The 12 hours of Sebring 2014
From the perspective of the 2014 Sebring Fan of the Year

By Chris Clark All photos: Chris Clark


Being named as Sebring Fan of the Year for 2014 came as a huge surprise to me, for I had already left the UK for Florida, before the e mail from Sebring came through to notify me that I had been selected. Unable to use data on my mobile phone whilst abroad, I was at the mercy of Wi-Fi whenever it was available to catch up on my e mails and messages. So imagine my surprise when I logged onto the Wi-Fi at Hooters in Tampa Bay on the Monday evening, where I was sat enjoying a nice meal with a nice view prior to the evening NHL game between The Lightning and the Phoenix Coyotes.

It is Chris to the left

I had all sorts of messages asking me if I was the Fan of the Year as there was some confusion as there was a media accredited photographer with the same name as me that also had Sebring connections. As the overall winner of the Sebring Go Pro Hero Fan of the year competition last year, I suspected that people had maybe misread the programme or mistaken the Fan of the Year with the Go Pro fan win from 2013. Until I actually arrived at the track on Tuesday afternoon, I would have no way of knowing for sure.

David Gourley had already asked me to call in and see him upon arrival at the track in order to collect a couple of posters that was part of the Go Pro competition prize. It was at that point that David announced and congratulated me, that I had officially been nominated and selected as the Fan of the Year for 2014.

Part of the scenery

Being named as FOTY is a huge honour to me and something that I will always cherish as I understand the history of the award and what it means to be named as the FOTY. I saw this first hand in 2006 when my good friend Pidge Golebiewsk with whom I usually camp with at the track, was named as co FOTY along with an old friend John Bullock that he had lost contact with many years earlier. Ironic that it was John that had first introduced Pidge to the race all those years ago and they had lost touch with each other and hadn’t seen each other for about 30 years and they were reunited in 2006 via the FOTY selection and found each other at the track with a little help from Ken Breslauer. For the next 2 – 3 years, John would call by our camp and spend time with Pidge, but sadly John Bullock passed away around 2010. But I saw first hand how much the honour meant to them, they were like celebrities, signing people’s programmes and being recognised around the track wherever they went.

A large field of competitive machinery

In some respects, as much as I enjoyed being named as FOTY for 2014, I couldn’t help but wonder “Why me ?” OK I have been flying over the Atlantic Ocean to attend the race for the last 13 years without missing a race, something that has cost me a huge amount if I was to add up the costs over 13 years and it has been a big commitment in monetary terms and maybe that was a factor in the selection process. But on the other hand I can think of dozens of friends that I have met around the track over those 13 years that have been attending the Sebring 12 Hours race for far longer than I have been attending that maybe deserve the award more than me. Still, there is always future year’s for them to be nominated and selected yet.

It means a great deal to me to be the first international race fan that travels to the race, to be given the honour of FOTY. I have a big passion for the Sebring 12 Hours, not just as a race but as a whole event. Obviously the race is an important part of the event, but there is much more to it than that. I love the people and the friends that you meet each year and the camaraderie between people that you only see 4 days of the year. I love meeting new people and making new friends and finding new viewing spots to watch the race from. The people that you meet around the track and the campsites at Sebring are quite simply some of the best and most friendly passionate people that you could ever wish to meet. Where else other than Sebring can you say that you gave a lift over the drive over bridge into Green Park to 2 Cows in the back of your minivan !

One very well known Corvette no. 3 with a Danish driver

Arriving in the field on the Tuesday and walking about the line of campers meeting up with good friends, I was constantly being congratulated on being the FOTY and this continued throughout the weekend as I moved around the track and campsites and it was a very nice feeling to be recognised. A friend back home afterwards said that I am better known in Florida than I am back home in England !

