Florida Motor Racing Holiday

Florida Motor Racing Holiday



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144 months

Thursday 6th February
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  • *All four parts of the trip now included in the below - hope you guys enjoy exploring Florida with us!***

In truth, I’ve never had any great desire to visit Florida. While I’ve always been fascinated by the Louisiana Bayou, the nodding donkeys of Texas and the beat of Nashville, the palm trees of The Sunshine State have never really spoken to me. And yet, here I am at 37,000 feet staring down at another ‘plane, careering through the sky at 500mph on my way to a two-week sojourn around the southern-most state in America.

Naturally there is some motor racing action to enjoy and a useful calendar fluke has permitted us to plan the IndyCar season opener back-to-back with the Sebring 12 Hours, which this year has opened its doors to the World Endurance Championship for a mouth-watering weekend of endurance racing. These headline events offer the perfect backbone to a couple of weeks out of the British winter and exploring a state which in my mind was a glorified retirement home for middle America. I hope to have my preconceptions smashed apart.

The timing of Virgin Atlantic’s daily flight from Manchester to Orlando is perfect: we leave England’s rainiest city late morning and land in Orlando mid-afternoon. It makes for a long day but assimilating to local time is a synch, even if I spend half the holiday waking at 4am out of sheer mindless obstinance.

A 2018 trip to the Daytona 24 Hours means that Orlando International Airport is relatively familiar and we’re soon selecting our hire car from a predictable but uninspiring selection of white goods. Sadly funding cuts in the Motorcardiaries household have precluded anything V8 motivated so we settle for a Nissan Rogue Sport. We struggle to find anything vaguely rogueish or sporting about the Nissan during our trip but it is quiet, comfortable and my phone connects easily so we can press on with Spotify streaming a heavy metal soundtrack of our choice.

It’s a warm, sunny day and our itinerary is far from ambitious. A short drive out from the Orlando suburbs due east to Titusville and we’ve selected our accommodation solely on the basis that it houses an IHOP restaurant. Shallow perhaps but one doesn’t travel to America for small breakfast portions.

We have little time to explore Titusville, though it does claim to have an historic district. The sun is setting as we grab a cab down to an independent brewery called Playalinda, whose combination of food and ale has been torturing me on Facebook for the weeks preceding our trip. While the sky is magical, so too is the house burger, especially when accompanied with a few pints of Robonaut, their signature American red ale. Golden skies and golden ale: I’m warming to Florida already.

As terrific as the beer is, our stated purpose in heading east is to visit the Kennedy Space Center. This part of the state is all about space travel and it dominates a huge chunk of coastal real estate. The drive is typically Floridian with massive arcing bridges to cross as the lines blur between mainland and island. The centre itself sits, rather surprisingly, in a conservation area and we spot a turtle basking as we turn into the car park.

At its most basic, the centre tells the story of America’s exploration into space. The tone is slightly unexpected, though. This isn’t a patriotic tale as such. It’s more sincere than that and the reverence is for the medium and the endeavour of those involved – not for the nation which has facilitated it. More preconceptions smashed.

How much time you would wish to devote to the centre is entirely personal but I find the whole thing fascinating and have deliberately not researched too heavily in order to maintain an element of surprise. A bus tour takes visitors off site and out to explore the wider area. We turn out of a junction, facing an enormous building. Our guide proffers, to our collective amazement, that it is fully five miles in the distance. The vehicle assembly building (VAB) was the largest in the world by volume at the time of its construction. It looms ever larger during the five-mile drive.

The VAB exists on a scale that one cannot reconcile with any other building. On plan, the size of an Amazon distribution centre but the height of a skyscraper, it’s as impressive as the vehicles themselves. In fact, you quickly gather that facilitating space travel is just as hard as flying the rockets themselves. Moving the vehicles from the VAB to the launch pads has required groundbreaking mechanical and civil engineering – just as much as physically getting the craft out of the earth’s atmosphere. For one grounded in a career in conventional commercial construction, it’s an eye-opener.

We pass several launch pads, including 39A, used by SpaceX for its Falcon 9 launch scarcely 24 hours previously. Adjacent is the pad NASA will use for manned missions to Mars. Today, Cape Canaveral is a commercial venture and NASA, as a government agency, is facilitating efforts in the private sector just as much as it is undertaking its own exploration. There’s a tangible sense of excitement in the air about the future of space travel.

The obvious highlights of the visit are the staggering, gargantuan Saturn Five rocket, dissected and displayed in another cavernous building; and the space shuttle Atlantis. The Saturn Five hall tells the story of the Apollo missions as America sought to reach the moon before the USSR. Now a 50 year-old story, the scale of the craft and its accomplishments retain their shock-and-awe factor. So huge is the Saturn Five and so otherworldly (quite literally) are its achievements, no regular references can apply.

Having grown up with Shuttle flights occurring on a semi-regular basis, I’d never previously paused to consider how ground-breaking this craft was. Able to land under its own steam – and crucially fly multiple missions – the Shuttle was every bit as technically challenging as the Saturn Five. Today Atlantis enjoys its own Floridian retirement. Having flown 33 missions in 25 years totalling 125 million miles (it’s worth reflecting on that number), a dignified retirement feels to be the least it deserves.

Our trip closes in the IMAX theatre with a film which once more smashed preconceptions. Notionally it tells the story of life aboard the International Space Station, though its greatest impact is environmental. The depletion of the polar ice caps and rampant deforestation is easily observed from space; the beauty and frailty of the planet laid bare. While America’s president seeks to deny climate change, it’s impossible to emerge from the cinema without a profound sense of loss. Let us hope that global common sense prevails before it is too late.

Feeling rather emotionally drained and fuelled by little more than ice cream, we saddle up the Rogue Sport and head south. We have a good chunk of driving to cover this evening as the sun starts to set over the east coast. The drive is unmemorable – another magnificent dusk aside – and the roads are peppered with the usual fast food joints, RV vendors and adverts for gun shows. While America can often feel unnervingly familiar, its differences to our British homeland can be equally stark.

Our destination is Miami and we arrive under cover of darkness. The passage over from the mainland to Miami Beach is spectacular with twinkling skyscrapers dominating in all directions. We emerge into a town possessed. This is Spring Break and the pace of life – even at 11pm – is exhausting. We wander a couple of blocks to find a pizza and the streets are full: cars, motorcycles and people abound. There’s no shortage of wealth on display though it’s hard to say exactly how it may have been accrued. It’s a relief to head back to the hotel bar for a nightcap; perhaps we’ll have the energy for this level of activity tomorrow.

