Jimmy Carter: "We fell in love with the Chevrolet Corvette,"
Daytona Beach, Fla. – What do a U.S. President, one of America’s most renowned broadcasters, and an astronaut who walked on the moon have in common?
They’ve all made annual visits to Sebring International Raceway, part of a long list of celebrities at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida, a rite of spring since 1952.
“As soon as I came home from the Navy [in 1953], Rosalynn and I and the children began to drive down to Sebring and went to the 12-hour race there, which was always interesting,” said Carter in a recent interview.
To prepare for the races, Carter would listen to the “Sounds of Sebring” phonograph records, learning to tell the difference between the different engines.
“Rosalynn and I used to listen and would try to turn the other way and see which kind of car was coming,” recalled Carter, who learned to differentiate between the eight-cylinder Maseratis and 12-cylinder Ferraris, that “sounded like a sewing machine, very smooth.”
Eventually, Carter identified a favorite...
“We fell in love with the Chevrolet Corvette,” Carter said. “Corvettes sounded like a John Deere tractor compared to (the foreign cars), but they would hold their own in speed. It was a time of origination of a real car that could compete internationally, where they have the fastest cars.”
Long before interviewing President Carter for the CBS Evening News, broadcasting icon Walter Cronkite was a fixture at Sebring. Filing CBS Radio reports from the event for at least three years, broadcasting icon Cronkite drove in the 1959 Twelve Hours.
Mixing business with pleasure, he filed reports for CBS between stints in a Lancia Appia Zagato. Cronkite finished fifth in class and 40th overall – one position ahead of NASCAR pioneer and inaugural Sprint Cup Series champion Red Byron, who shared a Carroll Shelby-entered Maserati 250s co-driven by Jim Hall and Hap Sharp.
Cronkite also was the unofficial voice of the American space program, which had Charles “Pete” Conrad fly on Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions. Less than two years after he became the third man to walk on the moon, Conrad drove in the 1971 race, failing to finish in a Porsche 914/6. He was “grounded” by NASA following the race, fearing to have an active astronaut injured in competition.
Over the years, Sebring has attracted a “who’s who” list of stars.
Steve McQueen – driving with a cast on his left foot from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident – finished second overall in 1970, 23 seconds behind Mario Andretti’s Ferrari 512S. McQueen won his class in a Porsche 908 co-driving with Peter Revson.
Comedian Dick Smothers was serious about his racing, winning his class twice. He finished eighth overall in a Porsche 906E in 1969, and came back two years later to place seventh in a Corvette co-driven by John Greenwood. Paul Newman ran in the 1977 Twelve Hours, joining a list of actors that included James Brolin, Gene Hackman, Bobby Carradine, Craig T. Nelson, Lorenzo Lamas, and Patrick Dempsey, who is expected to compete again in this year’s race.
The star-studded list is impressive – and continues to grow. As Cronkite would say in his signature sign off, “And that’s the way it is.”