Sebring: Season opener preview

Sebring, America's Premier Sports Car Race Set To Roll for the 52nd Time SEBRING, FL. - One of the great traditions of both Florida and Americana, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring sports car endurance race, is set to roll off for the 52nd...

Sebring, America's Premier Sports Car Race Set To Roll for the 52nd Time

SEBRING, FL. - One of the great traditions of both Florida and Americana, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring sports car endurance race, is set to roll off for the 52nd time next week at historic Sebring International Raceway.

More than 100,000 fans will descend upon Sebring from around the world, jamming into the 3.7-mile road racing facility to enjoy not only the racing but also the unique atmosphere that makes Sebring America's premier sports car race.

The event, which opens the 2004 season for the American Le Mans Series, gets the green flag at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 20. A stellar field of international racing teams is already arriving at Sebring, many coming from Europe and other overseas locations, and will spend a week testing, practicing and qualifying for what some say is the most difficult race of them all.

Previous winners of the classic event are a "who's who" of international motorsports, including such names as Mario Andretti, Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, A.J. Foyt, Al Holbert and many others who have graced victory circle since the event began in 1952.

Built on the site of a former World War II bomber training airfield, Sebring International Raceway still contains portions of the original concrete that made up what was known as Hendricks Field. Where B-17 pilots practiced takeoffs and landings 60 years ago, sleek and fast Prototype and production-class sports cars now travel at speeds of nearly 200 mph, riding over the waves and bumps that have become part of Sebring lore.

"In some ways, Sebring is more difficult than a 24 hour race," said driver Andy Wallace, an Englishman who has won the event overall two times and will drive a Lola-MG Prototype for Dyson Racing. "The course is very bumpy, and it just thrashes you about inside the car. You're constantly in traffic, always looking for a place to overtake someone. And then night falls and you're still racing, only now it's even harder."

With the race lasting until 10:30 p.m., several hours of the event are run in darkness, producing flaming exhausts and glowing brakes at various places around the track. While the flaming and glowing may be entertaining for the spectators, the night portions of the event are some of the most difficult time the drivers spend in the car. Except for a few spots around the track that are floodlit, the drivers only have their headlights to tell them what's around the next corner.

"It's really, really dark," said Sascha Maassen, a German driver who has won three straight years in the GT class in the Alex Job Racing Porsche. "Sometimes when you race at night at other places, there are lights on the circuit, but the darkness is one of the reasons that Sebring is so hard to win."

Though many people come in on race day, a large portion of the Sebring crowd arrives early, waiting for the opening of spectator gates at 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning before the event. When the gates open, fans scramble to claim their favorite viewing spots and camping areas around the track. The Sebring crowd shows no signs of slowing down; advance ticket sales for this year's event have been at record levels. And the "fun" atmosphere of the Sebring event doesn't go unnoticed by drivers, even as they are reaching speeds of nearly 200 mph on the backstretch portion of the circuit.

"In my opinion the best part of the race is going into dusk when the legendary Sebring crowd really comes alive and partying," said Allan McNish, driver for the Audi UK team. "Even the barbecue smells drift into your helmet. But unfortunately, you don't have time to stop."

"This place has so much history," said Johnny O'Connell, a five-time Sebring winner who will drive for the factory Corvette team. "You go into the infield and you meet people who tell you 'This is my 38th Sebring, and I haven't missed one yet.' I just love the place and it's very, very special."

The 52nd annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will get the green flag at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 20, and will be televised live from flag-to-flag by the Speed Channel. The American Le Mans Series Radio Web will have live coverage online at www.americanlemans.com.

Ticket information is available online at www.sebringraceway.com and www.americanlemans.com or by calling (863) 655-1442 (toll-free 800-626-RACE).

-alms-

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