We have deliberately chosen a hotel at the southern end of Miami Beach, it having been cited as marginally less frantic than the 20 blocks immediately to the north. We find ourselves in a charming, verdant, residential area. The houses are varied but attractive, the sidewalks clean and the palm trees plentiful. A fine breakfasting spot scarcely five minutes’ walk from our digs provides a snapshot of a privileged existence. Here, the pace of life has slackened slightly and young mums share the morning with students and hurried business types. Porsches, Maseratis and Range Rovers proliferate; meanwhile the skies are blue and the sun beats down relentlessly. Freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice flows freely and the coffee is good. Perhaps there’s more to Miami Beach than just bling.

Heading to the southern-most point of Miami Beach reveals enormous condo blocks and beautifully maintained public spaces. Older residents enjoy the prolific benches and the welcome sea breeze, while many mentalists are running and cycling in the midday heat. One lady takes a break from her jog to relax on some rocks with her feline sidekick – something of an unusual exercise partner, though the cat in question appears to be having a terrific time.

The sea is blue and the beach is perfect. Bathers are plentiful and the distinctive pastel lifeguard towers give South Beach an aesthetic all of its own. One doesn’t need to wander far to find the incredible art deco strip. A mix of hotels, bars and restaurants, this is the heart of Miami Beach – its calling card and delivered with an addictive Cuban backbeat. It’s also the craziest part of this crazy city. More cars, more motorcycles, more people, even more white Rolls Royces: the strip is jumping, even at lunchtime. In a bid to fit in, we sink a couple of frozen margaritas which seem to take the edge of the surrounding carnage. As stunning as the buildings are, we feel somewhat relieved to survive the strip unharmed and slink off to a quiet section of the beach to replace our English winter tans with customary scarlet.

If South Beach is brash, noisy and fuelled by booze, so Brickell is brash, noisy and fuelled by commerce. Miami’s ultra-modern business district feels a world away from the salsa beats and old school art deco purity just five miles away over the water. This is an area bristling with confidence and ambition; luxurious shops, ostentatious tower blocks and thousands of high-end cars speak of an area whose inhabitants have embraced capitalism and run with it. From a purely developmental perspective, it’s incredibly impressive, especially the opulent Brickell City Centre – a huge retail development boasting high-end shops and ornate koi carp pools. For anyone with an interest in the built environment, it’s incredibly impressive.

All that said, it doesn’t take long to reach parts of Miami less blessed with wealth and optimism. We grab a cab out to Wynwood, the city’s burgeoning hipster district. Wynwood, though, exists as something of an oasis in a desert of deprivation. It’s tough to see boarded-up houses and vagrancy so close to an area which so boldly displays its success. Nowhere in America seems immune to this phenomenon but here $25 million waterfront properties sit just a few miles from an area where access to food and shelter appears to be a forlorn hope for many. It jars heavily with the apparent paradise of South Beach.

Wynwood itself is a remarkable place which has risen to fame for its street art; the whole area being sucked along in the slipstream caused by the popularity of Wynwood Walls. These are the hub of the district, with perhaps 20 large walls given over to different artists. The results are spectacular and easily justify the effort to cross town. Elsewhere, every square millimetre of flat, vertical surface throughout Wynwood is covered in street art. For the most part the quality is high and the huge areas mean that the artworks are spectacular in their scale. Visitors wander slack-jawed. Even the local cement works has been decorated by the most daring artists.

Bars and vintage shops proliferate and the burgeoning US craft beer scene is alive and well. Growler becomes an instant favourite, with 100 beers on tap.

Wynwood is perhaps the perfect demonstration of gentrification: counter-culture which develops such critical mass that it hits the mainstream. In spite of those living out of shopping trollies just a couple of blocks away, we see Ferraris and McLarens cruising through the neighbourhood. It won’t be the last time we are faced with such an abrupt juxtaposition this week.

Rather going against the grain of my usual road tripping preferences, we double-back on ourselves slightly and head north from Miami Beach and up to Fort Lauderdale.
Several years ago, I learned of a precious 1960s Ferrari living incongruously in the bowels of a sprawling flea market just outside Fort Lauderdale. Owned by charismatic and controversial former racer Preston Henn, Swap Shop allowed him to amass a vast fortune, which he prudently invested in supercars and a race team. Rather than hiding his wares away in a private warehouse, he chose to display his collection at Swap Shop. Sadly, Henn passed away in 2017 but his legacy – in both a commercial and automotive sense – remains visible at Swap Shop.

The flea market was created to offer a revenue stream to Henn while his drive-in movie theatre sat unused during the day. Something in the order of 15 separate screens still exist, served by huge, baking Tarmac car parks. The sun is merciless and the whole place feels scorched and dry. A short walk among the outdoor stands confirms that the vendors are selling because they need to – not necessarily because they want to. The goods for sale are far from the luxurious end of the spectrum. Brickell City Centre’s boutique shopping this is not.

Heading inside reveals the true incongruity of Swap Shop: A swathe of modern supercars greets visitors seeking shelter from the unremitting heat. Porsche 918, Ferrari F40, Enzo, et al. Henn might have been 86 when he died but he was obviously a man still possessed of automotive fever. among the recent cars are several earlier treats including the 512BB convertible s/n 31975 which Henn bought nearly-new from France.

The highlight of this display is the 1983 Daytona 24 Hours winning Porsche 935-L. This unique car was built by ANDIAL and became one of the ultimate 935s, featuring Moby Dick-aping longtail bodywork and a unique spaceframe chassis. In a remarkable career it was driven by Al Holbert, Doc Bundy, AJ Foyt, Derek Bell, John Paul Jr, Andrettis Mario & Michael, Hurley Haywood, Bob Wollek, Jean-Louis Schlesser, Walter Brun, Don Wittington and – of course – Preston Henn.

I've been fortunate to see the ANDIAL car once before in person – at the 2018 Rolex 24 where it featured as a static exhibit. But to see it resting at home is a totally new experience. Families shuffle by, more interested in browsing mobile phone cases at a local stall than the legendary slab of motor racing history in their midst. It’s bizarre and yet somehow utterly beguiling. It’s so unexpected and so utterly without precedent that Swap Shop is infinitely more fascinating than any conventional car museum. And it’s free to enter.

Diving further into the belly of Swap Shop, we follow our noses to try and find the true jewel in Henn’s glittering collection. The car which first alerted me to this crazy place was the Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale s/n 6885. This car took a class win and third outright at Le Mans in 1965 as a successor of sorts to the 250 GTO. It remains unique and pundits argue about whether it might actually be the most valuable car in the world, with insane values attributed to it. Unless offered to the market, we’ll never know its true worth but it must be the only top-tier Ferrari which lives in such humble surroundings.

Swap Shop’s visitors are not typically affluent people and the sight of 6885 – could it be worth $100 million? – existing without due reverence is plain bizarre. Do they understand what’s in front of them? Do they care? Or perhaps they know exactly and are simply proud that one of their own earned sufficiently to spend lavishly and display his treasures for their enjoyment. Whatever, it is a confounding juxtaposition but one which I find utterly compelling.

