RACING
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Published on 03/20/2018

The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring is Always Special for Corvette Racing

WORDS:

DAN HODGDON

PHOTOS:

 

MATT BEST

Nestled among orange groves and farms in the South Florida countryside lies one of motorsports’ most famous cathedrals. The track is Sebring International Raceway and it’s known as “The Birthplace of American Endurance Racing.”

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Published on 03/20/2018
racing, events
WORDS:

DAN HODGDON

PHOTOS:

 

MATT BEST

The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring is Always Special for Corvette Racing

Nestled among orange groves and farms in the South Florida countryside lies one of motorsports’ most famous cathedrals. The track is Sebring International Raceway and it’s known as “The Birthplace of American Endurance Racing.”

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Indeed, it is a historic site. Racing has taken place here since New Year’s Eve in 1950 when the facility first hosted the motorsports crowd for a six-hour race. The first 12-hour event then was held in 1952. But the 17-turn, 3.74-mile track is also regarded as one of the most difficult circuits in the world. The hashtag #RespectTheBumps is not just a clever social media phrase, but also sound advice. The track is concrete and asphalt, derived from Hendricks Field, an old Army air base. Today the racetrack still incorporates elements of those runways and sits next to Sebring Regional Airport.

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More than once throughout a race weekend it is uttered that the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring is more difficult than 24 hours anywhere else in the world.

It is a unique challenge no doubt. And throughout the 2000s Corvette Racing has made the esteemed facility its own personal playground.

The group has 11 victories in its last 17 events at the track. But although the two-car team’s three-race class win streak is snapped at the conclusion of this year’s 66th edition of the day-to-night affair (the No. 4 C7.R finishes sixth and its sister No.3 machine eighth), Corvette Racing is an undeniable presence throughout the week.

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During Friday’s autograph session there is a massive line in the paddock to meet the competitors that pilot each of the bright yellow Corvettes in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans (GTLM) class. The drivers are Jan Magnussen of Denmark, Antonio Garcia of Spain and Germany’s Mike Rockenfeller in the No. 3; and American Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin of Great Britain and Swiss competitor Marcel Fässler in the No. 4. All sign diligently for close to an hour. They stop occasionally to smile for selfies with fans, many of whom are wearing the iconic Corvette crossed flags logo.

“Of all the races we go to, the atmosphere here at Sebring is unbelievable,” Milner says.

A native of Washington, D.C., and a two-time class winner ar Sebring, he has driven for Corvette Racing since 2011. Over the years he and his teammates have built relationships with many fans, in particular with those that are part of the notorious party crowd that populates Turn 10.

“We’ve been out there for qualifying sessions, it’s really sort of the only time that we can get away from the pits and just kind of watch,” Milner says. “That gives us a chance to really see what this place is like in the infield.”

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He tells stories of fans who have been coming to the Sebring event for decades and show up every third Saturday in March. He points to the sports car knowledge of the spectators, in addition to the massive crowds and parties, as part of the overall Sebring experience and atmosphere.

“It’s spring break time and it’s a tradition for a lot of people to come here and see this race,” he explains. “Part of it is obviously the racing. People come here to see some of the best sports cars in the world. But it’s almost in some ways become its own event.”

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There is a sea of people at the track, watching cars bumping and bouncing over the surface’s rough patches lap after lap, hour after hour. More than a few are simply enamored with the V8 roar emanating from under the hood of the C7.Rs, produced by the naturally aspirated Chevrolet LT5.5 engine.

Raul Correa from Orlando is one of those diehard Corvette fans. He drives a 2002 Z06 and has been attending the event for 15 years. He makes the trip with his father, Raul Sr., who drives a 2016 edition of the Z06 model.

“We enjoy seeing our product out on the track competing against those other marques, that’s super awesome,” Correa says.

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He and his father try to view the race from a variety of areas on the track, but he says that Turn 10 is one of their favorites. It’s clear to see why when one is standing in what is known as “Cunningham Corner.” The cars brake entering the turn, then accelerate once again through the complex that makes up Turns 11 and 12, or “Collier Curve.” Nearly every section of the track is named for one of the legends who competed on it.

Correa is wearing a Corvette Racing hat and shirt and talks of team members like Milner and crew chief Dan Binks making their way to the infield to mingle with fans on the Thursday before the race.

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“They kind of let loose a little bit and hang out with us and then go back to work,” Correa says. “It’s pretty cool.”

Corvette Racing’s presence, and by extension that of the Chevrolet brand, is simply everywhere at Sebring. The Chevrolet display on the midway features the latest technology and most sought after Chevy vehicles. Meanwhile at the Corvette Corral, owners of nearly every generation of the American icon are featured. Their owners are treated to driver appearances, meals and other special events and throughout the entirety of race week. The Corral lies adjacent to the right-hander at Turn 17, where the race may be decided as drivers exit and sprint to the start-finish line a few hundred yards away.

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Turn 17 is one of the track’s most notoriously difficult turns on a circuit known for them.

“You don’t drive that like a traditional corner because of the bumps,” Milner explains. “The bumps are the worst on the inside, so you typically stay a little bit towards the middle of the road.”

He says the section from Turn 17 to Turn 1 is the roughest of the track, with three big bumps in the first turn as well. But the whole circuit is a tremendous challenge.

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Having a strong, reliable car is of utmost importance, Milner says, and it is something Corvette Racing prides itself on. All endurance races are driven as intensely as sprint races today thanks to massive advances in technology among all competitors.

Having a strong, reliable crew is important, too.

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The Corvette Racing setup on pit lane is impressive. Telemetry and various forms of data from both cars is continuously fed to a team of engineers, with crew members constantly prepping tires, moving fuel rigs and performing scheduled pit stops. And that’s not to mention the constant need to be at the ready should a problem occur on track, or in the event a car needs to be taken to the paddock.

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While there is a palpable sense of pressure on pit lane, the teams are often smiling and joking. There is the distinct feeling these guys are having fun.

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Dave LaBroski of Almont, Michigan, plays a variety of roles on the team, including going over the wall to fuel the No. 4 car.

He sums up Sebring succinctly.

“I like the track, I like the people here,” says the three-year Corvette Racing employee as he waits for the 66th edition of the race to take the green flag.

“It’s a nice race.”

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