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.
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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.
The Cultural Center is here, a complex that includes an art museum, library, theater for stage plays, and classrooms for art classes. In December, a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian will stop here: Journey Stories, which examines the intersection between modes of travel and Americans’ desire to feel free to move.
Along one of the spokes, just behind the Cultural Center, is Lake Jackson, with a small park on its shores and a municipal fishing pier.
Few people are on the pier on this hot but cloudy day. An angler has just hauled in a net sparkling with dozens of tiny silver bait fish that he dumps onto the wooden pier. Two adolescent girls, there with their parents, are excitedly skipping around the jumping bait fish, distressed that Mom and Dad are going to use them as bait. “But I looove them,” one of the girls protests.
Mom reels her line in. She has caught a nice-sized bass and says jubilantly, “I told you we were going to have fish for dinner tonight.” The girls are intimidated by the fish, jumping back as it flaps and twists its body in Mom’s hands. Mom tosses it in the bucket with the bait fish.
Fishing is a big draw in and around Sebring. The area has 84 lakes, Goad said, with Jackson, Josephine and Istokpoga the favorites for anglers, especially bass fishermen. Golf is an attraction, too — there are 20 courses within 16 miles of downtown Sebring.
Into the woods
The lakes aren’t the only places where visitors can get close to nature. Another day, I go to Highlands Hammock, which opened in 1931 and is one of Florida’s oldest state parks. Most of its roads, bridges and buildings were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The park even has a museum that tells the story of the corps and honors the alumni of the New Deal work program.
An hourlong tram tour takes visitors through the various habitats — hardwood hammock, scrub habitat and more — along canals, past hiking trails and boardwalks, picnic areas and trees that are older than the town. Even in the slow season, the tram is nearly full. We learn about prescribed burns, floods, droughts and invasive plants. We see snakes, alligators, gopher tortoises, white-tailed deer, enormous Golden Silk spiders, and the usual wading birds.
Even more intriguing is the half-mile boardwalk through the Cypress Swamp. It starts as a wide, elevated walkway built of thick planks with railings on both sides. A little ways along though, the walkway shrinks to become a narrow catwalk, apparently to minimize its impact on the swamp, and one side is open — no railing.
I hug the rail side and pause to look for alligators or other creatures, but nothing is visible in the water, which is the reddish-brown color of strong iced tea. Cypress knees poke up above the water, and the branches arch overhead so that we are in deep shade. It’s a little spooky.
Later, I head south on U.S. 27 to the small town of Lake Placid and Henscratch Farms Vineyard and Winery, to do some tasting. Traditional wine grapes don’t do well in the Central Florida climate, but other grapes do. Henscratch grows 10 acres of native southern muscadine and scuppernong grapes, which make sweeter wines.
At the small tasting bar in the farm’s “country store,” I ask for their driest wines and get tastes of a white and two reds. The white is a nice sipping wine for a hot afternoon, pleasantly but not cloyingly sweet. The reds, however ... I’ll just say that it’s not wise to make grapes into something they’re not, and nature intended for these grapes to be made into sweet wine.
Once you accept the inherent sweetness of muscadine and scuppernong grapes, try the dessert wines — a chocolate-orange wine (yes, really) and a Florida icewine — frozen mechanically since the grapes won’t ice up on the vine. Freezing concentrates the sugar.
It’s fun to wander around the farm — which is encouraged — and see what makes Henscratch a farm, not just a winery. There are strawberries grown on hydroponic towers (U-pick season starts in December), a blueberry patch, and more than 200 free-range chickens — Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Barred Rocks and Aracaunas — who seek shade under the grapevines and whose eggs are for sale.
Driving back to Sebring, I hear a car rev up its engine to pass me, and for a moment, I think about the racetrack and how for some people, it defines the town. But as I pass the citrus groves that still ring the community, I know that the influence of George Sebring is still felt.