6885 is undoubtedly the highlight of the remarkable Swap Shop collection but it is displayed alongside Michael Schumacher’s 1999 San Marino grand prix-winning Ferrari F399, the actual Miami Vice Testarossa (s/n 63259), Henn’s howling FXX Evo, 365 GTS/4 (s/n 14539 complete with Competizione engine) and a couple of more recent acquisitions. I prowl the perimeter high and low, drinking it all in. It is without compare and I can only hope that the family decides to keep the cars together to enable more enthusiasts unfettered access to this extraordinary collection in the most ordinary of locations.

Swap Shop is one of the most unusual places I’ve ever visited during my years of chasing important motorcars. It is peerless in terms of the quality of the collection on public display and for sheer incongruity. I would urge all petrolheads to visit and perhaps buy a little something. I think it’s what Preston Henn would have wanted.

From Fort Lauderdale, we head back south once again, this time skirting Miami and continuing onto the famous Florida Keys. The archipelago arcs south and west over 120 miles, ending at Key West. Our conservative schedule sees us in an AirBnB towards the upper end of the Keys in Key Largo – and not an especially glamorous corner. That said, we are a short walk from a bustling local restaurant which vends great beer and serves a cracking blackened mahi mahi. It also offers a first chance to try key lime pie which is a contrast to the type of gravy-laden pastry creations we are accustomed to in Yorkshire.

It would appear that anywhere in this area selling key lime pie will attempt to pass it off as ‘the world’s best’ so it’s hard to make an empirical judgement without trying every one (which is tempting). It is fair to say, though, that this is among the best desserts I’ve ever tasted and virtually warrants the trip by itself.

It is easy to forget in America that there is often purpose beyond merely eating and drinking. Key West beckons and it’s a relaxed three-hour drive. Much of the drive along US Route 1 is through lightly populated areas, though the many islands are linked by scores of bridges, offering tantalising glimpses of blue seas and coral reefs. The usual proliferation of bars and restaurants lines the highway though they are distinctive and characterful with many decorated with fibreglass sharks or manatees.

Key West itself is busy and atmospheric. It’s not easy to park – and certainly not inexpensive either – but we find ourselves in a distinctive and vibrant town. It’s strange to find that one can walk in 20 minutes from the Atlantic on the East to the Gulf of Mexico on the west.

The harbour is full of boats, with pelicans and huge tarpon fish dominating the water. Look closely though and the odd shark makes an appearance, as well as beautiful jewelled tropical fish. Green iguanas bask on the rocks, swimming from one sun trap to the next.

The waterfront is dominated by opportunities for more food and more booze – as well as any number of stalls offering diving and boat trips. Limited time precludes any marine exploration but the calm waters look incredibly inviting.

The town itself is architecturally interesting and very different to anything else we’ve seen before in the US. Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami and retained strong cultural and trading links with Cuba before the rise of the communist regime. Lapped timber colonial-type buildings dominate the streets with most gently glowing in pastel colours.

Wild chickens – dubbed ‘gypsy chickens’ by the locals – run amok, with colourful roosters loudly announcing themselves and lines of baby chicks parading behind their mothers through the urban streets. As a metaphor for a wild, colourful, noisy place, they make a pretty convincing case for themselves.

As much as its brash chickens, Key West is famous for its dive bars. The drinking culture is notable and there seem to be hundreds of folk carrying open beers in the street, even during the early afternoon. Cool bars buzz with live music and the smells of grilled food. There’s a carefree atmosphere and general sense of joie de vivre. In many respects, the nearest American town I’d compare it to would be New Orleans, with its ageing building stock and dedication to hard partying. NOLA carries with it, though, a slightly dark atmosphere – a sense of underlying unrest. Perhaps a little voodoo in the air, the result of those unique above-ground cemeteries or maybe simply because of underlying social issues. Whatever the reason, where New Orleans is beguiling but perhaps laden with a hint of menace, Key West feels vibrant and fun.

As with anywhere on Florida’s western seaboard, Key West offers incredible sunsets. Each evening a crowd gathers in Mallory Square to cheer – somewhat troublingly – the dipping of the sun. A traditional sailing ship crosses the sea at the horizon. In spite of the bizarre public applause, it’s quite magical.

Sadly I am – unlike my companion – utterly sober throughout the day and so saddle the burden of getting us safely back to our quaint apartment in Key Largo. We pause at the Florida Keys Brewery, a fine establishment which has captured and embraced the colourful Floridian aesthetic. A couple of take-outs enable me to sample its wares despite my status as designated driver. Highly recommended for craft beer fans who also enjoy sunshine and sea.

Our next destination is St Petersburg on the west coast and quite a distance. We have allowed a full day for the drive to keep proceedings relaxed and we soon find ourselves bisecting the Everglades. We had explored a little of the Everglades during a previous visit but way up in the north of the system at Kissimmee. The southern Everglades feel quite different – drier and endlessly large. Native American Indian settlements abound including several large casinos; not something we had expected.

We wisely pick the hottest part of the day to engage in a 15-mile bicycle ride through the wilds. Having scarcely ridden a ‘bike for 25 years, this is among our stupider ideas and the unrelating heat takes its toll – not aided by a lack of fitness which is cruelly exposed in the midday sun. We survive only by carefully rationing a packet of melted M&Ms over the two-hour ride.

Mercifully, our survival is under greater threat from the punishing atmospheric conditions than the indigenous wildlife which includes a great number of sizeable and menacing alligators. Many of these beasts seem very comfortable on the path we have to navigate, though they appear as disinterested in us as we are utterly petrified of them. Along the way we see any number of bird species, turtles and snakes happily coexisting. A towering concrete observation tower at the far end of the scenic ride provides incredible views across the sprawling landscape.

Having survived the native wildlife and the ferocious weather, it’s a relief to arrive in Naples in late afternoon. This is the Florida as I’d always imagined it: infinite palm trees, folk luxuriating on boats, golf courses ad infinitum and lots of retired couples looking extremely smug about life.

We only pause long enough for a bite to eat but Naples has a warm atmosphere and oozes money – though in a less obvious way to Miami.

Night has fallen when we arrive in St Petersburg but our destination is revelatory. We have booked an AirBnB apartment in the historic district which sounds fairly innocuous and of course, as Brits, we retain a little scepticism about anything described as ‘historic’ in America. What we find is a wonderful suburb which immediately feels like home.

The streets are paved with bricks which have been allowed to settle, the pavements (sidewalks, I suppose) are lined with grass and the houses generally have timber facades. All the residences feature a stoop or patio, with the area evidently safe enough to allow the occupants to leave outside their shoes and kids’ toys. What a revelation – it feels like a genuine community in the way we’ve never experienced before in America.

This sense is heightened by a trip to the local pub – The Old Northeastern Tavern. We are greeted with customary warmth but soon make new friends while propping up the bar and sampling a few of the recommended local brews. The pub sits opposite a plot of allotments and almost next door to a café selling great coffee and breakfast – something I need in significant quantity the next morning.

