Sebring Celebrates 40th Anniversary of IMSA at Sebring
By Louis Galanos | Photos as credited
On March 16, 2013 the Sebring Raceway and Mobil 1 held the 61st running of the 12-Hours of Sebring but also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the very first IMSA-sanctioned Sebring 12 Hour enduro.
The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) came into being in 1969 under the leadership of John Bishop, the former executive director of Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), who left that organization after a falling out with the club’s leadership.
Bishop was contacted by NASCAR’s Bill France, Sr. who was looking to form a sanctioning body for road racing and saw in Bishop the man with the knowledge, experience and expertise he needed. With the financial backing of France, who at one time owned 75 percent of IMSA, Bishop created IMSA and even designed the logo for the organization.
In 1969 and 1970 IMSA put on a series of Formula Vee and Formula Ford races but many of those events didn’t draw the kinds of crowds expected to make a successful series so at the end of 1970 they went back to the drawing board and came up with a race series for FIA GT (group 3 & 4) and Touring (group 1 & 2) cars. Throughout 1971 this IMSA series for GT and Touring cars began receiving good reviews from fans and drivers alike.
For 1972 Bill France was able to work his magic with his NASCAR sponsors and got Camel Cigarettes to sponsor the IMSA GT series and the B.F. Goodrich Tire company to sponsor their IMSA small sedan (GTU) series.
The pivotal year for IMSA turned out to be 1973 and the place was the 1973 Sebring-Camel 12, The Camel GT Challenge at Sebring, Florida. Long known for being the premier sports car racing venue in North America the Sebring 12 Hour Grand Prix of Endurance had fallen on hard times and at the close of the 1972 event the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) pulled its certification of Sebring as an international automotive race.
From the late ’60s to the early ’70s the FIA constantly pressured Sebring founder, Alec Ulmann, to make what the FIA deemed to be necessary safety improvements to the track and needed creature comfort improvements to the spectator areas. Anyone who had attended races in those years would heartily agree that the “old lady” was showing her age. A charitable description of the track infrastructure back then as “racetrack primitive” would not be out of the question. Ulmann’s response each year to the pressure from the FIA was to announce to all who would listen that “…this is the last Sebring.”
Well, push came to shove in 1972 after repeated promises from Ulmann that he would comply with the FIA edicts. Ulmann had even talked about major upgrades to the present facility and even floated the idea of moving the race to the Palm Beach area which almost happened in 1966 following the deaths of four spectators and a driver during the 12 hour race.
Only at the last minute did the FIA give Ulmann permission to hold the 1972 race based on his assurances that a new venue was in the works and would be ready for the 1973 World Sportscar Championship (WSC) season. Despite those assurances nothing ever materialized and Ulmann walked away from Sebring in 1972 and the FIA pulled its recognition of the event from its WSC calendar for 1973. In the eyes of the press the 1972 race was the last fully international event at the track and “The Last Sebring.”
No doubt a pall of doom and gloom settled in amongst Sebring’s many racing fans but the residents and city fathers of Sebring were hit particularly hard as they contemplated Sebring without “Sebring” and the vast revenues it generated each year for the city and business community.
Contemporary reports indicate that a group of local race fans, supporters and business leaders and, according to Autoweek “an angel”, came together to attempt to save the race. More about this “angel” later. In doing so they enlisted the help of Reggie Smith, the long-time Sebring Racing Secretary during the Alec Ulmann years.
As it turns out Reggie Smith was the right person to go to because he literally organized and ran the Sebring races for 17 years under the auspices of the Automobile Race Club of Florida (ARCF). The ARCF became the race organizing body for the race after the American Automobile Association (AAA) dropped out of racing following the tragedy at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans that took the lives of 83 spectators. It was the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.
Despite initial misgivings, because time was fast running out before the annual date of the race, Reggie Smith decided to try and save the event and quickly formed the Sebring Automobile Racing Association (SARA) as the replacement for the ARCF. What he needed now was a sanctioning body willing to join with SARA in putting on a 12 hour race.
Reggie Smith was well aware of who John Bishop was and reports coming out of IMSA events indicated that they put on a more relaxed informal type of racing which is just what was needed at Sebring considering the state of the facilities in 1973. Initial talks between the two men seemed positive and John Bishop expressed his receptiveness to putting on the race. It was just what IMSA needed to raise its profile both nationally and internationally.