I would like to say a big thank you to 2011 FOTY Bill Farmer who arranged the first gathering of the current and former FOTY’s for a party at his reserved spot on the start / finish line on the Friday evening. 8 FOTY turned up for the get together and it was nice to be able to chat to former holders of the honour. From there we moved over to the Spring Brake Party Zone where we were all formally introduced on the stage by Terry from F Troop who was the FOTY in 2013. We all got to say a few words about what it meant to us personally to be FOTY and allowed me to say a few words about John and Pidge in their absence. So a big thank you to Terry for organising this with the Sebring PR Team and to Mike at Patron for donating a bottle of Patron Tequila for us to have a shot of on the stage and also to Continental Tyres for the hats that each of us also received.

Presentation time. This time it is Chris second from the right.

The highlight of my weekend at Sebring however was experiencing a Hot lap of the track as part of the reward for being named FOTY. I have watched at the track for 13 years and have attempted to drive the track on Forza on the Xbox, but nothing can prepare you for actually being out on the famous concrete racing surface in a high powered car being driven to its limits by an experienced driver.

At home, I drive an Audi A4 Avant diesel (Station wagon) and one of my dream cars that I lust after is an Audi R8 in pearl black paint. Having missed my morning slot due to a communication breakdown, I walked over to the hot lap assembly area and introduced myself. The previous track session was on the slow down lap and the Tudor series cars were gathering in the assembly area at Turn 17 in the paddock about to start their second practice session. I was informed that they were about to run another hot lap session in a matter of minutes and if I could hang about, there was the possibility of fitting me into that session. Within a minute, I was being directed to follow a young gentleman named Nick, he would be my driver for my hot lap of the track. It was a dream come true when the car he walked over to was a pearl black Audi R8 V10.

What one have to endure!

This was the first time that I had actually sat in an Audi R8 and I was about to go for a high speed lap of the Sebring track in it. Seat belt on and my camera rolling to film the experience, Nick drove the Audi past the Daytona Prototype cars in the assembly area and out onto the track and under the bridge at Turn 17. Quickly accelerating down the start finish straight, it was fantastic to actually experience just how bumpy the concrete surface is that drivers always talk about, then to feel the G force push you across the car as it turned into Turn 1 at speed. The feel of being thrown forward in the seat as the car braked hard for the hairpin at the 300 metre marker boards, I can only imagine what braking from nearly twice the speed in half the distance in an Audi E-Tron R18 must feel like and the forces that the drivers body has to put up with for lap after lap during the race.

Nick drove the Audi to the cars very limits and used all of the track available and used the kerbs and apexes on both entry and exit with the tyres squealing on most corners of the track. It was nice to try and pick out my friends campsites at various points around the track and wave to them as we went past at speed. In around 2 minutes, my hot lap was over but it gave me a great insight into what it must be like to actually race on the track and gave me much more respect for the drivers that have to deal with traffic and big differences in speed between the classes for lap after lap during a race. Thank you Sebring for giving me the opportunity of the Hot lap and thank you to Nick for driving the Audi like you stole it !

The unified series

Like many race fans, I was very apprehensive about what changes would be made when NASCAR effectively took over the running of the race with the merger of ALMS and Grand Am. What would the future hold for sports car fans in America ? So with this in mind, 2014 was very much going to be a trip to Sebring not knowing what we would find upon arrival. After last year’s race I had the opportunity to speak with both Scott Atherton and Sebring President - Tres Stephenson and I expressed my concerns about what the future had in store for both the sport and the Sebring track. I let them know what it was about the Sebring that brought the race fans back every year and what areas could be improved to the facilities without spoiling the experience for the fans. My main concern was the rumours that the new owners would want to install grandstands at certain corners of the track and I voiced my thoughts on this and made it clear that the fans are happy with the way things are and don’t need big grandstands on the corners and part of the charm of Sebring is walking between the various campsites and structures around the track meeting up with friends at each campsite. I like to believe that they both listened to me as thankfully no such grandstands had been put up around the track apart from existing ones already in place.

