“The tank is leaking and leaving a lake around the RV.” My father rounds me up so that we can both look under and into the RV to find pools of water forming from a sizable leak around the water tank. We both sigh. This wasn’t an ideal way to start a week-long trip, planned months – years in advance. One could only hope it wasn’t a bad omen.
The 2600 miles slated for our Florida destination, Sebring International Raceway, wouldn’t be impossible to take on. In fact, they were welcomed, as traversing anywhere in the last couple of years has been relatively sparse thanks to the pandemic – that and a way to enjoy something we used to do for years through my childhood. Regardless, getting away and seeing any place outside of Michigan again would be a more-than-welcomed change of pace.
Just an hour before our driveway lake began to form, we were picking up our rental recreational vehicle, at a Cruise America “affiliate.” The guys running the counter at this store reiterated for us several times, “if anything happens, please call this customer help line.” It’s one of those things where you hear it a dozen or so times, and roll your eyes subconsciously, while nodding your head in agreement. You’re never going to need to use it, right?
Now, as we took in the sights of the continuing formation and growth of “Lake Driveway,” we actually needed to utilize that number, in hopes that we could leave at our planned 6 a.m. time.
“How can we help you today?”
Our first call at almost 7 p.m. began with the emphasized “Customer Hotline,” and ended with a vague, “We’ll call you first thing in the morning.” The offices of Cruise America/Cruise Canada were closed and none of the partner retailers would reopen (or answer their phones...) until 9 a.m. the next morning. We were instructed we could wait until the original store we rented from was open, and they could either switch out the RV, or we would have to wait for a repair. Another suggestion was that we could even try to connect with a retailer on our way down to Florida. Oh, and hopefully whichever store we chose would “reimburse us” for our trouble.
Call us stubborn, or definitely not satisfied with those answers, we called their headquarters in Arizona (fitting), while I did my due diligence looking for every single way to get a hold of these people. I even found them on Twitter, where they proceeded to read my messages, and then not reply until 5:30 the next evening with a “Sorry for the late response,” like someone avoiding a text would use to finally reply to someone.
(They also didn’t contact us first thing. The company called to “check in” near noon the next day.)
Defeated, we decided to just throw our stuff into the RV and accept we would get on the road later, all in hopes the water leaking would be fixed “first thing.”
We returned to the RV store at 8:30 the next morning. The staff there were quite accommodating and apologetic about it. They fixed a problem valve on the tank, and the defective water pump. Within 45 minutes we were on the road. Sure, we were now three hours behind our planned schedule, but we at least had everything in one piece to comfortably survive our four-day stay on the campgrounds of Sebring.
The RV at least proved her worthiness from there, despite the Ford E-350 it was built upon. I say this, as my father, a GM man through and through, began to make a list of the features or lack-there-of he did not like on the truck. From different cruise control settings and the location of the washer fluid squirters – for the first two hours, the Ford was analyzed for every design and engineering failure (at least, according to my father). I thought it was alright.
Gas stops were the most painful item on the list. Of course, we were certainly brilliant in setting our travel plans during the most expensive blip of gas – needing to fill up with that precious over $4.00 a gallon liquid gold – which meant every trip to the pump would crest near that $200 fill total. Very few stations would let you run the pump until it was done. Typically $100 was the cutoff. One gas station in Kentucky, the limit was $125. Return the pump. Swipe. Start. Continue filling. Cry a little once you get back into your vehicle. Repeat. We would spend over $1000 filling up this beast over the course of the trip.
Problems arose when it came time to get some shut-eye. With my history of knowing many touring bands and where they would park their trailers for an overnight, it was obvious that Walmart parking lots were a certified safe haven. Apparently not in Marietta, Georgia. Our hopes were squashed fairly quickly with “no overnight parking” signs every 15 feet. Now I was left scrambling for any place to rest for the night, while my father got us back on the road.
A few failed search attempts landed me on a site that explained Cracker Barrel had RV- and Truck-friendly parking at its locations. You can imagine the relief as we got to the other side of Atlanta, found a Cracker Barrel, and discovered the parking lot sign.
Once you arrive at the legendary track and navigate your way through the gates (we did not make a questionable turn to get into the gate…nope… ), Sebring is… a fascinating sight. We arrived on Wednesday afternoon to a sea of already-established RVs and campsites – flags poised above pledging allegiance to factory teams, or simply announcing they had COLD BEER.