We are in St Petersburg for the opening round of the 2019 IndyCar season, which is kicking off with its traditional thrash around the challenging street / airport hybrid track. Considering the suburban paradise of the historic district, it’s surprising to find the downtown race track only 20 minutes’ walk away.

I arrive in time for Pirelli GT4 Challenge practice at the furthest end of the circuit. This category has really taken hold in North America, with decent entries in both this series and the Michelin Pilot equivalent under IMSA’s banner. There’s a strong domestic contingent with Camaros, Mustangs and a lone Panoz Avezzano facing down Porsches, Audis and McLarens from across the pond.

The big V8-engined machinery is the most exciting here, with the sound of those burly motors bouncing off the adjacent high-rises; the sheer power irresistible and looking hard to contain among the concrete barriers. It’s an entertaining session and provides a reminder of the lure of GT racing with its variety of shapes and sounds.

Equally frantic but perhaps under slightly greater control is the succeeding session for TCR entrants. A small field has assembled but their front-wheel drive dynamic offers a different perspective and reaffirms that these are quick cars, even if they seem somewhat incongruous in this context.

Where TCR is diverting but doesn’t elevate the pulse too significantly, the arrival on track of the IndyCar runners serves to raise goosebumps. My most recent IndyCar experience was the Indianapolis 500 a couple of years earlier and this is a very different experience. Gone is the three-wide 230mph drafting and in its place is a busy, high downforce hustle.

This is a short layout and the cars are round frequently and violently. The spectating is such that you can see straight into the drivers’ helmets as they muscle the turbocharged monsters through the tight streets. These cars are robust and feature no power steering so they need working hard. They come on boost aggressively and the bumps of my first viewing spot look fierce, even if the cars shrug them off with relative impunity under hard acceleration.

So close are you and so ferocious is the action that it’s hard to pick out drivers who are notably more ‘on it’ than their peers. A walk further around the track is instructive and it’s apparent that Will Power is already extremely comfortable in his Dallara, working right out to the barriers at dizzying speed. The proximity to such violence is intoxicating.

45 minutes isn’t enough time for the IndyCars to lose their shock and awe factor – I could study those guys at work all day.

The track action is non-stop and we are soon into the weekend’s first race; for Indy Pro 2000 – perhaps the North American ladder’s equivalent of F3. We continue clockwise around the circuit and are grateful for a little shade on a grassy knowl on the infield at the kink between turns nine and 10. This is pretty much a flat-out corner in a downforce-laden single-seater and runs between the stadium and the harbour. In feel, perhaps its nearest point of reference would be Tabac at Monaco, though more open.

The Indy Pro 2000 race is diverting, featuring a genuine two-car battle for the lead between Rasmus Lindh and Canadian Parker Thompson. Thompson’s entry is so late that he doesn’t even appear in the race programme. Interrupted by two safety car interventions Thompson snatches the lead out of our site towards the back-end of the race. One of the safety cars is the result of title favourite Kyle Kirkwood losing his nose during battling in the early laps. The Indy Pro 2000 cars are pretty entertaining, with little bursts of flame from the exhausts and they appear to race well enough. I really should have done a better job of studying the formbook ahead of the weekend to make the most of the chance of seeing the full single-seater ladder in action.

It’s a hectic schedule today and we miss much of the USF2000 and Indy Lights races in favour of exploring the paddock. Common with all domestic racing in this country, the paddock access is hugely refreshing. The teams aren’t hidden behind branded hoardings; instead all the cars are prepared in the open and the drivers are milling around preparing themselves for the forthcoming qualifying session.

The runners and riders are funnelled from the paddock to the pit lane through a corridor formed in low crowd barriers. This affords the fans the opportunity to see their heroes. Several, such as Tony Kanaan, pause for photo opportunities or autographs. It’s hard to imagine Formula One ever permitting such openness.

IndyCar qualifying is a staged process and we take our seats above the pit exit, offering a great view of pit road (in local parlance), the front stretch and turn one – the track’s best overtaking spot.

The big talking point out of the heats is the absence of Simon Pagenaud. While team mate Josef Newgarden just scrapes through, the Frenchman misses out on a spot in the top-12. Perhaps equally surprising is the progression through the heats of Ben Hanley. The sportscar regular is making his IndyCar debut with Dragonspeed with whom he is set to enjoy a busy 2019 aboard LMP1, LMP2 and Indy machinery.

Prior to the weekend, Colton Herta has been the subject of much discussion. The youngster (whose father I rather depressingly remember during his own IndyCar career) has been setting scorching times in winter testing and heads to Florida as a legitimate threat. Sadly for him, he loses a second between the first heat and round two, unable to progress into the Fast Six.

A Penske front row should not normally come as a surprise but the practice and testing times have painted a mixed picture. Ryan Hunter-Reay has come hard out of the blocks but can only manage fifth, while rookie Felix Rosenqvist has put the cat among the pigeons by out-pacing legendary team mate Scott Dixon. It sets up a fascinating race in which you wouldn’t dare call a winner.

Our day concludes with the opening GT4 battle which we enjoy from the outfield at turn one in the paddock. This may not present the finest photographic opportunities in the world but it’s an intriguing race, eventually settled in favour of Ian James’s Panoz ahead of Spencer Pumpelly’s Porsche Cayman. Having seen the thundering Panoz GT1, LMP900 and GT2 cars in action during the previous two decades, it’s great to see the Atlanta manufacturer take victory, especially as it sounds amazing.

This has been a long, hot day at the races and it’s a relief to find ourselves with a short walk back to our accommodation and the chance for a shower to scrub the sunscreen from our pores. Another trip to The Old Northeastern Tavern beckons.

Sunday dawns warm and sunny. This part of Florida boasts an incredibly temperate climate. With a gentle sea breeze but glorious sunshine all day it’s a welcome respite from the UK’s chilly spring mornings. Long shadows bath the circuit as the IndyCar runners head out for a final warm-up session ahead of the season’s first race. They’re flying through the high-speed kink on the harbourfront, turning in completely blind without the hint of a lift and skimming the barrier on the inside before easing it gently out to the outside wall on the exit. They’re absolutely walking the tightrope through here and a wander offline kicks up the dust and induces wicked twitches from unsettled cars.

In spite of the awe-inspiring progress through the kink, I wander back to my new favourite spot at turn nine where these drivers are really earning their crust. Standing just beyond the apex they appear to dive bomb towards you before engaging warp drive as they open up the steering again. The cars are dancing constantly through here with a gentle camber sucking them to the outside wall. The number of rubber marks on the concrete is testament to how hard they’ve been pushing; no margin for error around the streets of St Pete.

