Sebring International Raceway Track Guide
One of America’s true great road courses, Sebring International Raceway is a member of the old guard and is the home of the iconic 12 Hours of Sebring sports car race. That one event has scorched the track into the public consciousness and turned this unassuming town with just over 10,000 residents into a household name that welcomes 140,000 for one weekend a year!
Thanks to the warm Florida climate, Sebring has established itself as a winter testing venue for the leading IndyCar, SportsCar and NASCAR teams. NASCAR owns the track through subsidiary IMSA Holdings and hosts a full calendar of national, club and historic racing over the course of the year that includes the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
A number of drag racing series pay an annual visit to Sebring and back in 1959 the circuit hosted the first ever US Grand Prix when Formula One came to Florida. The Sebring 12 Hours is the highlight of the year, though, and it has transcended simple racing and become a festival in its own right.
Sebring International Raceway is forever woven into the tapestry of American sports car racing and the track is looking forward to the next 70 years of memories and titanic wheel-to-wheel action.
Famous Moments in Motorsport History at Sebring International Raceway
1. Steve McQueen vs Mario Andretti - 1970 Sebring 12 Hours
Mario Andretti is a legend in US racing circles and back in 1970 he was at the peak of his powers and his chosen chariot, the Ferrari 512S, was an unstoppable force. In actor Steve McQueen and Peter Revson’s Porsche 908, they met the immovable object.
McQueen was the headline act, but Revson produced the heroics to claw back a 12-lap deficit in the second half of the race. The Hollywood star’s wheel time was seriously limited by a broken ankle, but that minor detail of this great cinematic story has been largely lost in the retelling.
In the end, the effort was a heroic failure, but this race will go down in history as the big sports car race that McQueen almost won. Paul Newman also turned out at Sebring as a driver and a team owner and a number of famous actors have gone to war on the shores of Lake Jackson. Inevitably, none were more famous or charismatic than McQueen.
2. Dan Gurney - 1966 Sebring 12 Hours
What is it about Sebring and heroic failure? Dan Gurney’s Ford GT broke down 200 yards from the checkered flag after dominating the race. Images of Gurney valiantly trying to push his stricken race car over the line as his team-mate passed him to take the win have been etched into motoring folklore.
The crowd willed the legendary driver to get the car over the line and the sports car world held its breath as one man simply refused to give in. Gurney was disqualified for his actions in any case, but this was still one of the great moments in motorsport history.
3. 1983 Sebring 12 Hours
Statistically, this was simply one of the most epic sports car races of all time. 84 cars entered the race, the lead changed 23 times and eight different cars stormed to the front at different times. When the dust settled, the Porsche 934 driven by Wayne Baker, Jim Mullen and Kees Nierop took the honors, but that was almost an aside to the sheer mayhem that unfolded during the race. This was one of those rare occasions when the actual winner didn't matter.
History of the Track
Sebring International Raceway is one of the oldest continuously operating tracks in the country and has not shuttered the doors once since it opened for business in 1950.
Aeronautical engineer and sports car racer Alec Ulmann had a dream to bring the magic of the Le Mans 24 Hours to the USA and sized up a number of venues before opting for Sebring.
The first racers followed in the footsteps of even braver men, as the track was built on the old Hendricks Airbase. B-17 and B-29 Superfortress bomber crews came to train before heading off to fight in World War II. These airborne juggernauts required huge runways that could take a beating.
When the war was done then the runways that criss-crossed the airfield and carried those men into the skies were the perfect platform to launch racing legends into the history books.
After a brief stint as a regional airport, Hendricks Airbase drew Ulmann’s gaze. He had grand ambitions to refit military surplus aircraft for civilian use and build a race track. Sebring was perfect.
The existing runways helped minimize the construction costs and time, as well as providing two mile-long straightaways. These were the days of marking circuits out with hay bales and the track was largely made up of the airfield and roads that the US military had already provided.
Sebring hosted its first race in 1950 and, just two years later, the first Sebring 12 Hours turned Ulmann’s dream into a reality. That race took place on the original 5.2-mile circuit, which was shortened after two crashes in 1966 that claimed the lives of drivers and spectators. Several major revisions later led us to the current 3.74-mile layout.
The arrival of Formula One in 1969 was a massive step for the circuit, but the fragile F1 cars didn’t deal with the surface well. It was an event beset by problems and eventually the promoter’s check bounced. It was the last time F1 came to Sebring and it could have been a lethal blow.
The Florida race track has always been a star in the world sports car scene, though, and never lost the support of the prototype racers and manufacturers. The likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Bobby Rahal, Stirling Moss and Dan Gurney have all raced in the glittering 12 hours that has become a jewel in the crown of American motorsport.
With the 24 Hours of Daytona just down the road, Sebring International Raceway has helped the region dominate sports car racing in the US.
What Is Different About Sebring International Raceway?
The airbase origins story of the Sebring International Raceway contributed to one of the longest road courses in America. The full 3.74-mile circuit has two mile-long straights that sports cars thrive on and it’s an amphitheater of 200mph+ adrenaline.
Those straights give these high-powered sports cars a rare chance to run free and the sweeping high-speed bends show today’s high-tech prototypes in their element. It’s a unique opportunity to see these 900bhp monsters at full-speed and that is reason enough to pack the mosquito repellent and head to Florida.
