This was the first time that I drove right into the track on race day without a queue. It was still early but there was no sign of a crowd, which is not normal for Sebring. This would be the smallest attendance of a Sebring 12 Hour ever. Not good for the promoters but it made life easier for me.
The wild and wide-bodied Greenwood Vette managed by Jack Ansley was the hit of the pre-race grid. Ansley had cut a sponsorship deal with the world-famous Chicken Ranch, a bordello located outside Las Vegas. Part of the deal included supplying support personnel from the Chicken Ranch for the race. Ansley kept this quiet until it was time to grid the cars. The ladies from the Ranch, outfitted as risqué team members, escorted Gene Felton, Rex Ramsey and the Chicken Ranch Car, now with its full signage painted in, “Chicken Ranch, You Can Eat Here Too,” to the grid. Needless to say, Ansley’s car and ladies stole the pre-race show and damn sure topped the Hawaiian Tropic Girls.
Start of the Race
Andretti, the master of the rolling start, nailed it perfectly and had a four-car lead on the rest of the field coming out of turn one. Greenwood, Minter, DeLorenzo, Peterson, Follmer and Gregg in that order were in a tight pack giving chase. The leaders were followed by a herd of A Sedan-type cars, mixed in with a whole lot of Porsches.
Coming out of Big Ben, Follmer got his nose to the inside right of DeLorenzo putting Tony to the outside for the upcoming right Hairpin. Tony, realizing the situation, tried to make the best out of a bad situation by braking early and tucking back in behind Follmer. Gregg, seizing the opportunity, closed the hole and in doing so, missed his braking point and nailed Follmer’s Porsche square in the rear, sending Follmer spinning into the dirt bank on the outside of the Hairpin.
As the last car in the field cleared the Hairpin, Follmer was able to restart his wounded mount and limp off on a flat left rear. Knowing Follmer I speculated as to what he must have been thinking and that was that Gregg was into him for about three of these now. Payback with penalty and interest can be hell.
The Gregg/Follmer incident shuffled the field a bit. As they crossed the line for the first lap, it was Mario with almost three seconds on Minter followed by Greenwood, DeLorenzo and Peterson, with Gregg now the leader of the second group. Andretti kept the lead until he was called in for gas. Minter followed one lap later along with about a dozen big blocks. This shuffle gave the lead to Gregg in the Porsche until he pitted giving the lead back to Andretti.
Race – First hour
At the end of the first hour it was the Ferraris running one-two and Haywood, now in for Gregg, in third place but a lap down to the second place Ferrari with Wietzes now in it.
Andretti stayed in the car on the first pit stop and only took on gas thus extending his lead even more. Andretti in the Ferrari without a doubt had the field covered and it was beginning to look like another Andretti roust.
Sebring, with the Hairpin hole shot and those long drag-strip straights, favors horsepower and the cars with the horses were pulling out a study lead on the smaller cars. However horsepower is expensive in more than one way and on the Sebring rough track, horsepower can be a cars downfall and this was the case for the Greenwood car in the third hour. Horsepower, the one thing coveted most by race drivers, was just too much for the transmission of the Spirit of Sebring Corvette as it coasted to a stop at the end of the front straight with its 650 plus bhp engine still very much alive but its transmission in pieces.
Race – Third Hour
Andretti and Ickx were setting a killer pace and four of the eight Vettes were already out of the race along with a number of other cars by the end of the third hour. Minter and Wietzes in the other Ferrari were the only car on the same lap with the leader. One lap down were a brace of Vettes and BMWs, led by Jack Baldwin in the Revell Corvette followed in close pursuit by DeLorenzo, Peterson and Redman.
DeLorenzo and Baldwin were having quite a go at it for third. At the little kink in warehouse straight on the far backside of the track, just before the track turns back onto Flying Fortress Straight, DeLorenzo accidentally tapped Baldwin, sending him off track into a loading dock behind one of the warehouses. It was a hard hit and as Tony rounded the turn he looked back to see the car on fire and no sign of Baldwin getting out. Being the good guy that he is, DeLorenzo cut back across the apron of the runway and drove back to Baldwin’s car. There were still no workers on sight as DeLorenzo pulled an unconscious Baldwin out of the wreck. While DeLorenzo was tending to Baldwin, the workers arrived to save the car with fire bottles. As the last flames went out the workers had to redirect their attention to now saving DeLorenzo from a very irate Baldwin who had regained consciousness and was now straddling DeLorenzo on the ground and beating the s@#t out of him. Once separated, Jack calmed down and petitioned DeLorenzo for a ride back to the pits over the protest of the corner workers. They were at a loss as to how to stop it so they turned a blind eye as DeLorenzo drove away holding his bloody nose and with Baldwin as a passenger.
Both men would recover from the incident to go on to big things, Baldwin became the Trans-Am Champion driving the Hot Wheels Camaro in 1998 and DeLorenzo would win the Country Music Entertainer of the Year Award the same year. Both are now good friends and laugh at the mention of this.
With the Baldwin / DeLorenzo event, this put the factory BMWs into third and fourth leading a procession of Porsches followed by Ramsey in the Chicken Ranch Corvette and the Club Arnage-sponsored French Corvette of Claude Ballot-Lena and Jean-Pierre Beltoise, the former at the wheel.
Somewhere about this time men in cheap suits showed up at the far end of the pits. On the track in the Chicken Ranch Vette, Rex Ramsey coasted down the run out at the Hairpin all the way to the end and pulled to the side. A crew member then appeared on the scene to assist with whatever the problem was. The car was soon restarted and back on its way. In the pits, more cheap suits set up a perimeter around the far end of the pits. About twenty minutes later, Ramsey came in for a scheduled pit stop and driver change. Everything looked routine as Felton returned the Chicken Ranch Vette to the track. As Rex prepared to take of his helmet the cheap suits with their hands on their guns closed in. Just as the suits were set to pounce, off comes Ramsey’s helmet and the suits recoiled in shock, as it’s George P. Burdell the team’s engineer/driver from Georgia Tech and not their target. Rex is twenty minutes out at 2200 feet in a Cessna somewhere over Florida on his way to being the focus of a Newsweek drug article and a legend in motorsports.
Jack Baldwin then became the only driver to drive two cars in the race, as he replaced Rex Ramsey, Gene Felton’s AWOL co-driver, for the remainder of the race.