With the IndyCars facing final fettling ahead of the big event, eyes turn to the infield where Robert Wickens is starring in an autograph session. Wickens was fast becoming an IndyCar star before a horror shunt at Pocono left him with severe spinal cord injuries. His very brave and public recovery – as well as his breakthrough IndyCar rookie season – have earned him huge affection among the fans and he is mobbed throughout the weekend.

This is his first public appearance since his accident and looks overwhelmed by the response. The last time I saw the Canadian compete was the 2016 Zandvoort DTM weekend, where he was victorious. It’s sad to see him confined to a wheelchair but his humour and determination in the face of adversity are inspiring. In spite of his harrowing injuries, it feels certain that he’ll be back in an IndyCar one day and he’ll doubtless be the most popular driver on the grid.

Having wished Robert Wickens well in his recovery, I return to the trackside where a small pack of rasping Indy Lights aspirants is about to wage war. Having missed most of race one, I’m determined to enjoy this second encounter and perch on the exit of turn five for the duration. This is a long left-hand corner which blends into six before firing the protagonists towards the further end of the track.

The Indy Lights cars behave much like their older cousins with a distinctive, boosty power delivery and they look a real handful over the joints in the concrete surface.

While only a ten-car field, this year’s Indy Lights entry is dripping with talent. Much hyped is Rinus VeeKay, the well-funded Dutchman who has bounced into the category on the back of Indy Pro 2000 laurels in 2018. He survives an early clash with fellow title rival Oliver Askew on lap one to lead from the front. Askew is not so lucky and retires as a result of damage suffered against one of St Pete’s unyielding concrete walls.

VeeKey is able to win at a canter but not without race-long pressure from Zachary Claman and Brit Toby Sowery. It sets up what should be a fierce season-long title fight.

Our seats for the main event are once again at the end of the start / finish straight, on the infield directly above the pit exit. This turns out to be a cracking spot in which to watch the race, with turn one being the circuit’s main overtaking spot, as the racers leave the runway of the local airfield and turn onto the more conventional city streets.

The opening laps are all about Will Power, the Australian carrying his qualifying form into Sunday. An early caution period to clear up the Ryan Hunter-Reay’s expired Dallara presents an opportunity, though, for Felix Rosenqvist who catches Power napping off the restart and snatches the lead under braking into turn one in his first ever IndyCar race. He looks comfortable and composed at the front, heading 31 laps and the crowd starts to believe that it could witness a landmark rookie win.

Sadly the spectators are denied their pathos, with Josef Newgarden shuffling to the front with the help of a daring Tim Cindric strategy and a slightly obstructive Marco Andretti. Newgarden is able to run long at the second stops, hammering home a sequence of blistering laps. Meanwhile his rivals remain bottled up behind Andretti.

It’s at this stage of the race that Scott Dixon comes to the fore, muscling into second and chasing Newgarden all the way. Power completes the podium with Rosenqvist doubtless disappointed to slip to fourth.

The podium celebrations are completed between the paddock and pit road. Hanging out of the back of the grandstand offers the perfect view as Newgarden and Roger Penske shake hands in front of the victorious car. It’s the perfect launchpad for a 2019 title assault from America’s greatest race team and its latest sensation.

Street racing offers unique and special drama – the proximity to such potent machinery never loses its allure. As a pure racing spectacle, I honestly don’t believe much can touch it. IndyCar is a series right in its pomp once again


194 posts

9 months

Friday 7th February
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Read nice write up, enjoyed that a lot.

As regular yearly visitors to Broward County and Miami, we normally base ourselves in the Hollywood area in between Ft Lauderdale in Miami’s, I can relate to much of your review of that area although the Swap Shop thing is a new one on me - had no idea about that. Will defo need to visit next time we are over.

Miami is certainly one of my favourite places to visit. We visited both Brickell and Wynwood on our last visit, both incredible areas in their own way.


Original Poster:

6,413 posts

144 months

Tuesday 11th February
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The first week of our trip has seen us lay quite a few miles under the wheels of the Rogue Sport and it’s time for a slight change of pace. Leaving St Petersburg behind, we head north along the Gulf coast. As delightful as the historic district is, it perhaps doesn’t shout ‘Florida’ with quite the same unmistakeable glee as Miami or the Keys.

We make leisurely progress up to Clearwater Beach, pausing at a laundrette as we’re running low on clothes in spite of my wilful spending on naff motor racing ware. We also stop for a game of crazy golf at a pirate-themed course which would have been hilarious fun had I not caused marital strife by winning convincingly and doing so with ill-judged smugness.

Clearwater Beach is somewhat lively on account of Spring Break and we find ourselves surrounded by slim, good-looking folks with strong tans and white teeth. Thankfully our accommodation is a block off the main strip and we can hide from the revelry when we choose.

Our apartment is basic but perfect for a short stop, with decking straight out of the room providing a view of a secluded bay. A mating pair of Osprey are circling when we arrive and they settle high in the trees above the local park. It offers them a commanding view of the flying fish which leap out of the water right outside our door. Sitting in a comfy chair nursing a beer and catching up on a book in the early evening is really very pleasant and a reminder that holidays don’t need to be all about motor racing.

With that in mind, I rise early on Tuesday and head back south to Naples. I’m flying solo this time with nothing more than a bucket full of podcasts and some more peanut butter M&Ms for company. It feels like a long drive but the destination is worth the effort: The Revs Institute, home of the Collier Collection of automobiles.

The institute has a higher purpose which is to enable and support the advancement of automotive studies as a consequential subject of scholarship. This is a place which takes the protection and preservation of automotive history extremely seriously – as well as providing support for its future. Weighty stuff but as motor racing enthusiasts, this place is looking after our interests better than just about anywhere else on the planet and should be lauded as such.

The museum is the public face of the institute and you need to book in advance for a designated time slot. This process adds an air of mystique and exclusivity which contrasts abruptly with our recent foray to Swap Shop. Access to the institute’s enormous archive isn’t offered with museum entry but I think I’ll add it to the bucket list – and especially if there is a topic which requires detailed research.

There are three principle exhibits in the atrium to greet visitors: Lotus Elite, Ferrari 250LM and McLaren F1. This is just the hors d’oeuvre. The F1 (chassis 022) is the newest car in the collection by quite a margin which speaks volumes about its importance.

Every exhibit features a useful description including general model information and a section specific to the history of each individual car on display. For archivists, this transparency and opportunity to track the significance of the particular chassis in the collection is fascinating – and important. In a world where replicas are now as prevalent in historic racing as originals, a degree of opacity has developed around this issue. It’s refreshing to see the cars’ histories displayed honestly.

The museum is split into separate galleries so the visitor has a choice over their navigation. Unlike, say, the Louwman where you follow the sequence laid out for you, you want to ensure you peak at the end of the visit.