It’s also one of the flattest circuits on the calendar, which means spectators at the best vantage points can see much more of the circuit. It’s one of life’s bitter ironies, then, that the circuit itself is so bumpy. Much of the track is made up of those old WWII concrete slabs and seams, which can rattle the drivers teeth and unsettle skittish cars.
The tarmac is famously tough on suspension and one’s physical conditioning as a driver. Formula One cars simply couldn’t cope with the combination of the high-speed layout and it’s common to see sparks erupting from the bottom of the elite sports cars as the floor hits the road. That is a recipe for drama and excitement and it’s why we love Sebring.
Sebring International Raceway sits in the middle of the Florida Peninsula, 90 miles South of Orlando. So the immediate area isn’t overflowing with nightlife or entertainment, but the major attractions are just down the road and Florida’s unspoiled natural beauty is all around you.
If you don't like natural beauty, the man-made wonders of Disney, Universal Studios, Legoland and the Space Center are all within striking distance as well.
General Concepts for Success at Sebring International Raceway
The surface is one of the biggest challenges at Sebring and adds a third dimension to the usual set-up problems. In typical fashion, the warm Florida sunshine can bring short afternoon rains where Sebring can hide a naughty secret. Some of the concrete slabs on the front stretch are set very slightly lower than the others and they will hold a very small even amount of water, which can be very exciting to deal with. Sebring requires a great amount of respect in the rain … with these slabs combined with the paint at the start/finish line, Sebring requires a steady hand. Take your time in the rain.
Often it is not the fastest car that wins at Sebring, it is the confidence-inspiring car that can skip off the bumps and take the punishment meted out by those tarmac seams without jumping out of line. That’s a softer car, but wind off the suspension too much and you’ll get too much lateral movement in the high-speed bends as the outside tires load up. That won't just cost time, it will slowly eat the tires on the left thanks to the hard right-hand bends.
Sebring is a balancing act with the set-up and it’s a challenge to drive. The first two corners are wide and provide fantastic overtaking opportunities, but there’s only room for one car on the racing line on the exit. That leads straight into a series of fast kinks and a flat-out, nerve shredding right-hander at Turn 6 and there's no real overtaking spot there.
Turn 7 is a great passing zone with a long braking application. Further, Turn 7 is situated along the famous Chateau Elan hotel, just to the left of the track, On your cool down laps, be sure to wave to the fans poolside. One added note on Turn 7, be sure to turn in later than you would otherwise think. Turn 7 doubles back on itself and it’s easy to run short of room on exit!
Turn 8 and 9 are an easy set of turns rocketing you down into Turn 10 which again is a great passing zone with long braking applications. From here on out you’re accelerating your way towards Turn 13.
Turn 13 is critical. It’s a right-angled right hander that leads on to a long straight. Get it wrong on the way in and you’ll lose time all down the straight. Get it right and you can draft and breeze past the car in front. Turns 14 and 15 is why most drivers take Sebring to the top of their list of favorite tracks. Precision, bravery and again a steady hand lead to fast laps times. Take your time with this sections, the speeds are high.
Turn 16 rewards a fast clean exit as it leads onto the longest straight. A very wide straight.
Similarly, Turn 17 is a loop that leads on to the start-finish straight and it’s simply essential to get this right. Turn 17 is very bumpy, especially mid corner under the bridge. The corner entry is very fast, with a decrease in radius and keep in mind there is no runoff room at the exit. Plan for it, be smooth and keep your wits about you. A fast exit again can be hugely beneficial leading towards Turn 1, again a great passing zone into a high speed left hander.
Those long straights do mean more or less any car will benefit from higher gearing, but weigh the cost in the slower corners. Nobody wins a race in the speed trap after all.
Driving Tips for Sebring International Raceway
Allan McNish is almost as big a legend in sports car circles as Sebring International Raceway itself. So who better to give an insight into the circuit and pass on the secrets to a fast lap? Here he talks to Drive about the Sebring 12 Hours and how to get the best time round this challenging circuit.
Ben Keating tamed the full circuit in the fearsome Dodge Viper ACR as part of a lap record setting tour. Dodge filmed the action and if you’re want some insider tips on how to handle a high-powered sports car on this fast and then this is a great place to start.
If you’d like a written track guide, motoring bible Car & Driver produced its own track guide with some useful tips here.
Where to Stay
Sebring International Raceway is surrounded by stunning State Parks that will give you that unmistakable taste of Florida. The Everglades are minutes away but, thanks in part to the Sebring 12 Hours, there’s nothing backwater about the local accommodation.
You can opt for much cheaper accommodation and you might want a more authentic experience where you can hear the gators and the life and soul of the Everglades.
For a full selection of hotels to suit every budget and style, check Expedia.
Where to Eat
Modern Florida cuisine is an eclectic mix of high-end seafood and international restaurants right through to the traditional home cooked gumbos and BBQ joints that helped give the South its distinctive flavor.
You can expect great food from unpretentious bistros and lakeside cafes. Check out Faded Bistro & Beer Garden for great service, incredible food and a top-notch beer menu.
Head over to this TripAdvisor list for a full selection of seafood joints, pizzerias and just about anything else you could want to eat while you’re in town.