On a hot afternoon in August, when the road reflects the glare of the sun, I turn into the main entrance of Sebring International Raceway and pass one, then another empty guard shack. A construction crew is working behind the grandstands, but no one else is about. No races are scheduled this weekend. Even the Skip Barber Driving School is closed.
Access to much of the 3 3/4-mile road course and infield is blocked by a gate, but I park my car in the shade of a huge oak dripping with Spanish moss and walk to a berm near Turn 2. On race day, the air is filled with the growls and roars of high-powered engines, the whine of hot rubber on the track, the cheers and gasps of the crowd. Today, the only sounds are the buzz and click of insects.
Sebring is America’s oldest road-racing circuit, converted from a World War II airfield in 1950. The 12 Hours of Sebring was first run here in 1952 and has featured some of racing’s biggest names: Juan Fangio; Carroll Shelby; Stirling Moss; Mario Andretti — even Steve McQueen. The race is held here every spring, with 100,000 fans in attendance. Vintage racing and other race events go on throughout the year, and in October, the raceway will sponsor the first Sebring Historics, honoring vintage and historic cars.
The race theme is everywhere in the small town: race posters on the walls of shops and restaurants; the black-and-white checkered pattern of victory flags incorporated into decor; a restaurant, Chicanes, named for a particular turn on the track; a race-themed car wash. Even the banners advertising the town’s centennial anniversary next month include the checkered flag.
All this might lead a visitor to believe that the track was the acorn from which this Central Florida town grew. They would be wrong. This year marks the 60th anniversary running of the 12 Hours of Sebring and the town’s 100th anniversary.
Sebring was established by George Sebring, a member of the Sebring Pottery family of northeast Ohio. Sebring first came here on a fishing trip in 1911, bought 10,000 acres that same year, and decided to build a retirement town for Christian workers — clerics, missionaries, teachers, employees of the Salvation Army. He built much of the town’s infrastructure, donated land to any congregation that wanted to build a church, planted citrus groves and had a citrus tree planted on each new home lot, said Carole Goad, archivist for the Sebring Historical Society.
Sebring’s beginnings are reflected in its many churches, about 70 in a city of 10,500, Goad said, and in Sebring Circle, the bicycle wheel-like historic downtown, with a tiny park at the hub, and streets running out from the center like spokes. Most of the town’s hotels and restaurants are strung along U.S. 27, and visitors may not even get to the heart of the town, 2 1/2 miles off the highway, which has art walks and cruise nights.
Most of the buildings on Sebring Circle were built in the early 1900s, and the area is a designated 1920s Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The Sebring Central Fire Station, built in 1927 in the Art Deco style, is still used as a firehouse. The Kenilworth Lodge, the hotel where I’m staying, about a half-mile from Sebring Circle, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016. The Sebring Historical Society sells collectible models of those and other buildings.