Given the inherent quality of every car here, I simply head right and land into a group of Porsches as good as any in the world. These are air-cooled gems from the early days of the company, starting with 550s and finishing at the perfect 908/3. You can explore each exhibit online so I’ll spare you the narrative but this is a comprehensive history of Porsche’s early days on the road and race track – but mainly the track. The highlight is undoubtably 917-019 (one of two 917s here). This is the most original 917 in existence, still carrying all its scars, scabs and blemishes. The evocative Martini livery is present but far from correct with a distinctive paint peel on the OSF wheel arch.

019 doesn’t boast the greatest racing history among the 917s but it was a Martini Racing Team entry for the 1971 season and was driven by that year’s victorious Le Mans duo, Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep. It is maintained in fine running order – believe it or not, Collier has driven it on the Florida streets! – but likely will never be cosmetically restored and shall remain a unique relic of the most fondly remembered period in sports car racing history.

Extraordinary vehicles come thick and fast. The pioneering days of motoring are not my field of expertise but it would seem that the institute houses a vast array of important cars – both American and European – from this period.

From the 1920s and 30s are examples from all the greatest marques including Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Hispano-Suiza, Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye and MG – the British manufacturer appearing to be a surprising family favourite. The extravagant Figoni & Falaschi Delahaye is a particular highlight with outrageous art deco coachwork which could only have come from France.

There are plenty of pre-war racing cars too; with Miller, Duesenburg and Mors among the domestic marques featured. However, it’s the European titans which really stand out. The 1947 Mille Miglia-winning Alfa Romeo Tipo 8C 2900B Berlinetta is to my eye among the most glamorous and beautiful cars ever made. That it triumphed in the world’s toughest road race only adds to its allure.

Complementing its outrageously burly Maserati 8CTF #3030, which enjoyed a long career in America, the Revs Institute houses one of the most important pre-war racing cars of any kind.

The Mercedes-Benz W154 #15 is the ultimate example of pre-war grand prix technology. It took part in only one race – the 1939 Belgrade GP. That event took place on 3rd September 1939 which will forever be remembered as the day when Britain and France declared war on Germany.

A certain amount of mystery still surrounds the history of #15. It was shipped into Eastern Europe when the Allies started bombing raids on German industrial centres, whereupon its history becomes murky. It was discovered, along with a sister car, in the hands of Romanian mechanic Roman Josef and became the victim of a complex tug-of-war which eventually landed the mighty Merc in Switzerland. Miles Collier subsequently bought the car and it has resided in Florida since 2003. It has been extremely sympathetically restored but its twin-stage supercharged M163 engine runs perfectly and it has been demonstrated at the Goodwood Revival. While the 1937 W125 might have had more sheer grunt, the W154 – and particularly #15 – is the ultimate example of pre-war engineering. It is supremely, and I use the word advisedly, special.

The treats continue apace. One of only two surviving Lancia D50 transaxles is mated to a genuine engine with a recreation body. Sir Stirling Moss’s Cooper Type 43, the first rear-engined winner of a post-war GP. Graham Hill’s BRM P-578 ‘Old Faithful’ which carried him to F1 championship glory in 1962. Dan Gurney’s masterpiece: the Eagle-Weslake in which he won the 1967 Belgian GP. And another Eagle – this time the 1975 Indy 500 winner.

And all these highlights before we hit the Cunningham gallery. A giddying array of Cunningham-manufactured and run race and road cars. It’s easy to forget that Cunningham was a hugely successful marque back in the 1950s. The Revs Institute showcases a multitude of self-built racers as well as the equipe’s Birdcage Maserati and D-Type Jaguar. Did I mention one of the world’s oldest surviving Ferraris? Or the GT40s both MkII and MkIII? Or Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport?

Even with six clear hours, it’s impossible to do this place justice. It isn’t just the cars – for they are staggering – but the way they are displayed without ropes to obstruct one’s view. It’s the honesty of their stories and the way their scars are shown with pride as part of their histories.

Above all else, it’s the reverence for important automobiles. And in that respect, no other museum I have visited has resonated so deeply. The celebration and preservation of important racing cars means more to me than anything else in life. And I get the impression that sentiment is shared with everyone involved here.
Leaving the Revs Institute isn’t easy. Once more I wander around the Porsches, pausing alone at 917-019 one final time. Naples isn’t just the best place in the world for old people to retire, it’s the best place in the world for old motorcars to retire as well.

Back to reality and our corner of Clearwater is busy but not upsettingly so and we easily find a spot overlooking the beach in a bar on our last evening on the coast. The setting sun mercifully isn’t heralded by spontaneous applause here, but the moment is hugely atmospheric as friends chatter and pelicans silhouette themselves against the amber sky. I’d always thought the Floridian paradise of brilliant white sand and loping palm trees looked inauthentic. It turns out I was wrong – it’s really quite magical.


Eric Mc

112,471 posts

223 months

Wednesday 12th February
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Must hold the record for the longest ever post on PH. I read about your report on Cape Canaveral as I hope to be visiting it at the end of next month. I'll read the rest of the thread when I get the chance.


Original Poster:

6,413 posts

144 months

Wednesday 12th February
quotequote all
Eric Mc said:
Must hold the record for the longest ever post on PH. I read about your report on Cape Canaveral as I hope to be visiting it at the end of next month. I'll read the rest of the thread when I get the chance.
It will get fractionally longer when I get around to writing the Sebring report! Cape Canaveral is great though - I’m sure you’ll love it!


2,204 posts

190 months

Wednesday 12th February
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I’m off to Sebring next month, with a trip to Homestead Miami for the NASCAR thrown in for good measure, can’t promise anything quite like that for a report though


Original Poster:

6,413 posts

144 months

Wednesday 12th February
quotequote all
FredericRobinson said:
I’m off to Sebring next month, with a trip to Homestead Miami for the NASCAR thrown in for good measure, can’t promise anything quite like that for a report though
Brilliant stuff, mate - that’s worked out nicely! Keep an eye out for the Sebring report going online in the next couple of weeks. I’d not been before but loved it - absolutely mega weekend. Enjoy both events :-)

hunter 66

3,202 posts

178 months

Thursday 13th February
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chevronb37 said:
It will get fractionally longer when I get around to writing the Sebring report! Cape Canaveral is great though - I’m sure you’ll love it!
Had raced the Classic events in November , great time to be there .... Also great to hear Ian James , who dad I raced with when he was a kid , doing well


Original Poster:

6,413 posts

144 months

Thursday 13th February
quotequote all
hunter 66 said:
Had raced the Classic events in November , great time to be there .... Also great to hear Ian James , who dad I raced with when he was a kid , doing well
I think the historic events at Daytona and Sebring are really close together now? Both look amazing - would love to see a Peugeot 908 around Daytona!

hunter 66

3,202 posts

178 months

Thursday 13th February
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Yes about 3 weeks between them ...... had great fun there and racing on the banking is special ........ especially with Mass in the Rothmans 962 , next to you


Original Poster:

6,413 posts

144 months

Monday 17th February
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Motor racing is a sensory experience and it’s always refreshing when an event carries its own scent. The forests of Finland smell divine, with wild blueberries growing on the ground; a wholesome adjunct to the lunacy of rally cars flying over lethal crests. In central Florida, one is never far from the smell of the orange groves.

