Sebring is one of the best events on the Endurance Racing calendar. The old course is legendary for being brutal on both man and machine. Because of the track’s constant beating on its entrants, it has been said that 12 hours at Sebring is harder and more exhausting than 24 hours at Le Mans. Not to mention it has a history of great racing and pure craziness. We took a look at the 1955 edition a while back which featured outlaw entries and post race controversy. That makes it hard to top for pure insanity.
1983 was undoubtedly a special year. It saw the introduction of yours truly into the world. In the racing world, the new Camel GT series was in its early years and saw the introduction of the new GTP style prototypes. This lead to a massive 84 car grid. The Sebring track itself saw major changes as well. In an effort to bypass as much of the active airport runways the track was shortened from 5.2 to 4.75 miles in length. The enormous grid and new track layout would lead to some of the craziest events ever to happen at Sebring.
The weekend kicked off with the Pace Car being stolen. The man responsible explained he merely borrowed the car and would have returned it soon, but he needed to run into town to buy groceries. The tone of the weekend had been set and it only got weirder from there.
A brilliant man, or devious depending on perspective, scammed people into buying firewood. Firewood was banned for the 1983 race so one gentleman decided to sell stacks of wood to incoming fans. The fans would have the wood confiscated at the gate and the man would collect the confiscated wood to sell to more unsuspecting victims. The process repeated until the man got word the heat was on to him. He vanished before the authorities could find him.
The ban on firewood had another unforeseen consequence as race weekend saw lower than normal temperatures. Frigid race fans scoured the airport property for wood to make fires. They turned to old structures as primary sources. One of the old buildings the fans began to dismantle was actually someones house. The homeowners were not pleased.
Once the race started it quickly became apparent that a major problem was brewing. The enormous grid wasn’t going to have enough fuel to finish the race. Not one car or even a few cars. Every single car. All of them did not have enough fuel to complete the 12 hours. Naturally, they sent out a fuel truck to go get more, but even that wasn’t accomplished without drama. Upon its return the fuel truck was too large to cross the paddock bridge as it wasn’t built to handle a truck of that size and that weight. Left with no other choice, officials called for the caution flag so the truck could make it safely into the infield.
As the race passed the 6 hour mark, the top four qualifiers had all met issues that ended their races. This included the pole sitting Porsche 935 driven by Derek Bell, Michael Andretti, and John Paul Jr. Reliability, or lack their of, would become the theme of the race; or at least the theme of the action on the track. As Night rolled in things went from interestingly weird to complete bat shit insanity.
Due to the new layout drivers were getting lost. Yes, lost. This wasn’t anything new at Sebring as apparently one or two drivers getting lost on the runway sections of the course wasn’t uncommon. However, the new section of track was causing particular confusion. One driver in particular was so lost he had to take drastic measures as he stopped his car, got out, and promptly got on the roof of his car to find his way. Unusual to say the least, but he was so hopelessly lost that upon getting his bearings he realized he had left the circuit property entirely and found his way into a neighboring ranch. In addition he found himself surrounded by cows.
The astonishing thing was he wasn’t the only driver to find himself in cattle country. Many drivers fell victim to “Sebring vertigo” including the legendary driver Hurley Haywood. Today this sort of thing would be the cause for headline news, but in 1983 it was just one of the sub-plots, as the night would get even crazier.
One of the Porsche 935s had conventional issues, breaking down along side the circuit. The driver, as was the norm, got out and walked back to the pits as a tow truck was dispatched to retrieved his broken car. Almost immediately following his departure fans descended on the car stripping it for souvenirs. This was not uncommon as fans had acted similarly at Le Mans. The car may have returned missing a few parts but gained a new one. As the team received their car they noticed a blow up doll in the driver’s seat. Yes, that kind of blow up doll. Clearly the car had been violated in more ways than one.
At this point you may be wondering what was happening on track, well due to high attrition (42 cars failed to finish) the GTO class leading Mazda RX-7 found itself leading overall. The car was piloted by Rick Knoop and Pete Halsmer had won its class at the Daytona 24. The car featured a special 13B 2 rotor engine and had proven to be hugely reliable, unfortunately the car hit brake problems forcing a lengthy pitstop handing the overall lead over to Hurley Hawood’s Porsche 935.
But this was Sebring in 1983, craziness was in the air and Haywood’s 935 quickly encountered problems of its own. An electrical failure meant the car had no headlights. Given the fact drivers were finding difficulty staying on property with functional headlights Haywood was forced to pit for lengthy repairs. This eventually handed the lead to the Cosworth Grid followed by the Porsche 934 owned by Wayne Baker.
The Baker 934 was an older car and only managed to qualify 13th overall (an ominous qualifying position given the nature of this race). Baker and his team were a quality outfit despite their car’s limitations. They managed to stay out of trouble and combined with Baker and his talented co-drivers found themselves leading the GTO class. When the Cosworth found suspension trouble the Baker 934 was leading overall, though the crew did not tell him this fact. The team was convinced Baker was better off only knowing he was leading his class.
In the late stages of the race as Baker pounded out laps the 1983 12 Hour had one more piece of crazy to throw at him. While having the race for overall honors under control (though he didn’t know it) Baker radioed into race control. A hitchhiker had found his way between turns one and two. On the following lap the man was still there. Eventually security was dispatched to remove the inebriated man who insisted he was merely looking for his lost dog.
Shortly thereafter reports of an alligator alongside the back straight began filtering in. Usually gators keep their distance during the race with wild boar a far bigger issue. In 1982 the James Brolin hit a boar during the race. A tow truck crew took the boar, cooked it and ate it. (only at Sebring).
Baker would eventually pilot his 934 to victory. Upon radioing in to confirm his class victory the team finally revealed their big secret, he had pulled off an enormous upset and won overall.
I dare you to find a more insane race than this. What a shit show.