Corvette Racing Driver Antonio Garcia Illustrates the Magic and Experiences of the 12 Hours of Sebring
Corvette has a new Sebring star
SEBRING, Florida — Three weeks ago I was standing in a cherry picker 30 feet above the craggy, cavernous cement of Florida's Sebring International Raceway. It was 8 a.m. and I was setting up to photograph five GTLM race cars and their production-based models. As the cars were pushed into place, I noticed a person running quickly beneath me: Corvette Racing driver Antonio Garcia.
Garcia was out for his morning training run, and he was hauling ass. His gait was long and his stride was powerful, pounding out the steps around the circuit through the early morning haze.
We position a couple of more cars, and here he comes again. A few minutes later he runs past us a third time. I say to someone, "He must be running the short course," an abbreviated version of the track that cuts the circuit in half. I am told no, Garcia is running the entire racetrack. He comes past us a fourth time, and a fifth time. His stride never changes, his pace never varies — consistent, fast, pounding out the miles.
This past Saturday was the 65th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring. The Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi took the overall win and led a Cadillac sweep of the podium. The winning car was driven by Wayne Taylor's boys, Ricky and Jordan, as well as newbie Alex Lynn. Father and sons have now both won the "36 Hours of Florida," 21 years apart, capturing titles at this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Sports-car racing is like a track meet: There are multiple races going on at the same time. And Sebring has field events, too. Each have their own storylines full of achievement, drama, absurdity, and they expose a person's true character.
Sebring International Raceway is built on the remains of a World War II Army airfield. My father, a career Air Force pilot, was stationed here for a few weeks in 1941 learning to fly B-17s. He said the pilots had a limerick describing their post, the last line being, "If America ever needed an enema, Sebring is where they would stick the hose." Not much has changed since then.
The airport itself has a few new hangars, several of which overflow with planes in need of repair. The old control tower is still used, mostly on race weekends, and can be reached only by climbing multiple stories of outside steps. It sits just beyond Turn 13 and overlooks the infield. It is perfectly located to control everything in the air, and to overlook an area where self-control takes a holiday the same weekend every year.
The Sebring fan base is comprised of two groups, the "haves" and the "I'll have another." The "haves" are the Highland County and south Florida movers and shakers. They are the local business people, the backbone of the area who grow their businesses, create jobs, attend the local chamber of commerce meetings every week, and who understand and appreciate the economic engine of this race. They also include the posers from Palm Beach and South Beach, Botoxed trust-funded blue bloods, who arrive at the track in the newest Ferrari (Palm Beach) or Lamborghini (South Beach) with Gucci driving loafers, an ability to drive their car at 15 percent of its limit, and a greater ability to bullshit their way through life at 110 percent, nailing every shallow apex without a care or a clue in the world. A few of these folks were entered in this year's race. The rest spend Saturday in the hospitality suites above pit lane or coagulate at the car club corrals.
The latter own the field events. Most are built like shot putters; they bulk-up on endless cases of beer, steroid-filled gigantic turkey legs, and funnel cakes. And they show up at Sebring every March for the real competition.
I stumbled upon a couple of medal contenders on Saturday afternoon. They were an actual couple, whose combined weight and size could be put to good use on the left side of the Tampa Bay Bucs offensive line. He was shirtless, a large "A" tattoo on one arm and "Crimson Tide" inked on the other. They were holding hands until she decided it was a good time for another Budweiser. She bent over the cooler to retrieve a beer, exposing a back tattoo: "WHOLE WATCHER." And then I immediately understood how difficult it must be to spellcheck a tattoo. As she began to straighten up, a fresh cold beer in hand, what was previously hidden now came into view: a magnificent tattoo of a whale. I think it was a humpback.
This took place in Green Park, Sebring's infield area where the majority of fans hang out. There is not much green here. Even when coming to Sebring for off-season testing, an empty Green Park is nothing more than tiny swatches of grass determined to push their skinny blades up through nasty khaki sand, and face the scorching Florida sun. In all my decades of coming to this place, I've never seen a lawn mower here. Green Park is alive, but it doesn't grow.
During race week, Green Park is flooded with beat up motorhomes, ripped tents, big blue tarps hung between trees, and generators powering neon signs, Christmas-tree lights, stereos blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd, and flat screens. To those stuck in the middle of it, this is nothing more than training for next hurricane season. For those forced to view all of this from the air-conditioned comfort of their hospitality suites stocked with fresh shrimp and champagne, Green Park is a refugee camp.
The truth and magic of Sebring runs on the track between these two extremes. It is a 3.74-mile long pothole that ribbons across a 445 acre Chia Pet. It is a fact that race teams come here to break things. The track, much of which is still comprised of runways, is the roughest, bumpiest, chunkiest circuit in auto racing. For more than a decade, Audi would win the 12 Hours of Sebring, then stay for a few extra days testing to see which components would break under the continuous pounding of this circuit. Audi won Le Mans 13 times because of this. If the parts can survive 12 hours here, they will last 24 hours everywhere else.
Drivers, meanwhile, race here to build things — specifically experience, courage, and legacies. Garcia did that better than anyone last Saturday.
The quiet Spaniard knew he would drive the last stint of the race in the the No. 3 Corvette C7.R. When he took over the controls, two hours and 53 minutes remained in the race. Garcia trains for marathons, but doesn't compete in them very often. His best time is just under three hours. So his last stint at the wheel, a triple stint, would last about as long as his last 26.2-mile run.
His Corvette was not the fastest of the GTLM cars. And it is the oldest design in the class. The Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs were quicker, as was the Porsche 911 RSR driven by Frenchman Patrick Pilet. But Garcia and the Corvette had two big advantages. As the sun set and the track cooled, the Corvette found its legs and became faster, and Corvette has the most experienced crew in the paddock. Garcia started his stint in fifth place and started picking off his opponents. "I was aggressive when I needed to be," he said in a post race interview. "I knew it had to be done by strategy, first laps, tire changes, and I think we nailed everything." He moved up to second place before his last pit stop. Garcia pitted before the No. 66 Ford GT driven by Joey Hand, and when all of the competitors had cycled through their stops, he was in the lead and determined to stay there. "When you lead the way, the aero works pretty decent compared to when you follow someone," he said. "At the end things went a little bit in our favor."
One of those things was a puncture on Pilet's Porsche, which essentially ended any chance of the German team winning the race.
Doug Fehan, the Corvette Racing program manager, described Garcia's last stint as "the driving exhibition that I'm sure will be a highlight of Antonio's career." He is absolutely right. Garcia's average green-flag lap time during his triple stint was 1 minute, 59.4 seconds. His fastest lap of the race was a 1:58.092 with nine laps remaining. He drove 78 laps, nearly 290 miles in the same time he takes to run 26.
"It was fantastic," he beamed following the race.
This track has a new star.