Our journey from Orlando to Sebring is slightly laboured, on account of the lumbering Ford RV which is to serve as both our transport and our home for a long weekend. We stop at WalMart for provisions and are grateful for the fact that the fridge operates off the main battery meaning cold food and drink right from the off.

The first orange tree is quite exciting but soon we’re bored to death of the monotonous rows of fruit trees as we spear through the Floridian interior. Arrival at the track can’t come quickly enough, even if the sweet smell is quite appealing.

Once again, we find ticket collection very simple and are soon bouncing our way over the ancient concrete slabs that once housed B-17s and B-29s. Running parallel to the front stretch is a great novelty though things become less novel when we try to find somewhere to park. We are naturally wary of the notoriously lawless Green Park and instead try to find room on the vast outfield campsite between turns 17 and 7. This area is densely filled with every conceivable kind of RV, trailer, camper van and the odd vestigial tent. We try nosing into various unlikely spots before eventually befriending a group of Brits who kindly shuffle their vehicles around to accommodate us. We are able to repay them by leaving open our awning to provide 24/7 shelter from the elements – and that becomes a serious blessing as the weekend unravels.

It's late afternoon and we’re able to sit on the roof of the RV with a drink as the sun slowly descends ahead of evening practice. We can’t really see the track action from here but we sure can hear it and we can have our noses on the fence in less than a minute. With quick access to comestibles, showers and merch, we’ve inadvertently turned up late and bagged a prime spot.

One of our new pals is kind enough to show us around. He’s a veteran of the race and we soon find ourselves high up in a makeshift scaffold grandstand full of some kind of wicked homebrew booze. In fact, the warmth and welcome of the people is something which truly marks out this event – in spite of some questionable signage, the spectators are all super friendly and we enjoy some excellent craic over the course of the weekend.

Dusk practice for IMSA is hugely evocative as the sun drops over the western end of the circuit above turn seven. In spite of my best efforts, the camera (and its inept operator) fail to capture the majesty of it all. Suffice it to say, that it was another great Florida sunset; this time playing out to the soundtrack of race engines.

It’s hard to take much away from the session beyond the sheer drama and excitement of seeing endurance sports cars at dusk around one of the world’s great tracks. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

Our new best mate knows a couple of lads with an RV berth right on the exit of turn 16. Not normally a noted spectating spot, this has taken on a different complexion for 2019 as the World Endurance Championship has adopted the succeeding Ullman Straight for its pit lane. Perched high up above the final turn on another makeshift tower (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t designed to TG:20 and I never saw a scafftag all weekend), we have a prime view of the world’s fastest sports racing cars as they hammer out of 16 and all the corresponding pit activity. Cracking spot.

The sheer motive force of the current Toyota TS050 never ceases to startle – most particularly when fully lit on a qualifying run. The two hybirds streak to a front-row lock-out in commanding fashion and hopes for a challenge from the privateers looks forlorn when the fastest Rebellion is 2.5 seconds off the pace. Fernando Alonso leads the way, the reigning Le Mans champion proving he can still cut it over a single lap.

GTE Pro is once more too tight to call though an honourable mention should go out to the Porsche RSR for its raucous soundtrack. A coarse, howling banshee of an engine, this is the last time I’ll get to hear this version of the venerable 911 before it’s replaced. It is magnificent and may represent the last top-level sports car to genuinely raise the hairs on one’s neck; lap after noisy lap.

The pit area is relatively devoid of punters but it’s buzzing with team personnel and the odd race driver. Brendon Hartley is in the Toyota hospitality wing which raises the eyebrows and elsewhere we spot Giancarlo Fisichella having his dinner. It’s all very relaxed by world championship standards and certainly everyone looks more at-ease than the likes of Silverstone or Spa.

Friday morning is gloriously atmospheric. It’s already warm when IMSA practice kicks off but there’s a haze in the air giving everything a brilliant tinge but creating a subtle degree of claustrophobia. Most of the spectators seem to be sensibly sleeping off Thursday night’s indulgence, with just a handful of souls savouring the final qualifying session ahead of the big race.

I end up at the challenging complex at turns three – five. The direction change here is aggressive and the boldest runners are working hard over the kerbs. Given that the cars have 12 hours of punishment over Sebring’s notorious bumps tomorrow, it’s a surprise to see them abusing the kerbs to this extent. That said, it makes for an awesome spectacle, with the mists clearing to reveal the ubiquitous Florida palms and equally ubiquitous Sebring RVs as a backdrop. The loaded outside rear sidewalls are flexing, while the unloaded inside fronts dangle briefly in the air before hammering back down, ready for the transition into the left-handed turn five. What an introduction to our first full day at Sebring.

Our first race of the weekend for us is the Michelin Pilot Sport Challenge for GT4 and TCR runners – much as we saw in the Pirelli equivalents a week earlier at St Pete. The field looks stronger even than it did a year previously at Daytona, with great entries in both classes. In GT4, there’s the usual mix of North American Mustangs facing down German squadrons from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche (only air force metaphor of the blog, I promise). The latest Cayman looks particularly purposeful, even if it fails to challenge at the front.

From the onset, it’s Audi vs Mercedes with Tyler McQuarrie driving a faultless race from the front in his R8; Owen Trinkler’s AMG GT is never more than a couple of car lengths behind but cannot force an error – neither on the road nor in the pitlane.

The Audi emerges victorious but it’s desperate for the Mercedes crew when the car is assaulted at the turn seven hairpin by an optimistic Mustang, incurring suspension damage which eventually leaves it out of the top-ten. The TCR category is also strong and it’s refreshing to see representation from Alfa Romeo and Hyundai with the Veloster. Podcasting legend-in-the-making Ryan Eversley manages a podium in the HART Honda Civic Type-R.

While it may not be the headline act, there is excitement in the air concerning the World Endurance Championship’s appearance at Sebring. We chat with one Australian who has come to the event specifically to see the LMP1 rocketships in action. With the current hybrids on borrowed time, there’s no better excuse to come and witness them in person.

It’s a treat to find ourselves watching the start in the company of a chap who must rank as the circuit’s biggest fan; this gentleman having a full back piece tattoo depicting the circuit layout. We are all grateful to him for removing his shirt to allow us a really good look.

We enjoy a leisurely stroll around the circuit as the race proceeds, catching up with old friends and making a few new ones. The race is run at one hell of a pace. The two Toyota TS050s run in convoy for much of the 1000 miles and it’s only a slip-up in traffic from Jose-Maria Lopez that eventually settles the overall win in favour of Buemi, Alonso and Nakajima. Lopez would doubtless not have tripped over a backmarker were he not intent on taking the fight to his team mates.

