WHAT IT MEANS TO COMPETE AT SEBRING

WHAT IT MEANS TO COMPETE AT SEBRING

2021 marks the first time a round of the 24H SERIES will be held at the Sebring International Raceway. To commemorate the inaugural Hankook 24H SEBRING, CREVENTIC caught up with some of its more prominent North American competitors to discuss the majesty that is Sebring.

What personal experience do you have racing at Sebring? When was your first race there and with which series?

Charles Espenlaub (CP Racing, #85): “Being born and raised in Florida, Sebring is my home track. So some of my earliest memories are from attending races at Sebring. My first on-track experience was also at Sebring during a driver education program put on by our local Porsche club. This was later followed up by my first race start ever in the 1995 IMSA Endurance Challenge: a six-hour race that had over 100 starters. Then later I was lucky to be the site manager and lead instructor for the Panoz Racing School. So, as you can see, Sebring goes deep into my passion for racing.”

Charles Putman (CP Racing, #85): “I first raced Sebring in 2001 at a Panoz Racing School event using Panoz-spec GT cars. This is where I met my co-drivers, Charles [Espenlaub] and Joe [Foster]. Sebring was the second major track that I learned to drive on, and I remember, on my first time around the track, by turn 14 I was thinking, ‘a person could get lost out here! Maybe I should take a sandwich next time just in case I need food before I get back to the start line!’ Later, Sebring became my ‘second home circuit’. I also ran Sebring in front-wheel drive World Challenge Touring Cars, and later with IMSA in the GTD and Porsche Cup cars.”

Jon Miller (ST Racing, #438): “My very first car race was at this track in the Skip Barber Formula Dodge championship, so my racing career actually started at Sebring. We raced on the short course for the first race, and later in that season on the full course. I grew up in Florida and lived in Orlando where I went to college, so for many years Sebring was my local track!”

From a driver’s perspective, what would you say are some of the most special elements of the Sebring International Raceway?

CE: “Sebring is one of those places where you can feel the history the moment you enter the track. From seeing all of the previous winners displayed on the pit lane to every turn having a unique character, it will quickly be a love-hate relationship that will stay with you forever.”

CP: “Sebring is a very flat track lacking any elevation changes to reference. Even though it has a couple of high-speed straight sections, it is really a technical track and rewards precision, even in the faster sections. Due to the rough surface it is physically demanding, and when you get out of a car, it feels like you just came out of a rugby match.”

JM: “Everyone knows about the bumps at turn 17 and turn one, but even without them, those corners are really special and challenging. I especially love turn one because of the commitment required: it’s fast, blind and the exit gets bumpy when the car is at its peak load levels just as the track narrows. The pavement and grip levels vary so much throughout the lap and throughout the day, so you’re constantly chasing the grip.”

CREVENTIC is making history this year with the first international 24-hour race at Sebring. Given how notoriously tough the Sebring 12 Hours is, how much of a challenge do you believe competing double that distance will be?

Chandler Hull (ST Racing, #438): “I think 24 hours around Sebring is going to be extremely difficult for all parties involved. The wear and tear on the cars is going to be tough to manage and drivers are going to be pushed physically to their limit.

CP: “This will definitely be a challenge not only for the cars, but also the drivers. At Sebring I think that a 24-hour race will be about four times harder on a car than a 12-hour race. However, given the incredible construction standards of today’s homologated cars I think the cars will be able to do it. I don’t think you can just sit back and go slow to make the car last. It will still take really quick pace with a good car in order to finish well.”

JM: “It will probably be the most physically demanding track on the schedule for the driver because of the bumps and the varied nature of the corners. It has a little bit of everything! As intense as it will be for the drivers, the cars will be pushed equally as hard. Reliability, smart driving and being able to react swiftly if problems do come up will be keys to getting a result at Sebring. We’re also excited about the launch of ST Racing’s new home base in Orange County, California: STR38 Motorsports. We’ll be operating future North American programs from there, along with the continued help of our European based partners in the 24H Series, Bas Koeten Racing.”

CE: “Sebring is the most difficult track for a car to survive on. There is a reason only 12-hour races have been run here, so it will be extremely difficult to survive for 24 hours. I personally cannot wait for the challenge, but that may change by hour 13.”

CREVENTIC hosts two of its biggest endurance events at Dubai and Barcelona, and has done so for many years now. How do you think the 24H SEBRING will compare with these races?

CP: “The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has been one of our favorite tracks for several years. It is a great facility and a wonderful track. Of course, Sebring lacks some of the infrastructure both at the track and in the surrounding area compared with Barcelona and the Dubai Autodrome; but it is a very historic track where many ‘old school’ heroes drove. As such, it has a very unique historic appeal. It is really anyone’s guess as to how the teams will react after this race and if there will be demand for a regular 24-hour event there. We will have to experience it to know.”

