Sebring International Raceway is one of America's most enduring racing circuits, and one of its most demanding. It's a tight, bumpy, well-worn airport course of 3.74 miles that offers little respite in its 17 turns.
Today's 64th 12 Hours of Sebring is half the length of the 24 Hours of Daytona, Florida's other jewel of endurance sports car racing. But to hear defending champion Christian Fittipaldi tell it, Sebring is twice the challenge.
"There's no doubt that Sebring is a lot harder than Daytona," Fittipaldi said. "Usually it's a lot warmer than Daytona (which is the last weekend of January). There are a lot of straightaways in Daytona, not as many turns. Not to talk about the asphalt — I don't think Sebring has ever been repaved in the history of the race. Daytona nowadays is unbelievably smooth. Sebring is harsh, and it's very hard physically on the drivers, it's hard on the cars and on the teams."
Fittipaldi's Action Express team was up to the challenge last year, winning the 12 Hours for the first time — by more than a lap, which happens much less frequently in sports cars nowadays — with co-drivers Sebastien Bourdais, a St. Petersburg resident and four-time Champ Car series champion, and Joao Barbosa. This year Bourdais joined Chip Ganassi's Ford endurance racing effort so Filipe Albuquerque will co-drive the No. 5 Corvette along with Fittipaldi and Barbosa, who are the two-time reigning Daytona Prototype class series champions. The second Action Express car, No. 31, features longtime CART and sports car star Scott Pruett, Dane Cameron and Eric Curran.
"We're extremely fortunate to have been able to assemble the driver lineup that we have at Action Express Racing," team owner Bob Johnson said. "When you look at our No. 5 Mustang Sampling Chevrolet Corvette Daytona Prototype with Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, the championships speak for themselves over the past two seasons. ... Our goal when we started Action Express Racing was to compete for wins and championships and we've been able to accomplish that. Along the way, we've been fortunate to attract world-class talent which has added to the success of our team."
There are 12 entries in the Daytona Prototype class at Sebring. Fittipaldi pointed toward the other Action Express car as well as two other Corvette entries, the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing and No. 90 VisitFlorida.com teams, as the ones his team needs to watch for. The ESM team which won January's 24 Hours of Daytona in a Ligier, the Tampa-based Alegra Motorsports entry (with Tampa's Carlos de Quesada as owner/driver) and the unique-looking (think of a rocket ship on wheels) Delta Wing prototype are worth keeping an eye on as well.
The four classes that compete — this year, 49 entries in DP, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona — all add up to constant traffic, which again is harder to deal with at Sebring because, unlike Daytona, there's no banked oval section where it's easier to pass. Even in practice, Fittipaldi said, it's hard to get a clear lap. In the race the issue is magnified.
"With all the cars running, and putting more rubber down, extra rubber up to a certain point is beneficial," Fittipaldi said. "But then weird combinations (happen) between temperatures, Sebring asphalt, and when you get past that point (loose rubber) just builds and builds and makes all the cars slide. All the drivers are whining. 'My car is horrible, my car is this,' Well, tough luck, everyone is saying the same thing. ... Sebring is Sebring. It's unique."
Barbosa broke his left wrist in February in a non-racing hoverboard accident while trying to avoid the family dog, named Speed (the Yorkie was uninjured). Fittipaldi said that Barbosa got his cast removed on Monday. Even if the bone's healed, Barbosa's wrist is sure to take quite a pounding.
"He's going to be feeling it because you're basically being thrown around the car a lot," Fittipaldi said. "You feel it on the steering wheel as opposed to other tracks we go to that are very smooth. But it is what it is. They're not going to change the Sebring date because Joao fractured his wrist. We just have to do the best with what we have when it comes down to crunch time."