1971 Sebring 12 Hours – Race Profile Page Six
While the stewards at Sebring in 1970 had to deal with how to start the race the officials in 1971 were faced with the very thorny issue of how many cars would be allowed on the grid for the 11:00 a.m. start.
For years the cars had been getting faster and faster and the disparity in speed between the fastest and slowest on tracks like Daytona and Sebring began to grow. Thus, drivers of some of the fastest cars frequently complained about the slower cars blocking their way and creating dangerous conditions on the track. This situation between faster and slower cars was graphically apparent at the ’71 Daytona 24 where the closing speeds, on the 31 degree high banks, between the fastest and slowest cars often exceeded 100 mph.
To mollify some big-name drivers and teams, and ostensibly in the name of safety, the FIA came up with what they called the 130 percent rule that was supposed to address the issue of slow cars creating a hazard on the track. Under this rule if a car failed to set a lap speed within 130 percent of the fastest time in qualifying then it would not be allowed to start the race.
Daytona race officials in 1971 strictly adhered to the 130 percent rule by cutting the starting grid from 65 cars to 48. This was done even though those drivers who were cut had paid their entry fee, practiced, were told they had qualified and were given a grid position. The decision to reduce the field in accordance with the 130 percent rule was done shortly before the start of the race. No idea if the entrants who were eliminated got their entry fees back.
Not long before the running of the Sebring race Penske had rented the track for testing the newly rebuilt Penske/White Sunoco 512M that had been badly damaged in the Daytona 24. Donohue produced some blistering speeds breaking the previous record set by Mario Andretti by several seconds despite testing on a wet track. This worried Ulmann and other track officials who were aware of what happened at Daytona under the 130 percent rule. They did some quick calculations and determined as many as 20 to 25 cars already entered just might not make the grid under the 130 percent rule. This would seriously diminish the starting grid to just over thirty cars which would not look very good in the eyes of racing fans and the motorsports press. Ulmann contacted friends at the FIA to discuss the problem and they granted a “special dispensation” to use 140 percent instead of 130. They shouldn’t have worried because actual qualifying times were much slower than what Donohue did in testing and few entrants would have been sent home under the 130 percent rule.
After a brief storm with tornado warnings the night before race day dawned with perfect weather and the 57 cars scheduled to start the race were pushed to the starting grid as the usual fanfare, marching bands and hoopla swirled around the grid. Some teams had worked long into the night to get their cars ready and it was a curious sight to see mechanics literally working on the cars until the grid stewards began to clear the grid. Eventually, after many requests from the public-address system, the starting grid was cleared and drivers strapped themselves in for the pace lap and rolling start.