I did mention an area that could be improved on, was to the toilet and shower facilities around the track and although the toilet block near the hairpin in Green Park still has old black curtains rather than doors, there was an additional shower trailer brought in next to the permanent block in Green Park which made life much easier for the thousands that camp in Green Park. On the other side of the coin though, I noticed a distinct lack of hand washing stations next to the porta toilet cubicles around the raceway, which made any trips to use these unhygienic. This is the first year that the hand wash stations have been absent so this needs looking into before next year’s race please. One final note regarding the shower trailers, these would be much more user friendly if they had a wooden bench type seat down the middle of the trailer so that you could sit down and dry your feet and also have a safe dry place to place your clothes whilst in the shower.

Campsites lost personalities

As well as the changes to the series, this year also had a few other unknowns around the campsites, during the last 12 months, some key personalities from particular landmark campsites had sadly passed away. These people were the main men at those campsites, responsible for the set up etc and we did wonder if the rest of the groups would be willing or able to step up to the plate and continue the traditions. Dodge City, home of the Stumble Inn, had lost its Sheriff, Dennis Butler, and the campsite known as Turn 9.9 because it is next to Turn 10, had lost Don Jackson who always maintained an up to date, hourly score board / white board during the 12 Hour race. Thankfully our fears were unfounded and others had stepped in to fill their shoes and Dodge City was set up accordingly with a nice tribute to Dennis, and the score board at 9.9 was updated on the hour. A slogan wrote on the top of the white board that reflected the nature of the race made me laugh. “Yellow ! It’s the new green !” Another campsite that I always visit during the race weekend, where they have adopted me as part of their family orientated group had also lost a key member Ed after last year’s race, but his wife Judy was still there as usual.

Unfortunately as everyone gets older, eventually the regular faces at the traditional campsites are going to fade away when mother nature decides that it is a person’s time. Turn 10 sadly lost another staple member of the group in the week following this year’s race, David Baxter that visited from Texas had just returned home after a week staying with his best friend and the Governor of Turn 10, Jupiter John, when he suffered a heart attack. Thankfully he got to visit the race one final time and spend time with his friends at the track, but he will be sadly missed by all that knew him.

Sports car fans are a dedicated bunch that have a passion for the sport and I only hope that the new IMSA Tudor Series can provide enough of a draw to continue to entice new fans to the sport otherwise its fan base will continue to dwindle as the current fans thin out due to either old age or a lack of interest due to the lack of technology in the current Daytona Prototype cars.

It was nice to see the amazing transformation that had been made to La Bomba, turning it from an Audi prototype into a Corvette C7 GT car and the owners deserve a massive pat on the back for all their hard work. New panels, new paint and even the door numbers lit up and could change to many different colours via remote control.

As I have just mentioned, sports car fans are very passionate about the sport that they follow much the same way that NASCAR fans are passionate about NASCAR, however the majority of sports car fans don’t like NASCAR, probably because the sports are very different to each other, or at least they used to be until the new IMSA Tudor series which is trying to be run to NASCAR style rules.

The thing that attracts people to sports car racing is the technology on the cars, we want to see what new technology a manufacture can bring in to the sport to find an advantage, we want to see high tech prototype cars that are different to each other because each manufacturer has interpreted the rules differently. If a car wins a race by 3 laps, we are ok with that, they have earned it by doing something better than their competitors and it’s up to the competitors to up their own game to try and keep up.

For a sports car fan, it’s all about the cars, not the stars that are driving them. Yes the drivers are an integral part of what we like about sports car racing, but that is because they are easily accessible, and can be approached in an open paddock environment. In sports car racing you can become good friends with the drivers and they will sometimes come and hang out at your campsites around the track and watch the support races with you.

In NASCAR it’s the complete opposite, to the fans it’s all about the driver and driver loyalty and they are worshiped and treated like gods. As a result the paddock is a closed shop affair and the drivers aren’t that accessible to the fans and only on rare occasions will you actually see them visiting fans campsites. The cars are secondary to the drivers and the technology doesn’t matter in NASCAR, the fans are happy if they just get a close race.

This is something that the powers that be at NASCAR that are running the new merged series under the IMSA banner need to try and understand, that sports car racing and NASCAR racing are two completely different animals and each have their own sets of fans that follow each sport for different reasons. If they fail to see this and continue to run the new series to NASCAR style rules, they are only going to drive the hardened sports car fans away from the sport and the fan base will reduce drastically.

