was flagged into life early in the afternoon of Saturday, March 15, 1952. A Ferrari led the early going but dropped out when its differential broke, and in the pitch blackness of 1:06 the following morning a Frazer-Nash took the victory flag.
Besides Crosley, a Chrysler-powered Cunningham, a small Italian Osca, a Ferrari, a Maserati, Ferrari again, Porsche, Chaparral-Chevrolet, Ford, BMW, Nissan, Toyota, Oldsmobile, Audi, Peugeot ... these were the winning marques that, year by year, built Sebring into a world-renowned name in racing. It really meant something if your car came out ahead after half a day of racing on the brutally-rough old concrete runways and narrow, aging asphalt roads with engines tiring, transmissions wilting, brakes fading and chassis and bodies taking blow upon blow from the track. Not only that, but drivers and crew had to fight on through broiling sun, icy nights and, often, torrential rainstorms.
As Sebring prepares for its 60th 12-hour this March, we look back over the preceding 59 races and see that many things have changed - promoters, sanctioning bodies, rules and types of car, science, speeds, safety, the track itself - but one truth remains eternal:
If you win Sebring, you've done something.