Sebring still a popular event

Updated: March 9, 2004, 10:56 PM ET
By Tom Rife | Scripps Howard News Service

The New York Yankees baseball team isn't the only Evil Empire in sports.

There are those who see NASCAR as the purest form of bedevilment.

And for good reason, they exhort.

For in all its sponsor loyalty, technical TV gadgets and high-dollar attraction, NASCAR's impact on motor racing as a whole has all but transformed other once-popular series into a tight-knit entourage of second and third cousins.

Philipp Peter
AP PhotoFrank Biela, Marco Werner and Philipp Peter (driving) won at Sebring in 2003.

Those in sports car circles, especially, feel shoved off to the side. Much of the corporate backing they once enjoyed has been siphoned off. For the most part, it's the deep pockets who support their own habit -- along with a smattering of factory-backed operations.

Be not fooled, however.

Sports car racing endures, with pockets of traditionalists who would just as soon buckle into cramped quarters on a curvy road course as they would have the power of an F-18 fighter at their fingertips.

Why else would 100,000-plus turn out Saturday, March 20 at the Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla. -- as they have done, by the way, for the last 51 years?

The Twelve Hours of Sebring is a motor sports fixture, a 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. spectacle that has spun many a thrilling tale of speed, drama and sportsmanship.

Some will say it's not so much the on-track action that draws the throngs as it is "The Party" that is engulfed by the 3.7-mile, 17-turn circuit, the oldest road course in North America.

Perhaps they are right, because not even the most pious gear-grinder can focus on who's winning and who's not for 12 hours without, shall we say, a diversion.

That having been said, the SPEED Channel will carry every lap of the race live. There will be flag-to-flag radio coverage on the Internet.

IMSA, of course, is the sanctioning acronym, with two classes of American Le Mans Series sports cars involved along with the Grand Touring Sport (GTS) and Grand Touring (GT) divisions.

Past winners are legendary: A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Phil Hill, Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Juan Manuel Fangio, Al Holbert and Bobby Rahal to name a few.

This year, charismatic former Indy 500 champ Danny Sullivan, now 53, will return to racing to drive a Ferrari 575 GTC that is said to be the first GT racing car assembled by the Ferrari factory in 30 years.

For the sentimental types, Sullivan and his wife, Brenda, experienced their first date when they dined at a restaurant in Old Sebring in January of 1995.

He was testing there in a CART car. Behind the scenes, matchmakers were hard at work.

"She called and asked if she could come up and watch testing," Sullivan tells the story. "I don't remember much about the restaurant because we were all goo goo and ga ga for each other.

"We've been together ever since."

So there you go:

Not every man's love affair is destined to with the automobile.

Not even those at Sebring.