Sports car fans don’t want to see “wave arounds” under caution to get a lap back. OK at the end of the race you can boast on television, that all the class battles were decided by seconds on the track on the last lap of the race, but everyone at the track knows that it is false, as the result has basically been manufactured that way with the “wave arounds” and allowing everyone time to pit under caution throughout the race.

Besides which, the oldest sports car race in America didn’t actually have any live television coverage of the finish or for that matter for 9 hours of the race ! How can the jewel in the American sports car crown only have 3 hours of live television coverage ? Yet NASCAR broadcast practice sessions live on television.

The Corvette again.

I am one of the few people that actually enjoy both sports car racing and NASCAR and have travelled from the UK to watch both on many occasions, but I know that I am a rare exception to the general rule. Most American sports car fans that I have talked to, have no interest in NASCAR. They also for the main part have a big disliking to Daytona Prototype cars as they see them as old technology that doesn’t excite them, so as a result, they have christened them “Proto turtles” as they are slower and not as aerodynamically or aesthetically pleasing as the technologically advanced LMP cars.

Personally I don’t have a problem watching the Daytona Prototypes, as the cars still have 4 wheels, still go fast and still sound like proper race cars, so they still hold my interest and I can still get my fix of LMP1 sports cars at Silverstone in April and Le Mans in June. However the thing that was the biggest disappointment to me watching the race this year was the way the race was officiated and run to NASCAR style rules rather than traditional sports car rules which isn’t in the spirit of sports car racing.

The Taylor boys Corvette DP letting out heat during a SC period.

Sports car racing has for years run just fine to its own set of rules, rules that the drivers, fans, teams and manufacturers have become accustomed to. Ok in some cases they don’t always work out, but at least 90 % of the time things are managed correctly and people know what is going on and what the situation is.

Why have IMSA / NASCAR decided that those rules needed to be disposed of in favour of trying to run the series to NASCAR oval style rules instead. You can not officiate a 17 corner circuit race in the same way you run a short oval NASCAR race. They are two different disciplines and should be treated accordingly.

OOPs off!

Local yellow flags on parts of the track for simple things like a car that has spun, or for debris or a car that has pulled off to safe location, which were more than adequate to deal with the situation, sadly don’t exist anymore under the new regime. Instead we get a full course caution, the field is bunched up behind the pace car, then each class of cars that are a lap down are given a wave around to gain a lap back, then the cars are allowed time to pit under yellow. These caution periods are taking an average of 20 – 30 minutes to deal with things as simple as towing a stationary car to a safe location.

The GTLM winning Porsche with dane Michael Christensen.

Over the course of the 12 Hour race, something like 5 hours of the race was behind the pace car under yellow flag conditions. Ok, there were a few serious accidents that required such lengthy stoppages like the fire on the SRT Viper which required track repairs and the two car accidents in Turn 16 and Turn 17 that required repairs to the tyre barriers, however the rest of the incidents should not have taken 20 – 30 minutes to deal with before going back to green flag racing.

During the race, I decided to take the long walk through the field along the Ulmann Straight, down to the exit of Turn 16 so I could do some photography from a great spot on the track that I had never been out to before. My friend and I were there for approximately two hours and we were lucky if we actually got to see about 6 – 8 green flag laps in those two hours. All the rest was spent under yellow flag conditions. At one point, all the cars were stationary on the Ulmann Straight and around Turn 16 with the doors open so the drivers could let some heat out of the cars. I can’t ever remember seeing this before during a race at Sebring.
My friend and I were getting pretty fed up at this point and this was only about 4 hours into the race and I know it was not just us that were fed up with the way the race was being run. Everyone I spoke to around the track had the same feelings about the race.

The corner workers at Turn 10 were even keeping a daily chalk mark chart on the wall, keeping track of how many cautions and stoppages they had each day and the wall space was filling up fast. I don’t know the accuracy of the information but I was told that around 50 corner workers that normally attended Sebring had decided not to bother this year.

