Jacky Ickx, the Famous Ford GT40, and Me

World Endurance Championship weekend at Sebring

Having heard all the stories about Sebring – drunk monks, men in cow suits, tricked-out school buses, scaffolds that certainly don’t look up to code – I couldn’t wait to see what race weekend was all about.

This year marked the centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, fittingly, the grand marshal was the legendary Jacky Ickx, “Mr. Le Mans” himself, who was also being inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. In 1967, Jacky drove Ford GT40, chassis 1049, to victory in his class in the 24 Hours of Daytona, placing sixth overall; in celebration of the occasion, Revs Institute brought the famous car to Sebring, where it had last raced in 1970 for Jacky to drive a lap of honor.

Charming, kind, and quite funny, Jacky came over to the paddock an hour before his scheduled lap to meet the team and re-familiarize himself with the car. Taking the wheel of the car for the first time in fifty-five years, Jacky marveled that it looked exactly as it did on the day he drove it at Daytona. After a chat with the team, Jacky was off to prepare for the ceremony and get down to business.

The car fired up without issue, the engine warming quickly in the eighty-plus degree heat, and we drove it to the staging area for final preparation. At eleven forty-five, Jacky jumped into the car alongside Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and took 1049 for a lap around Sebring International Raceway.

The roar of that car pulling away from the pits and onto the track is a sound I’m not likely to forget – pure, unfiltered power as Jacky shifted through the gears and took off.

The car spent the rest of the weekend inside the “Racing Legends” exhibit within the Turn 7 Hotel on view for event attendees to enjoy.

For the remainder of the World Endurance Championship weekend, we explored the festivities. We were fortunate to befriend several gentlemen who had set up a DIY scaffold to see over the fence and down into turn 15. They let us camp out up there during the Friday afternoon race, where we watched cars fly by and dive-bomb into the entry to pit lane.

We ended our day at Turn 7 where we could see brake calipers starting to glow as the cars braked hard to enter the hairpin turn. As the last hour ticked into place, suddenly the track turned yellow. We immediately turned toward the large monitor set up at the end of Turn 7 to see who had crashed, only to be greeted by an image of the weather radar – rain was coming, and not just rain, lightning. And just like that, the endurance race had to end early.

Despite the anticlimactic end to the race, we would be back the next day for the historic event – the 12 Hours of Sebring, run from ten in the morning to ten at night.

Having been to the 24 Hours of Daytona, I had a pretty good idea of what an IMSA race would entail. Sebring and Daytona are located only three hours apart, but in terms of the experiences, the events, and the attendees, the tracks could not be more different. For those who have not had the pleasure of attending one or both events, here’s a side-by-side comparison. In terms of the tracks themselves, Daytona International Speedway is a 3.56-mile Sports Car Course layout on asphalt with twelves turns; Sebring International Raceway is a 3.74-mile GP Road Course layout, 17 turns on asphalt and concrete.

The two tracks are very different. Sebring has an additional five turns, Daytona has a massive banking, and Sebring is made of concrete! Imagine driving a car with ground clearance of mere inches over concrete left untouched since the end of World War II, your head rattling in your HANS device, your hands vibrating under the pressure of the wheel as you fly across concrete seams going upwards of 160 mph for hours. The massive amount of respect that I already had for racecar drivers only increased after witnessing them handle the incredible strain of the Sebring track.

Call it luck or chalk it up to my inability to get anywhere on time, but we arrived as soon as the cars took the green flag. We were up on the driving bridge heading into the paddock, and the entire field started racing directly beneath us. I immediately rolled my window down, only too eager to hear the roar of these incredible engines.

With the pack moving through the turns quickly, we decided instead of parking to drive over to turn 7 and start our day at the hairpin. From there we walked to turn 12, stopping every so often to comment on the interesting spectator set-ups, and pause for photos of the cars rocketing down the raceway. My favorite area, after much consideration, as there are so many things to consider, is the corner of turn 10. Up close and personal with these gorgeous machines, no fence to obstruct the view, and only a mild headache after so many back-and-forth turns of the head, turn 10 has everything a race fan could want! We left turn 10 and headed to turn 12, a place about which the less said the better.

Later, we found ourselves back on the homemade scaffold our newfound friends were happy to let us use, and we spent an hour enjoying the breeze in the sun and watching the cars tear across turn 15, seemingly much faster and louder than the cars in the WEC race the previous day. It was then that my stupidity caught up with me. My head began to pound as I realized that all I could hear was the sound of racecars roaring in my ears. Wearing earplugs felt like admitting defeat, I toughed out the weekend like a fool and paid the price later. We ended our day atop the start/finish line, watching pit stops, restarts, and strategic passing on the 2300-foot straight.

During our two-hour drive home, I was asked which race I preferred: Sebring 12 Hours or 24 Hours of Daytona? The two tracks and races are so different, it’s almost like comparing apples and oranges, but if I could only go to one, then, the 24 Hours of Daytona would be my choice. That race was my first foray into motorsports and wouldn’t everyone agree that your first motorsports race holds a special place in your heart? I remember the late nights watching the cars drive high on the banking, and the early mornings sipping coffee and watching those same cars… significantly worse for wear!