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Sebring: Runways to Raceways, Pt. 3

The story behind the first 12 Hours of Sebring…

Photo: Sebring Archives

Photo: Sebring Archives

Although the inaugural Sam Collier Memorial Grand Prix of Endurance at Sebring on Dec. 31, 1950, was a success, Alec Ulmann’s desire to expand Sebring to a 12-hour race would not be easy.

Ulmann planned a March date in 1952 for the first 12-hour race, a race he envisioned would allow SCCA amateurs to compete against professional drivers from around the world.

But the storm clouds of politics moved in quickly. Many officials with the SCCA wanted to keep sports car racing strictly amateur in nature. In addition, they were not pleased with the “power” Ulmann seemed to have earned within the SCCA.

After considerable debate, the SCCA informed Ulmann they would not support his idea for a 12-hour race at Sebring, nor did they want him to be a member of the SCCA.

His goals were incompatible for the organization, and other “behind-the-scenes” disputes contributed to Ulmann severing ties with the SCCA.

Undaunted, he approached the American Automobile Association (AAA), which sanctioned most professional oval track races in the U.S. at that time, including the Indianapolis 500. Yes, it’s the same AAA that you are likely a member of today for their towing services. But until 1956, the AAA was the leading auto racing organization in North America, if not the world.

Ulmann officially announced the 1952 Sebring 12 Hours would be sanctioned by the AAA, and would welcome drivers from amateur or professional ranks.

The SCCA fired the next shot. They decided to promote their own 12-hour race at the Vero Beach, Florida, airport the week before Sebring, hoping to deplete Ulmann’s entry and take away from the publicity.

Less than 70 miles from Sebring, the Vero Beach 12-hours attracted a large entry of SCCA drivers. While some were loyal to the SCCA, over 40 car owners also entered the Sebring race. As it turned out, the Vero Beach race did cause some teams to miss Sebring due to mechanical problems that could not be remedied in the week between the two races.

Ulmann, however, had a big advantage- he was a true promoter. He knew how to interest the New York media, the Palm Beach elite, and his language skills allowed him to communicate with international teams. In fact, his race attracted the first true international entrant when the French D-B team arrived.

Eventually, 32 cars made it to the starting grid on March 15, 1952, for the inaugural 12 Hours of Sebring. It was an auspicious start, as a heavy rain delayed the start by over an hour.

Attrition eliminated ten cars in the first three hours, including a Mercury that had competed in the Mexican Road Race. It lasted just one lap on the tough airport circuit.

The Ferrari 340 America of Bill Spear and Briggs Cunningham took the lead at the start, but retired in third hour, handing the lead to the Frazer Nash LM driven by Harry Grey and Larry Kulok. They cruised to a six-lap victory, making only three pit stops the entire race.

A Jaguar XK120 driven by Charles Schott and Morris Carroll finished second, followed by Robert Fergus and Dick Irish in a Siata. The D-B won the Index of Performance.

The first Sebring 12 Hours proved to be a big success. On the other hand, the SCCA’s Vero Beach event was never held again.

The rift between the two groups would remain for over two decades, but Ulmann would prevail in his goal of creating America’s version of Le Mans, albeit in a 12 hour format.

The following year, Ulmann’s Sebring race was to achieve perhaps its biggest milestone. The world was coming to Sebring!

Part Four coming next Monday.

Ken Breslauer is the communications director and track historian at Sebring International Raceway. He is the author of the book "Sebring: The Official History of America's Great Sports Car Race."

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