I and many other people were of the opinion that there were less people camped at the circuit this year, certainly in Green Park, so perhaps people have decided to vote with their feet at their displeasure in the new unified series?

Another oops.

The race ran the distance and finished with each class battle decided on the final lap as series officials had been hoping for or had been stage managing throughout the day. But at the end of the day, the race just didn’t have any buzz, atmosphere or magic about it like it normally does.

For the first time I didn’t have a portable radio on me during the race so I was unaware of what was happening during the race but tried to follow the class positions using the new LED position panels on the car, but I gave up with this in the end as the red numbers were hard to read at speed and if you could see them, I often found that a car that may have been in 1st or 2nd on one lap would be displaying 8th the next lap. So I decided to abandon any idea of following the position panels until the final 5 minutes of the race and then work out where each car was running in the race.

I was dumbstruck as to why it took about 35 minutes in the final hour of the race for the Whelan Corvette DP to be recovered from the run off area in Turn 10 and for the race to go back green again. I watched the car coast to a halt and pull off to a safe area on the outside of the turn next to the tyre barriers and watched the yellow flags fly again. I also watched the recovery truck arrive a few minutes later and recover the car within another couple of minutes. So why did it take so long to go back to green ?

Having become increasing frustrated at the race as the day wore on, after the race had finished I approached a highly respected, high profile driver in the paddock area and asked him for his thoughts on the race that he had just been taking part in. He informed me that as a driver, he found the race very frustrating himself and that the long caution periods were also the main thing that were the cause of that. He found it hard to get into a rhythm as the race was constantly going back to full course caution and he said that you never knew when to come in and pit because you couldn’t estimate how long the yellows would be out for. He understood that in certain circumstances the long yellows couldn’t be helped, but in the main he believed that the majority of the caution periods could have been dealt with a faster or more appropriate manner.

Upon returning to my own campsite area, I had a long conversation with a neighbouring race fan that had made the long drive to Sebring from Boston and we discussed the race and our own thoughts. The race for him just didn’t have the usual sparkle. The cars didn’t excite him, because they lacked the technology of the LMP cars. The race at Sebring had left him questioning whether or not he was prepared to spend all his money travelling down to Sebring again in the future, to see a race that didn’t excite him anymore. Instead he would probably just go to the Watkins Glen round of the series which is a five hour drive from his home and put the money he would normally spend on travelling to Sebring towards a trip to the Circuit of the America’s in Texas to watch the World Endurance Championship where he could watch the LMP1 cars that did excite him.

Evening goes into night at Sebring

It was only after I returned home that I learned of the massive error that the officials had made in issuing a penalty to the Alex Job Porsche for contact with a Ferrari, when the video evidence clearly showed that it was the Core Autosports Porsche in another class that had made contact with the Ferrari. That penalty cost Alex Job the win in their class. It is mistakes like this that make the series look a complete joke and make them a laughing stock. With mistakes of this magnitude, it is no wonder that teams are starting to question whether it’s worth them being in the series and why some of them are looking elsewhere at other racing series. It isn’t just the teams that will look elsewhere, the fans will start to follow suit. Some fans will still turn up at Sebring anyway as it’s the event as a whole for them and time to spend with friends that they only see a few days of the year. But the people that are only there for the race itself will quickly become disillusioned with the product that they now have for a race and will also look elsewhere for their enjoyment.

The sooner the officials running the new IMSA series sit up and take note of these problems, the better, otherwise they won’t have a series to run if things continue the way they have started with both the running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Sebring 12 Hours. Since Sebring, IMSA have already announced a few changes to the rules and the way they will officiate the races in the future and the technology that is going to be used to review video footage before handing out penalties. This is a start, but they also need to continue to improve other areas if the series is to survive and the fans are going to continue to support it.

Sebring 2014 was a great event for me personally as it meant so much to me to be honoured as the Fan of the Year and I really enjoyed the time spent with my friends at the track, but the race itself was very much a lacklustre affair compared to the previous races I have

I enjoyed at Sebring. But I’ll probably be back again next year to spend 4 days in a hot dusty field in the middle of Florida.