Story and photos by Hal Crocker
As it lay there all twisted and rusting its steel skeleton reminded me of the remains of a giant dinosaur. Since the last Sebring Race the old MG Bridge had fallen during a bad storm; could this be an omen of things to come? Stirling Moss was interviewing Alec Ulmann, the founder of the Sebring 12 Hour Race, in front of a group of old abandoned World War II airplanes. The interview was for a documentary on the history of Sebring, titled “Sebring – The Glory Years.” The making of the documentary only added fuel to the rumor that this would be the last Sebring. This had been a running rumor from the first time that I had attended the Sebring 12 Hour back in 1970 but this time it could very well be for real.
The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), sanctioning body for the Sebring Race, had given Alec Ulmann an extension on required safety and track improvements for the 1971 race and then charitably extended it for 1972. But when these much-needed improvements were not made, the FIA felt that they had no choice but to drop Sebring from the World Sportscar Championship calendar for 1973.
Additionally, the Auto Racing Club of Florida withdrew their sanction of the event, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed stricter regulations on the use of the airport, insurance costs accelerated, sponsors dropped out and Alec was now getting up in years and just could not justify it health or business wise. Thus, Alec reluctantly decided to give it up at the end of 1972. It had been a long hard battle and Alec had fought it with passion and zest but the Ulmann era was over and it appeared so was the Sebring Race.
To the Rescue
Just when it seemed that Sebring was lost in 1973, John Bishop, with the help of Bill France of NASCAR, saw an opportunity and engineered a business deal that saved it once again. Bishop, ex-head of SCCA and then founder of the new International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), knew full well that Sebring was the crown jewel of American sports car racing and thus the importance and value of the event.
For this rescue and the task of running the ‘73 race, Bishop recruited the help of Reggie Smith, a long-time associate of Alec Ulmann. Reggie formed the Sebring Auto Racing Association to replace the role of the Auto Racing Club of Florida. Together the two men, with the help of other good citizens of the motorsport community, were able to organize, promote, sanction and stage the 1973 Sebring 12 Hour Race thus saving it for yet another year.
The crowd and entry for the 1973 race was more than a bit off along with the media coverage but that was expected given the circumstances. That said, the event was considered a success by most so it would stand to reason that the same players would follow through and do the 1974 Sebring 12 Hour Race. Not so.
Once again the Sebring race would be threatened, this time by strong geopolitical forces, namely the Arab OPEC oil embargo and the fuel crisis that followed. Politically savvy Bill France canceled the 24 Hour sports car race at Daytona in February and did not want nor need the extra heat of public opinion associated with running a gas-guzzling twelve hour race at Sebring. Plus, he had his plate full just trying to save NASCAR. This left Bishop out in the cold without his important ally for the 1974 Sebring race. Reluctantly, Bishop withdrew IMSA sanction and support of the race much to the disappointment and dismay of a number of manufacturers and the sports car racing community.
For a number of entities, this represented a large financial loss if the race did not run. It was a Catch 22 – lose what you already invested or go forward and see if you could save the program. A number of players were not ready to give up.
Tampa businessmen and race enthusiasts Charles Mendez and Dave Cowart stepped up to the plate to have a go at it. Mendez would later form Sebring Motorsports Inc. to promote the 1978 Sebring Race and would also win that race with co-drivers Brian Redman and Bob Garretson. That drive was the first race Redman drove after his recovery from his career threatening Can-Am accident at St. Jovite.
Back to the 1974 race, Mendez and Cowart recruited their high school friend Peter Pheil to help save Sebring once again.
Peter Pheil, a Tampa-area native and now president of Pheil Industries, an international conglomerate based in Zurich, Switzerland, stepped up with sponsorship for the race. The money was coming from the agrochemical division of Pheil Industries and the product promotion budget of a new fertilizer named “Black Bull.” PAC, Pheil Agro-Chemical, was about to introduce “Black Bull” for the fast emerging Florida organic farming industry that was being driven by the new health food craze that swept the country.
Now with a big dollar sponsor in place, the Tampa Gang, as they would be known, proceeded ahead at full speed but now running late on the schedule. With time needed to get everything back on track – mainly insurance and media – the Tampa Gang would miss the Sebring traditional date of the third weekend of March even though 2,000+ fans showed up that weekend anyway. The race was moved to the first weekend in April, which meant that they would lose most of the spring break crowd. Even so, with PAC money and the support and encouragement of the motorsports community, the Tampa Gang soldiered forward.