SEBRING, Florida: That first race wasn’t 12 hours long, didn’t have “Sebring” in the title, wasn’t in March and didn’t start in the morning — but it was the start of something big in sports car endurance racing.
Only about five years after Hendricks Field was decommissioned as a training site for B-17 bomber crews for the World War II war effort, the runways and connecting roads would serve a new mission — as a platform for man and machine to compete at a world-class level.
It all started one chilly New Year’s Eve in 1950. On 3 pm of December 31, 1950, a field of 28 cars lined up for a six-hour race on a 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometer) track for the “Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix of Endurance.”
A small crowd, estimated at 2,800, was on hand to view the race on the chilly winter day for what would be remembered as the most important event in American sports car racing history, Ken Breslauer states in his book, “Sebring – the Official History of America’s Great Sports Car Race.”
“The crude Sebring circuit was marked by hay bales and a few signs. The pits were merely wooden tables,” Breslauer writes. “It was certainly a modest beginning.”
Based on an index of performance, which is a handicapping system accounting for each car’s performance specifications, a Crosley Hot Shot driven by Ralph Deshon and Fritz Koster won that first race.
Second race in 1952
The second race in 1952, which also was the first 12-hour race at Sebring, was sponsored by the American Automobile Association. It was on a 5.2-mile (8.32-kilometer) track. The race was scheduled to start at noon, March 15, 1952, but it was delayed for more than hour because of heavy rains.
The 1952 race was called “The Sebring International Grand Prix of Endurance.”
Sebring resident Doug Morton, who has an extensive collection of Sebring race memorabilia including programs, tickets, credentials and posters, has delved into the history of the race since he saw his first running of the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1988.
The man behind the races, Alec Ulmann, was a rich man with a home in Palm Beach. He had a hangar or storage building at Hendricks Field for his business, which refurbished planes, Morton said. He was also a sports car enthusiast.
Ulmann and Sam Collier, an accomplished racer, flew over Hendricks Field and observed that the runways and roadways would make a great location for a sports car race.
They got with the Sebring Firemen and several city leaders and were able to put on a six-hour Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race.
“The generally favorable climate and the close proximity to many sports car racers living on Florida’s east coast were prime factors in choosing Sebring,” Breslauer noted in his book.
According to The Crosley Auto Club’s account of the first race: “Hendricks Field had few amenities for spectators; no grandstands, security, ticket booths or public-address system and few lavatories.”
Collier was killed in an accident at the Watkins Glen (New York) race a few months before the first Sebring race, so it was called the “Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix of Endurance.”
Morton said the Crosley Hot Shot, which won the first race based on the performance index, was a very tiny car. Sebringraceway.com notes, in its race “fact or fiction” page, that it is a “fact” that the winning Crosley Hot Shot was actually a spectator’s car. The spectator was convinced to loan his car to drivers Deshon and Koster.
Another remarkable fact is that a Florida governor was once given a tour on the Sebring circuit while the race was going on. In 1950, Ulmann took Gov. Fuller Warren on a lap around the track while the race was in progress.
After the first race, Ulmann and racer Briggs Cunningham went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and decided to develop a longer distance race at Sebring and extended the race circuit to 5.2 miles, Morton said.
Today, the Sebring sports car racing continues with The 64th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by “Fresh from Florida,” which takes place Sunday, March 20 at Sebring International Raceway. Gates open on Thursday and remain open 24 hours a day through Sunday.
This year’s entry list includes 49 cars to race on the 3.74-mile (5.98-kilometer) circuit.