Last Month our US Director jim Roller told us about his first trip to cover the 24 Hours of Daytona. As he gets ready to make the trip to Sebring for our coverage of the HSR Pistons and Props this week at the venerable airport circuit, Jim shares his memories of his first trip to the 12 hour classic in 1983.
"Last month I wrote about my first trip to the 24-Hours of Daytona back in 1983. That turned out to be a big year for me as it also marked my first trip to the 12-Hours of Sebring. As with many things in life your first trip to any great motorsports event is always memorable just because it is the first time. For me personally that 1983 Sebring event proved to be especially memorable. It was stamped on my memory because it was highlighted by some strange events -- that is something that I learned was the norm at Sebring in future trips to central Florida -- and because the race was won by a surprise underdog.
"When you make that first trip down route 27 in the middle of the state of Florida you are not only struck by how rural the area is but the fragrance of orange that permeates the air. A slow ride or stroll down Main Street in downtown Sebring also brings to the forefront of your consciousness the history of the race. That history permeates the place as much as the scent of oranges.
"1983 marked a new chapter in the Sebring history books that date back to 1950. This was the year the old 5.2 mile airport circuit was shortened by nearly half a mile due to new paving. However at over 4.75 miles the airport layout was still America’s longest road racing circuit. It needed to be to handle the huge entry in 1983.
"98 cars were entered for the event and 84 cars rolled off at the green flag. We were still during the early days of the GTP/Group C era, the famed Porsche 956 was still three months away from dominating the 24-Hours of Le Mans. That big entry meant the field was a mishmash of different cars and classes. There was even a Ford Pinto entered in the GTU class.
"Before the race there was a lot of attention on the GTO class (for cars over 2 liters). Rules for the IMSA GTO class in ’83 were fairly wide open and also provided a unique mix of entries. The famed Gene Felton put his Chevy Camaro on the pole; the fastest race lap went to Carl Shafer in a Pontiac Firebird. In the race though it was Mazda and Porsche that wrote the headlines.
After the smattering of faster GTP cars fell victim to mechanical and other ills induced by lapping the rough and unruly Sebring course the Porsche 935 of Bob Akin, Dale Whittington and John O’Steen was in the lead. Behind the Porsche was a surprising GTO Mazda for Pete Halsmer and Rick Knoop entered by renowned Mazda tuning firm Racing Beat. The car was light and fast with a “special 2 rotor motor”. It wasn’t even dark yet and the Mazda was second overall and looking to upset in a long time.
"Then Sebring through its first curveball at the field when IMSA officials threw a full course caution and slowed the field so a fuel truck, too large for the bridge to the infield could be safely moved into the Paddock. The 84-car field had taken a huge toll on the tracks fuel supply and more was needed to get the cars to the checkered flag.
"Nighttime is when Sebring comes into its own, strange things start to happen and 1983 was no different.
"As the sun set turning the 4.75 miles into an ink abyss all eyes squinted to see the race leading Akin Porsche with the Mazda hot on their heals and a strange yellow Porsche quietly climbing the standings. Affectionately known as the “School Bus” the little yellow Porsche 934 was, entered by Garretson Racing for Wayne Baker who was driving with Jim Mullen, and Kees Nierop. Like the Mazda, the School Bus was a product of the looser GTO rules in 1983. This Porsche 934’s roots were only skin deep. The rules stated that the car had to run a single turbo engine and have 934 bodywork but smaller wheels and tires than a Porsche 935. The School Bus spent most of its life as Garretson’s famous 1982 935 (Chassis #009 0030). Baker bought the car from Garretson then had the California outfit convert the car to a 934 and run it for him during the ’83 season. The car featured a Jerry Woods built 3.2-liter engine with a KKK K36 Turbo (about the biggest you could get at the time) and a twin waste gate system to help reduce the sinister turbo lag associated with this type of set up.
"Then it happened, the Sebring weird stuff started. The race had taken its usual toll on the field and Akin and company looked like last men standing of the favored 935s. Then with just two of the 12 hours remaining the race was thrown wide open when the #5 Coca-Cola liveried Porsche pitted with a two lap lead and would not restart. Akin later blamed water in the fuel from the “new batch” brought in by the aforementioned fuel truck. He told me so in plain, somewhat salty, for Akin, language, Not as colorful as Bob Wollek at Daytona but strong for the always gentlemanly Bob Akin.
"That meant the Mazda was in prime position for the upset of the year! In second was the last of the GTP cars in contention the (bizarre for it’s time) GRID. A prototype sporting a F-1 Cosworth engine and driven by Skeeter McKitterick and Milt Minter. The Bayside 935 of Al Holbert, Bruce Leven and Hurley Haywood were in the final podium spot. The School Bus meanwhile was chugging around in fourth. Running to it’s own pace trying to over come tire trouble caused by the smaller tire sizes required by the rules.
"The Mazda’s upset bid ended with just an hour to go. A front disc exploded and the car limped back to the pits with the front end torn off and too much damage to continue. 15 minutes later the challenge of the GRID ended with a collapsed front suspension.
"With 45-minutes to go the Bayside 935 lead over all with the number 9 Porsche second overall and leading GTO.
"With just 30-minutes to go the leading 935 came to the pits with an electrical failure. No lights back then meant no running at Sebring! (See earlier comment about inky abyss). Game over for the 935 and the door opened for Baker who was now leading in the unlikely Porsche 934!
"All pretty strange right? Nah this is Sebring. It got better. Baker radioed his team saying he had seen a dog running around on the circuit. Then the next lap Baker there was a man standing on the side of the track. IMSA dispatched police who found the drunk and subdued him so the race could continue unabated. Dale Whittington was back behind the wheel of the #5 Porsche was on the hunt for the leading 934 but time ran out. Baker crossed the line just over a minute and a half ahead of the chasing 935.
"The unlikely win by Baker, Nierop, and Mullen marked the first time a lower classed production car had won one of the worlds endurance classics. So thrilled was Porsche’s American boss Jo Hoppen he continued to support Baker and Mullen for the rest of the season and they were rewarded with a 1-2 finish in the IMSA GTO Championship for 1983.
"I’ll never forget my first Sebring as much for the car that one as for the strange turn of events that allowed it to conquer the huge field and the very rough and tough racetrack. This was the first of many interesting and sometimes bizarre occurrences for me at the race famous for being half as long and twice as hard as any 24-hour event. Watch this space for more fun stories from the 12-hours of Sebring."