Sebring: Event preview

Stellar Field, Le Mans Winners And 50TH Anniversary Gala Set To Make Sebring A Classic SEBRING, Fla. (March 8, 2002) -- A modern-day record number of entries. All four class-winning teams from the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Appearances by...

Stellar Field, Le Mans Winners And 50TH Anniversary Gala Set To Make Sebring A Classic

SEBRING, Fla. (March 8, 2002) -- A modern-day record number of entries. All four class-winning teams from the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Appearances by great drivers and cars of the past. The largest sports car racing crowd in North America. And a 50th anniversary celebration of a great American tradition.

It all adds up to the 50th annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, presented by Dodge, at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway on Saturday, March 16. America's oldest sports car race will celebrate its Golden Anniversary in grand style and will open the 2002 American Le Mans Series season.

The 3.7-mile Sebring International Raceway has never looked better than what fans will see when they start streaming into the Florida facility next Wednesday. In addition to ongoing improvements that started three years ago, there are special touches for the 50th anniversary, including signs on the pit garages honoring all former winners.

More than 30 of those former winners are returning to Sebring for the anniversary and will participate in a special autograph session at 2:30 p.m. on the day before the race. Dan Gurney, Jim Hall, Vic Elford, Bobby Rahal, Hurley Haywood, John Fitch, Bob Akin and Juan Fangio II are among them, and there will also be more than 20 former winning cars on display.

Also on Friday, a B-17 Flying Fortress will land at the adjacent Sebring airfield as a tribute to the aviation history of Hendricks Field, part of which became the raceway. Thousands of young B-17 crews trained at the field during World War II. The B-17 will thrill the crowd with a flyover prior to the 10:30 a.m. start of Saturday's race.

The crowd: Sebring is a traditional celebration, a mega event. Last year, a weekend total of more than 160,000 jammed every square inch of spectator space, the largest crowd ever to see a sports car race in North America. This year, the first fan arrived in January; by the time gates open on Wednesday, thousands more will be in line in their campers, motorhomes and other vehicles, all looking for their favorite spot inside the track.

Then there's the race itself. Sixty cars will start from a modern-day record 67 entries. The field includes the best drivers and teams in all of sports car racing from both the USA and abroad.

Included are all four teams that won classes in last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans: Audi Sport North America (Prototype 900), ROC (Prototype 675), Corvette Racing (GTS) and Seikel Motorsport (GT). Former overall winning drivers in the Sebring 12 Hours who will be in the field include Wayne Taylor, Johnny O'Connell, Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto, Frank Biela, Rinaldo Capello, Emanuele Pirro, Andy Wallace, Didier Theys, Mauro Baldi and Stefan Johansson, as well as numerous former class winners.

"Whether it's the 50th anniversary, the 51st or the 52nd, Sebring is a race that every driver wants to win," said Bryan Herta of Valencia, Cal., an accomplished American racer who will make his debut in the once-around-the-clock classic while driving for Panoz Motor Sports.

"When you look at the great names of racing who have won Sebring, it's an honor to be part of the list," said Kristensen, of Denmark, who was on the winning team in 1999 and 2000 and finished second last year for Audi Sport North America.

Many drivers rate Sebring as one of the most difficult races in the world. The venerable old racing circuit is very rough and bumpy, especially in the parts that used to be runways for Hendricks Field. There are sixty cars in four different classes fighting for space on just 3.7 miles of track. The last four or more hours of the race are run in darkness, with only headlights and taillights to guide drivers. The level of competition in all classes has increased with new cars, new teams and experienced drivers.

"Sebring is so incredibly hard to win," said Sascha Maassen of Germany, the GT class winner in 2001 for Alex Job Racing/McKenna Porsche. "The circuit, the traffic, and when it's dark, it's really dark. When you're fortunate enough to win it, of course you want to repeat, but it's so hard."

But for those who win, the rewards are fabulous.

"Sebring is like the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a ZIP file," said Kristensen, using modern computer technology to describe the classic race. "Everything is so compressed into 12 hours, and the traffic is incredible. But I love it. It's been very good to me and it's a thrill to be in it."

"When I won Sebring in '96, I knew right away that it was big," said Taylor, from Altamonte Springs, Fla., who drives for Team Cadillac. "The parties and fans at Sebring are unbelievable. All of the people crowding around the victory podium and the cheering is something I will never forget and want to experience again."

Race teams started arriving at Sebring today, and unofficial testing starts Monday. Official practice gets underway Wednesday, with qualifying to set the 60-car starting field to be held Thursday. In addition to the Legends of Sebring autograph session, Friday's schedule includes a one-hour autograph sesssion at 12:15 p.m. for American Le Mans Series drivers, along with five support races starting at 1:15 p.m.

Ticket information is available online at www.sebringraceway.com or by calling the raceway ticket office at 1-863-655-1442 (toll-free in Florida 1-800-626-RACE).

For those not fortunate enough to attend, the entire 12 hours of racing will be televised live by SPEED Channel and broadcast by the American Le Mans Series Radio Web. The broadcast can be heard online at www.imsaracing.net.

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Series ALMS
Drivers Andy Wallace , Tom Kristensen , Frank Biela , Didier Theys , Bobby Rahal , Bryan Herta , Johnny O'Connell , Vic Elford , Mauro Baldi , Sascha Maassen , Dan Gurney , Hurley Haywood , Bob Akin , Alex Job , Emanuele Pirro , JJ Lehto
Teams Corvette Racing , Alex Job Racing