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Sebring – A Special Race

The class winning Porsche Fabcar at Sebring in 1987. [Painting by Roger Warrick]

The class winning Porsche Fabcar at Sebring in 1987.  [Painting by Roger Warrick]

 

By Jack Webster

Every year when March rolls around I can hardly wait for the middle of the month. For that is when I go to Sebring, my favorite race at my favorite circuit. I have been going for as long as I can remember, and have worked there as a photographer, writer and as a team manager. What follows is a little story about our Porsche Fabcar Camel Lights team, and our adventures at Sebring in 1986 and 1987. It may be ancient history at this point, but to me the memories are as fresh as yesterday. Sebring is a place to make memories, and I have many from this place, this race.

We first raced our Porsche Fabcar GTP Light car at Sebring in 1986, which turned out to be an eventful race. The car was strong, but as anyone who has raced at Sebring knows, the Sebring circuit can be an unforgiving place and it seemed like everything that could go wrong in the race, did go wrong.

First of all, early in the race with Chip Mead driving, the pins holding the nose box in place broke and the nose box proceeded to collapse, taking the nose with it and putting on quite the show with sparks showering everywhere as the nose box, nose skid plate and then the nose was ground off as Chip brought the car around the circuit and back to the pits for repairs.

Repairs were made, a new nose and nose box installed and the car was sent back on its way. Later in the morning, with now Howard Cherry driving, the hinge on the driver’s door broke and the door was literally sucked off of the car when Howard was passed by a Porsche 962. Talk about getting your doors blown off! It literally happened to us. To make matters worse, it was very cold that day at Sebring and with a missing door, all that cold air was being sucked into the driver’s compartment and the drivers were telling us over the radio that their right hand was going numb and they couldn’t feel the gearshift lever. We sent a crewman out to the spot where the door came off and he retrieved the remnants from the corner workers. We then taped the lower half on the door in place and it helped with the cold air swirling around in the cockpit. Before this was done, I am sure that we had a record number of photos taken of the car from the driver’s side, as you could clearly see the driver at work behind the wheel.

Finally, with about an hour to go in the race, Chip Mead was once again driving and he radioed in that he had lost all power over by turn 9 and was coasting to a stop. Then the radio went dead.

Not wanting to give up after such an eventful day, myself, crew chief Ray Thacker and driver John Higgins jumped into Ray’s van and proceeded to drive out by turn 9 to see if we could find the car. There it was, on the opposite side of the track. Now, in 1986 Sebring at night was a pretty dark place, as there was no extra lighting as there is today for the television cameras. We all jumped out of the van and waited for a gap in the traffic and then sprinted across the track. There we found our car, but without Chip, who had already hiked back to the pits. Of course, the rules said that only a driver could work on the car without outside assistance and initially we sort of followed that rule, letting Higgins climb into the car to see if he could get it to fire. Click. Click. Nothing. The car was completely dead. It didn’t take crew chief Ray Thacker long to figure out that the master kill switch had shorted out, so he dived under the dash to bypass the switch and hot wire the car, completely against the rules. However, the corner workers standing by must have taken pity on our plight, as they turned a blind eye as we completed the work, fired up the car and sent Higgins on his way with just enough time to take the checkered flag and a fifth place finish. The crowd that has assembled by the fences who had watched our frantic repair efforts erupted in cheers as Higgins and the Fabcar rejoined the battle.

We came to the 24 Hours of Daytona the next year and had applied pretty much all of the lessons we learned from our experiences in the 1986 season. The nose box on the car was now reinforced with new metal straps to keep the downforce from pulling the nose and nose box off of the car and we made some really substantial improvements to the electrical system, adding back up battery and alternator systems for redundancy.

The lessons learned paid off, as we finished 2nd in class at Daytona, just barely missing out on the class victory due to a broken axle on Sunday morning.

After Daytona we went to Miami, where Chip Mead and Charlie Monk combined for the team’s first class victory. Again, the car preformed perfectly and we were quite excited about our prospects for Sebring, having started the season with a 2nd and a 1st in the first two races of the season.

In 1987 Sebring featured 9 GTP prototypes, 20 GTP Lights (including 2 Porsche Fabcars we entered), and the balance of the 74 car grid was filled with GTO and GTU entries.

The Porsche Fabcars qualified mid-field, a good 5 seconds plus behind the factory Spice Fieros which would dominate the first half of the race.

Our plan: go as quickly as possible without getting into trouble on the track, work the yellow caution periods to gain an advantage and most of all, stay on the track and out of the pits.

