Sebring Celebrates 40th Anniversary of IMSA at Sebring Page Two
However, Bill France, Sr., expressed strong reservations on the financial commitment necessary for IMSA to take over one of the top events in North American racing. It would be a huge financial risk for the fledgling organization.
In just a few short weeks John Bishop, Reggie Smith and the “angel” were able to pull things together and get done what was needed to put the 12-Hours of Sebring on the 1973 IMSA Camel GT series calendar. While not an “…event of international stature, the 12 Hours of Sebring was nevertheless saved and a new era was on the horizon.” That sounds a lot easier than it really was because the tracks long-time insurance carrier, Lloyds of London, had abandoned them after the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS) declared the track to be unsafe. However, Bill France Sr. and his NASCAR insurer came to the rescue.
Next came the problem of prize money. Unless you can guarantee a healthy purse you will get few entries. Thankfully that previously mentioned “angel” had already stepped up to the plate with a guaranteed purse of $30,000. Plus he provided the money to allow planning to move forward in addition to making some needed minor safety changes to the course. Finally everything was in place to go racing.
On March 24, 1973, seventy-two cars took to the starting grid and they included almost twenty Corvettes, a similar number of Porsches including five Porsche Carreras, plus a number of Camaros, Mustangs and the occasional BMW, Mazda, Datsun, Alfa, MGB, Ford Escort, Dodge Colt and so on. There was even an AMC Gremlin in the running. It was a very competitive field with over a dozen cars capable of the overall win.
These were the cars that race fans could relate to. Gone were the big factory teams and prototypes from Europe, gone was the international press, gone was the wealthy Palm Beach crowd with their Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces parked in the paddock. Also gone were the cute young ladies who traveled like camp followers to all the international races. They were replaced by cute college coeds who flocked to Sebring during Spring Break. It was a much more democratic environment with fans, race drivers, crews and course workers sharing space in the camping areas.
Press reports indicated attendance was half the previous year but in reality it was closer to seventy percent because the race actually made money. The crowds seemed to relate better to this new type of racing and if police reports are any judge the crowds were much better behaved than previous years. For some long-time veterans of Sebring it was a return to “real Sebring racing” like they had witnessed in the ’50s and early ’60s.
Before the green flag fell to start the race the Corvettes were given the odds-on chance of winning by the some fans, especially those in the Corvette paddock, because they were the fastest on the track and they were American made. Many hoped that this would be Corvette’s year at Sebring. During the first four hours of the race it looked like it might be as the Tony De Lorenzo – Steve Durst pole winning Corvette held the lead.
However they were in a fierce battle with the Corvette of Sebring veterans Dave Heinz and Jerry Thompson but the pace and notoriously rough Sebring course began to take its toll on the American cars with the Heinz/Thompson Corvette dropping out after completing 110 laps and the De Lorenzo/Durst Corvette retiring three laps later.
With the leading Corvettes out of the running first place was taken over by the Porsche 911 Carrera RSR of Peter Gregg, Hurley Haywood and Dave Helmick. Gregg and Haywood were fresh from their victory at the Daytona 24 one month earlier in a Brumos Porsche 911 Carrera RSR.
For the rest of the race the Gregg/Haywood/Helmick car maintained their lead but had to fight off challenges from the Porsche 911 Carrera RSR of Elliott Forbes-Robinson and Gray Egerton and during the last five hours from Michael Keyser and Milt Minter in another Porsche 911 Carrera RSR who finished second. Only the hard-driving Corvette of John Greenwood, Ron Grable and Mike Brockman prevented a clean sweep for Porsche. They finished in third place. Coming in first in the small sedan class, but seventh overall, was the Porsche 911S of Steve Behr, Don Lindley and Brian Goellnicht.
While the national and international press gave short shrift to the IMSA Sebring Camel-12 race, it was a remarkable comeback for an event that was given up for dead at the end of 1972 and it was just the beginning of Sebring’s comeback. None of this would have been possible except for the dedication and support of a lot of fans of Sebring; chief among them was that “angel” mentioned earlier. He was none other than Corvette legend, John Greenwood. John got on board early on in saving Sebring through Bill France, Sr. France had a favorable opinion of John because Greenwood financed and promoted a USAC Indy car event and a NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) in 1972. That event was well received and all the bills were paid and Greenwood remembers that France approached him to help finance and save Sebring.
John decided to go for it, withdrew money from his bank, flew to Florida and deposited it in the race account. John trusted Reggie Smith to run things at Sebring but he also had Frank Cipelli watch over the handling of the race, but without being obstructive. Frank was not only John’s first race driving instructor but also General Manager for MIS and John trusted him to protect his investment. Being the Sebring “angel” also meant that John was burdened with paying the ticket takers, the track security, the contractors for fuel and food, as well as the seven secretaries who handled advance ticket sales. Fortunately for him the race made money.
In the weeks prior to the race John organized his co-drivers, Ron Grable and Mike Brockman, into a “troupe of promoters” that traveled the state of Florida advertising the race on college and university campuses with an information table and a race car. At one point, in the Orlando area, they were joined by none other than the great Stirling Moss.
The only pothole in the road back for Sebring was the Arab Oil Embargo of 1974 that resulted in a national gas shortage and led to the cancellation of the 24 Hours of Daytona as well as the 12 Hours of Sebring. Fearing another cancellation of Sebring in 1975 “angel” Greenwood stepped in as promoter and was able get enough sponsorship for the race to be run. For the second time in three years the race was saved from the scrap heap of history. It continues today, “…as the most popular sports car race in America and one of the most closely watched in the international scene.”