Several of these sites had already been established for a week or two… others like us, were just arriving. There’s a neighborhood sense to this place, where people help those of us bright-eyed individuals attending for the first time, while also getting into their own scraps (like our neighbors upon their arrival over “property” lines).
If anything, you want to park and set up what you can – and then wander the grounds to see what other setups grace the campgrounds. There’s just so much to see, that it soon became a routine for us, we’d head back to the trailer for dinner or post-dinner, before taking a walk around another section of the grounds.
Many would wander the trackside RV villas – beer in hand. If you didn’t have a drink, you didn’t have to travel far to find someone who would offer you alcoholic sustenance for free or a small price. A handful of sites erected their own bars. One notable camp set up a large tiki bar, with a full bar service of alcohol waiting to mix you the best damn cocktail you’ve had at the track (or at least, hopefully it was).
Sure, with the amount of alcohol running through the veins of fans, there was the occasional game of “try not to get run over by the golf kart” – and there was one accident. I don’t know who hit who, but the kart had rolled and a lot of it was missing.
This might be the coolest version of camping I’ve had the privilege of experiencing. There’s millions of dollars worth of RVs alone – the type of coaches celebrities and bands take on tours. The generators make a whirring noise to lull “campers” to sleep, running throughout the hot, sticky 100-percent humidity days and into the slightly cooler nights.
And the cars. You will not see a collection of cars like these. You don’t typically take a Lamborghini or track cars to a real campsite (or maybe you do and I stand corrected). So, within this sun-up to sun-down track action with adjoining campsites, there’s a car show. You don’t have to go far. You may have followed along over the race weekend as I shared photos of all of the cars I came across, and I will tell you now, that wasn’t even half of them.
“Whoooooooammmmm.” The field of cars runs (or hops) through turn one, depending on where the car comes out for the straight. Within 30 seconds, another “Whooooooammmmm,” this time, behind me. I should have referenced the map one last time before setting up camp, which is why I was momentarily disoriented by the cars passing again — on the looped track opposite our campsite.
Where can you experience something like this? Your alarm is track practice on Friday morning – the roar of 30-50 internal combustion heathens running past your RV, shaking your weekend home and your eardrums. You can sit in the stands to watch the track action, but why do that when you can get a great vantage point from the top of your own camper?
In-between things, you can wander the paddocks and watch the cars be prepped for their next session. Within the WEC paddock sat a large projection screen set behind the winner’s circle, with comfortable lounging furniture in case you needed to take a load off and just relax.
The Porsche Carrera Cup held its second season debut on Thursday — with 43 Porsche 992s taking to the track to compete. It was the largest one-make starting grid in the world. Imagine how 43 Porsche 992s sound screaming down a track. It’s a beautiful, beautiful sound. Even heavenly, if you believe in that stuff.
Perhaps I’m spoiled, but I love a good track weekend where there’s something on track at any given hour of the day. Sure, you’ll lose your voice trying to hold any semblance of a conversation. But, there’s race cars and you’re sharing all those moments with hundreds of people who love it just as much, if not more, than you do.
If you ever come across La Bomba at Sebring, I feel like you’ll understand the entire embodiment of what Sebring and the camping experience is. The Frankensteined vehicle started life as something meant to bring fun to the people. The people who work with this vehicle (like a small commune) have been coming to the track for decades as fans — the party bus is to be there for the fans. Want a ride? Just hold out your hand. They’ll stop for you. You could make 40 new friends that night, just on this party vehicle alone.
Here at Sebring, people just invite others into their spaces, or would pop into your trailer (if the screen was open) to see what you were up to. It was very Kramer/Urkel-esk in that way. You just make friends, regardless.
The 12 Hours of Sebring concluded just before 11 p.m. Saturday night. While some fans were well into their several-enth beverage as they eased into the evening, others, like one of my neighbors, hustled to pack up and get the hell out. I walked out to their empty campsite the next morning.
Our neighbors to the left of our campsite, however, invited us over to chat well into the evening. The conversation was originally sparked by our homemade Jalopnik banner, posted at the top of our RV. We shared amusing racing and track stories, and all other sorts of adventures. I also made a point to give them crap for their Verstappen and Hamilton flags, flown high and proud from their scaffolding. (Shout out to Clive, Donn, pictured on the lower right, & Randy!)
In all my years of attending races, spanning across several series from F1 to Lemons, I can’t say I’ve experienced anything like I did at Sebring. And if the heat or the racing doesn’t end up being your cup of tea — you’ll likely still head home after the race with a few new friends, and remain enamored with all the weekend offered. You bet I’ll be back next year.