JM: “Dubai and Barcelona are crown jewel tracks for CREVENTIC, and I think the excitement for Sebring is just as high. I have a few friends and drivers who I coach in other championships who are signed up for this race because of the challenge it presents. At ST Racing, we’re looking forward to the challenge from some of our North American based competition and giving our GT4 BMW M4 a proper send-off after a wonderful season.”

CH: “I think this year’s race is going to be one for the history books. I am betting that there will be a lot of drama, heartbreak and pure joy after the chequered flag.”

CE: “Dubai and Barcelona offer their own unique challenges to overcome. However, there will be no comparison to the difficulties of Sebring for 24 hours!”

In your opinion, and after your time racing in Europe, do you feel the 24H SERIES can become a recognized racing program in North America with an event at Sebring?

CH: “The 24H SERIES has already had success in North America, and I believe that there could be more room for expansion. The last two seasons have been a logistical challenge for teams and drivers, but once things get back to normal, it should be easy to gain more traction in North America.”

CE: “We have been full time with the 24H SERIES for over six years and it provides a very unique platform for North American drivers. The 24H SERIES has great potential if they can keep their core platform in place and continue to offer an affordable true endurance series for Bronze and Silver-rated drivers.”

CP: “As an American driver who learned to drive on US tracks, I think I take American circuits for granted. Since then, I have fallen in love with the great European tracks, but there are a few good tracks in the US including Sebring. For the 24H SERIES to become a recognized racing program in North America, they just need to stick to their original business model: events with lots of track time available, and with emphasis on Bronze and Silver drivers. That model for great endurance races should be a success in the US as well as Europe.”

JM: “It would be fantastic to have CREVENTIC with a consistent presence in North America. We’d love it if there was a second race here too! I think there’s an opportunity to establish that and to bookend the 24H SERIES season with a marquee event in the USA. The Circuit of the Americas was a fantastic place to race when CREVENTIC first came to the US, and Sebring is an exciting new challenge that will have a whole different flavor!”

CREVENTIC in the USA

Though 2021 marks the first time CREVENTIC will host an official endurance event at the Sebring International Raceway, the 24H SERIES already has three years of competition in North America under its belt, courtesy of a hattrick of events at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. 

Year one in 2017 saw, what would turn out to be an on-going, battle between series staples Herberth Motorsport and Black Falcon for overall victory, the Bavarian outfit eventually coming out on top of a fraught fight to secure its fourth win of the season at COTA and overall victory in the inaugural Championship of the Continents. 

Granted, five-time Hankook 24H DUBAI winner Black Falcon would rebound (sort of) with back-to-back victories in the years that followed, American teammates Mike Skeen, Scott Heckert and Bret Curtis taking the garlands alongside Yelmer Buurman in 2018, and compatriots Ben Keating and Cooper MacNeil securing outright honours in 2019 alongside Felipe Fraga and Jeroen Bleekemolen. Not that their arch event rivals made it easy on the German team, Herberth Motorsport having dutifully finished 2nd at both editions ahead of PROsport Performance (2018) and Car Collection Motorsport (2019). 

Not that Black Falcon’s driver line-up represented the Stars and Stripes on their own during the COTA years. Compatriots and long-time teammates Charles Espenlaub, Charles Putman and Joe Foster – see previous pages – were successful in the 991 and GT3-Am ranks in 2017 and 2018 respectively to nail down the 991-class title and Overall GT Drivers’ crowns on those occasions. Ohio-based Classic BMW proved a force to be reckoned in CUP1 and/or GT4 with victories in 2017 and 2018, while then-reigning IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA champion JDX Racing claimed 991 honours in 2018. Alan Menti and Joseph Toussaint helped Brookspeed International Motorsport claim a popular class win in 2017 alongside Freddie Hunt, son of 1976 Formula 1 World Champion James Hunt. Even Jim Glickenhaus’ eponymous SCG 003 sports car was a prominent feature on the entry list in 2018, the Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus factory outfit going on to finished 3rd on the A6-Pro podium that year. 

Few accolades proved more fitting than that of endurance racing legend Jim Briody though at CREVENTIC’s North American rounds: having won the SP3 class at COTA with Cor Euser Racing in 2018, 75-year-old Jim bid farewell to his racing career after 54 years on his 100th, and last, 24-hour race start with the 24H SERIES in Austin in 2019. Rapturous, and well-deserved, applause greeted his SPX-class podium finish aboard the Cor Euser Racing MARC II V8.

-       Images – Petr Frýba and Victor Chadarov