The next morning found us at the track early. I’m not much of a “morning person” and up to that point, our schedule has been absolutely draining. We unloaded the cars and parked them underneath the canopy, my car going in first. Our trailer was parked alongside the backstretch of the track, making for a nice view while working on the cars. The car that was shipped for me was a red 348 Challenge car which was very shortly going to be phased out of the Challenge series due to age. The F355 would be the new car in the corral, and we brought three of them to race. The plan for me was to prepare the 348 for SCCA racing, starting with the interior sound-deadening material. It’s amazing how much sound-deadening goes into a car, and how much of a pain it is to get out. Inside the car is little ventilation, and my primary tools were a scraper and loads of Brake Clean. I didn’t care at the time, but that stuff is so caustic that I can’t believe I survived in the car without passing out. I was high as a kite most of the time I was working on it.
During one of my breaks, another crewmember called me over to meet a gentleman just outside the canopy. We had cordial introductions and the man he was talking to turned out to be Phil Hill, the first, last, the only American Formula 1 World Champion. Phil Hill comes from an era of motor racing legend, with a storied career so prolific that authors and movie directors alike couldn’t replicate it. Phil drove for Ferrari, winning the F1 World championship in 1961 while battling throughout the season with his team mate Wolfgang Von Tripps for the title. Sadly, the race in which he clinched the title, the Italian Grand Prix, saw his team mate killed along with 15 spectators in an accident with Jim Clark’s Lotus. It was considered the worst tragedy in Formula One history. We spoke briefly and I really wish I’d remembered what we talked about. At the time, I knew very little about F1, and nothing at all about him, so I really couldn’t fully comprehend who I was among. He was a big part of the "romantic era of racing" if you will. The mortality rate of a racing driver of that era was very high, and casualties prominent throughout the season. People truly did it for the love of racing. I would have a chance to meet Phil again though.
Throughout the day, there were many people that came by to check us out. When at the track, you can buy garage passes that get you in to where we are, and it was great fun talking to passers-by and seeing the passion in their eyes as they look at the cars. One particular group was very entertaining, and they would help make my trip memorable. There were about six guys, well under the influence of mother’s moonshine, rolling along in a 15-passenger Ford Econoline van with all the windows and doors taken off. What was left of the van was tastefully painted in a primer/camouflage scheme. They had welded a huge steel platform on top of the van with a generator bolted on one side and Christmas lights wrapped around the entire vehicle. Classy!! But with drunk people, you don’t know what you’re gonna get. Shirts off and Milwaukee’s Best gracing their coozy’s, the guys were well-mannered and inquisitive. After our chat, they said “We’ll be back later to pick you guys up!” Ok buddy, see you then. True to their word, they showed up after night had fallen, their van a shining beacon among the paddock. They petitioned us to ride around with them and, while we wanted to, the decision was up to the crew chief and the dealership owner. Ultimately, we were caught up and they let us go. About five of us climbed aboard, taking in the sights while riding high on the platform above. First stop…..campsite. Need to stock up on some frosty beverages. While there, my eye caught a well-worn leather recliner that was dying to have an ass planted in it! So we heaved it up on top of this van and from there on out, we were riding in luxury! Next, our trek took us down the main thoroughfare. I don’t know what it’s called but it’s where the ferris wheel is. At this point, I was about to see not one but TWO things I’d never seen before. In back of the dually in front of us were two girls, one very drunk and the other trying to care for her, cradled in her arm. Since we’re guys, we naturally start whistling and yelling for them to kiss. Clearly, there would be no other reason for girls to embrace unless they were lesbians. We quickly realized our error and subsided, but to our shock, they locked lips in a passionate kiss! That got our motors running and we wanted more. We motioned for them to lift their shirts because, after all, happiness is boobies! The drunk one happily lifted her shirt then and there, and I received my first flash, abruptly followed by a middle finger. That’s ok, I got what I wanted! Now please remember that the gay community is much more prevalent now than they were in 1997, so seeing girls kiss (especially like that) was still very shocking. We stayed on that party wagon for hours, checking out the sights and generally acting like idiots. There are photos out there, but they don’t belong to me. I’ll see if I can locate them.
The Challenge races were pretty dull and uneventful. There were three heats, 30 min each and the rain was pouring down all day, so the drivers were overly cautious. These aren’t pros so there was little expectation. The main event came when the 12 Hours of Sebring started. This is the first endurance race I’ve witnessed, and it got me hooked from the start. Aside from rally, there is no other race as grueling as an endurance race. The Rolex 24 or the 12 Hours of Sebring are both terrific events, and I would encourage you to make at least one of them in your lifetime. I got a chance to see the Ferrari 333SP in action firsthand. Still one of my favorite race cars of all time, it makes a distinguishable whine at speed. When the sun went down, it became difficult to distinguish the cars. You would see superheated brake rotors, headlights and tail lights, so the challenge would be to distinguish the cars by sound alone. A big block Chevy is easy to tell. With its throaty grumble and large displacement, it asserts itself as a formidable and intimidating presence. By contrast, Ferrari uses small displacement but lives at higher RPM’s. As the 333 would pass, it screamed like a banshee in the night. It wasn’t a coarse or bitter on-the-verge-of-oblivion sound, but a finely-tuned precision scream. I’ve never heard another sound like it. It yells out to you “I’m f**king coming, and you better get the hell out of the way!” This car was so fast that IMSA required them to put a restrictor on it so other cars had a chance to be competitive. This effectively killed the car. Below is a picture of the 1998 24 Hour of Daytona race-winning 333SP driven by Giampiero Moretti (founder of Momo). He refused to retire from racing until he won the 24 Hours. Sadly, he passed away in 2012
The race was superb but unfortunately, we had to leave prior to the finish. I had finals to get back for so about half the crew loaded up in the van and we left. On the way home, we stopped in Daytona for a bite to eat at Hooters on Int’l Speedway Blvd. It seems a staple now since it was the first stop after my first endurance race, and continues to be a frequent stop when we return each year for the 24.
The 12 Hours of Sebring is coming up March 13-15. Catch it on the tube if not in person. It’s always an exciting event! I’ve wandered a bit from my All Trac story but consider it groundwork for future installments. Hope those in the northeast are enjoying the snow as much as I am!