The race started and everything was going to plan. The #42 car ran steadily and continued to move up through the field as other Lights class cars experienced problems and fell back. The #43 car was not so fortunate, as it experienced some of the new car teething problems that we had with the #42 car the year before, but they kept working on small issues and continued as well.

Ray Thacker and I worked on pit strategy and were able to gain track position and actually move up through the field by taking full advantage of the multiple full course cautions during the race. By keeping close track of our position on the track in relationship to the overall leader, we were able to time our pit stops so that we were able to gain a lap on our competitors a number of times. As long as we were positioned on the track ahead of the overall leader, but behind the pace car, we would get waved around before the course went green again, giving us the opportunity to literally get a free lap. This was no small task back in 1987, as we had no computers, no live telemetry – just stopwatches, lap charts and our constant observation of what was going on in front of us on the track.

Another thing of note about this race which was quite memorable – there were no pit speed limits in 1987. The pits were actually considered a part of the racing surface, and cars were allowed to pass one another in pit lane, at full speed.

My job during pit stops was to signal the car to our pit box, connect the air hose to raise the car on the jacks, clean the windscreen and after all the work was done, signal the car out of the pit box and back onto the track.

Signaling in and signaling out was the most stressful part of this job, as with no pit road speed limit, cars were coming and going so quickly you had to be on top of your game all of the time, or regardless of how well things were going on the track, your race could end quite quickly with a pit road incident.

Once you told the driver to go, his job to was rev that sucker up, dump the clutch and get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Looking back, it was amazing how dangerous the pit lane was during the race and I can see why pit lane speed limits were later instituted.  At the time, however, that is just the way it was.

By mid-race the #42 Fabcar of Higgins, Monk and Cherry had moved into first place in the Lights Class. By sunset, we were still in first place. With a couple of hours left, we were not only in first place, but leading by over 4 laps.

Charlie Monk, a doctor from Canada and both a great guy and quite a fast driver, was behind the wheel of our leading Porsche Fabcar with about an hour to go in the race.  We elected to keep him in the car after our last pit stop for the finish, as we had been in radio contact with him and he said he was doing fine and he was running good, consistent and steady laps.

Naturally, then the radio went out. On the track, somewhere out there in the darkness, the Ball Brothers Racing Pontiac Fiero GTP passed Charlie. Now, apparently, Charlie got it into his head that he had just been passed for the lead. He started driving like a man possessed. He went faster and faster each lap, actually lapping faster than our qualifying time.

In the pits, John Higgins was going nuts. He had been trying to win this race for years, and here we were, less than an hour away from what seemed like a sure victory, and Monk was out on the track driving like Gilles Villeneuve.

With every passing lap Monk showed no signs of slowing down, even though we were frantically waving our pit sign as he drove by each lap with “P1 – EZ”. Monk just kept up his charge, trying to chase down that elusive Pontiac Fiero which was actually running in 3rd place in Lights, 6 laps behind us!

Finally, mercifully, the 1987 12 Hours of Sebring ended before anything bad happened and the #42 Porsche Fabcar of Higgins, Monk and Cherry won the GTP Lights Class, covering 267 laps and finishing a full 6 laps ahead of the second place car in the class.

And Charlie Monk? After he came to a stop on the front straight by the start finish line, he was so exhausted by his flat out double stint that we had to lift him out of the car. His first question was “Where did we finish?”

Looking at the car, it became obvious why he hadn’t responded to our frantic pit signals, for in addition to the radio being out, the windscreen of the Fabcar was totally streaked and smeared with dirt and oil from that last desperate race to the finish.

It was a perfect Sebring for us. The winning #42 car spent less than 11 minutes in the pits during entire race and didn’t make a single unscheduled pit stop nor experience a single mechanical glitch during the entire race (except for the radio failure).

For everyone on the team, nothing in racing, and I do mean nothing, could ever top the feeling of coming to Sebring and winning. To everyone who has ever raced there, they know exactly what I am talking about.

To this day, every year when March rolls around, I can’t wait to get back to Sebring for the 12 Hour race. Sebring International Raceway is hallowed ground and you cannot help but relive history every time you go through the gates, walk through the paddock or stand at the hairpin. I know I have memories there that are very special indeed.

If you haven’t been to Sebring, make it a point to get there and start making your own special memories which you will be able to relive again and again, every time you make that trek back to that former World War II bomber base in March of every year.

You won’t regret it.

 

 

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Jack Webster has been shooting motorsports since the early 1970’s, covering Formula One, CanAm, F5000, TransAm, GrandAm and American Le Mans races, among others. In addition to his photography, he has also worked on racing teams, both in IMSA and IndyCar, so has a complete knowledge of the inner workings of motorsport. Both his photography and writing can be seen here on racingnation.com