Eighty years ago the Hendricks Army Airbase was built in central Florida for the explicit purpose of training bombers for World War II. Massive hunks of concrete were poured to form the runways and hangars and parking pads. Following the war the airbase was sold off to an enterprising Russian-American aeronautical engineer named Alec Ullman, who wanted to put on an endurance racing event to rival even the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sebring International Raceway was born in 1950, and the first 12 hour race was held in 1952.
For seventy years some of the most advanced racing machines of all time have raced head-to-head on these famed hunks of concrete. There are, of course, some ribbons of traditional asphalt connecting some of the large concrete pads to each other to create the current 3.74 mile clockwise layout. This track, and the race it hosts, is certainly an icon of the sport. In recent years track management and the IMSA series which races there have leaned into the patchwork nastiness of the racing surface, even going so far as to promote the race as being a harsh one with the hashtag #RespectTheBumps.
Here’s the thing, it isn’t the 1950s anymore. Every year cars have gotten faster, and as a result every year Sebring has become more dangerous. With an increased reliance on aerodynamic downforce and trick suspension geometry, today’s racing cars are on the knife-edge of grip at the limit. Upsetting a fully loaded racing prototype in the middle of a corner can mean spinning it off into the wall in a split second. Kicking the nose of a car upward can shove extra air underneath the splitter, making downforce a constantly shifting resource that can’t be relied upon.
Just check out Fernando Alonso’s 2019 record qualifying lap in the Toyota Gazoo TS050 Hybrid if you need any indication of just how pitted and choppy this track is.
With the 12 Hours happening again this weekend, teams have been working on their compromised setups to get their cars to function properly at this unique track. Teams have developed workarounds for the bumpiness of the Sebring surface over the years. Cars need extra ride height to avoid bottoming out, but not so much that they give up aerodynamic downforce. These downforce-dependent cars need to be as close to the ground as possible to function, but Sebring doesn’t really allow that.
The whole track is incredibly bumpy from start to finish, but it’s certainly most noticeable at the infamous Turn 17. Having watched dozens of twelve hour races from this track, including a few in person, Turn 17 is by far the most dangerous and egregious examples of bumpiness. A wide entry that narrows down as it crosses under the bridge, and widens again onto the start finish straight, it has caught out some of the best in the sport. Hopping, bouncing, and chirping across the surface, it’s difficult to gauge braking, side-loading, and acceleration off the corner without tipping into a spin, or knocking into a faster car trying to pass.
Isn’t twelve continuous hours of racing strenuous enough, regardless of the surface? Why do we need to subject modern cars and racers to such a beating? If the track were to be repaved, lap times would plummet as cars would be able to set up properly and race the way they were built to race. Do we want to see fast cars going fast, or do we want to see multi-million dollar prototypes get the shit kicked out of them for no reason at all?
As a long-time fan of the sport, I’ve watched this surface deteriorate for years, and it’s time for enough to be enough. Please, for the love of racing, repave Sebring International Raceway.