The Toyotas will always steal the headlines for their otherworldly performance – the punch out of the corners continues to amaze. Behind them, the LMP1 privateers can only gasp in their wake. The leading Rebellion puts up a good fight for a couple of laps, but the battle is in vain. Both Rebellions suffer gearbox woes which leaves SMP to the scraps – bottom step of the podium but a full 11 laps behind the mighty Toyotas after eight hours’ racing.

The race kicks off at 4pm, finishing at midnight. The timing feels slightly bizarre but eight hours is plenty of time to get around and explore the circuit. The spectating is especially good between corners seven and 11. The turn seven hairpin is a cracking overtaking spot with a big screen and a large elevated bank. This offers a great chance to plug into Radio Le Mans and catch up on all the latest shenanigans.

From seven, the Fangio sweepers are fantastic. You stand eye level with the cars’ underbodies which gives a really unusual, unobstructed view of the cars and they’re working hard through here – the bodywork bending hard to the loaded outside rear tyre, even on the sportiest of sports prototypes. They then disappear directly away from you before hammering hard on the brakes and popping down through the ‘box for ten, each downchange pulsing straight at you.

Turn ten affords really close views of the cars at one of the slowest points on the course. A big braking zone, the LMP2 ORECAs show off glowing rotors long before the sun has dropped. It’s also the preferred lodging of some of the event’s most distinctive characters.

You quickly learn not to be surprised by anything at Sebring. Live roosters in cages, fish tanks, RVs dressed as tanks, Donald Trump enthusiasts…this is the land that political correctness forgot. It all appears very well-meaning and we don’t detect any malice or menace in the air but subtle many of the campers are not.

Turn 11 is a blinder. It’s a flat-out left-hander – basically an acceleration zone – but it looks like a proper corner from the ground. The cars are well loaded up and howling through the gears out of sight – and all done under a towering star-spangled banner. This is the classic American endurance race.

An unusual diversion during the WEC race is a musical set by IMSA star Tristan Nunez, with his band. This is virtually his first gig and he’s visibly nervous though obviously giddy to be performing. The music isn’t to my taste but fair play to Nunez for getting up there – it’s tough baring your soul on stage. among the interested observers are Justin Bell and Tommy Kendall. Bell is now a major TV pundit in the States and he hosts a show with Kendall, who was the name in Trans Am when I was growing up. It’s only more recently that I’ve researched his racing past and his freakish turn of speed in the Intrepid GTP car before a horror shunt left him with awful leg injuries.

From Nunez’s guitar riffs, we revert to our RV – and more specifically the roof. Word has reached us via social media that a rocket is due to be launched from Cape Canaveral and that it should be visible at Sebring.

I’d carefully studied the launch schedules ahead of our trip and any hope of seeing a live lift-off seemed forlorn. We’ve got lucky though and join a handful of others standing on the RV and watching in wonderment as a glowing orange orb spears across the sky, some 70 miles away to the east. What a moment – absolute bucket list stuff and accompanied by the ongoing sounds of racing engines pounding all around us.

Bringing us back to earth is the prospect of the run-in to the end of the motor race. We stock up on a few beers (still nicely chilled in the fridge) and settle in at turn seven where we enjoy the company of a variety of good characters. Much of the circuit is in significant darkness and finding one’s way around without tripping up is a challenge in itself. The big braking zone provides more rattling downchanges and glowing brakes, accompanied by that evocative hot smell of racing cars which have been hard at work for a long time. There remain lingering questions about whether the race really needs to finish this late, but the extended dark running does evoke the proper endurance vibes.

There’s a firework display during the closing period of the race which is rather exciting, especially as I was, shamefully, asleep for the legendary display at Daytona in 2018.

Rainfall hits about 20 minutes from the end and adds a welcome layer of jeopardy to proceedings. While the four-wheel drive Toyotas extend their advantage, the GTE Pro battle really gets spicy as the track quickly soaks.

BMW has had an unusually strong run today but an inspired closing stint from Gianmaria Bruni sees him snatch the win for Porsche from the leading M8. Nobody else has managed to stay on the lead lap though it’s seriously tight behind and another demonstration that BoP does appear to work in GTE Pro with Ford, Aston, Ferrari and one lone Corvette all within two laps after a frantic eight hours of competition.

With the rain falling heavily, the crowd quickly disperses except for one chap who has settled in for the night, his pals leaving the hapless soul as he appears to have made himself comfortable. I can only imagine his horror on awakening.

Having left this poor man sleeping alone in the rain, I find myself experiencing karmic horror during the night. I awaken sodden from the waist down – an unexpected scenario as am not a regular bed wetter. Fortunately, the source of my soaking is merely the rain, for we have left open the RV’s roof vent; a heavy shower during the warm night having liberally doused our tiny bed. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions from misery to relief via vexation and frustration.

The overnight watery disturbance has set the tone and we awaken to heavy skies and dense rainfall. This continues right through the morning and the spectator banks throng as much with umbrellas as with people while the clock ticks down to the start of the 2019 12 Hours.

The race kicks off behind the safety car and this continues for perhaps the first half hour of the race before the runners are released and left to their own devices. It’s really bloody wet and we’re left to curse our lack of a stiff brolly. Fortunately we do manage to locate a couple of cheap but highly weather-resistant ponchos and are soon steaming gently in those as the ground continues to dampen.

While the rain is a bit of a nuisance, I keep thinking of photos of that ridiculous Sebring in 1965 when the circuit looked more like the Everglades than an old airport. It can always be worse – although, remarkably, this is the first 12 Hours ever to start in the rain.

Acura and Mazda look to be the favourites in the top class in qualifying, but the form book is turned on its head by the unfavourable conditions. The Acuras plummet, scarcely able to keep ahead of the leading GTLM runners at one stage, while the rumbling Cadillacs ascent the order. It all looks to be happening on the corner exits – the compliant Cadillacs just grip and go while the Acuras wait an age to get on the power.

Various runners suffer little off-track excursions, but everyone is generally well-behaved and it’s a testament to the quality of the drivers in both the professional and amateur ranks (and perhaps the cars’ traction control systems) that the race runs mostly green.

The prototypes in particular look incredible in the wet condition, throttles wide open with huge plumes of spray in their wake. Smaller mists burst from each of the vents atop the wheelarches to add to the visual drama.

The crowds appear unfazed by the conditions, pushing around bizarre, booze-laden effigies of past racing cars – these guys are passionate about the heritage of their sport.

Eventually the rain stops and the clouds lift. It’s still warm but never truly sunny. Having access to the RV is welcome and we’re never more than a ten-minute walk from anywhere on the circuit so it’s easy to explore the facility but still drop back to rest and replenish. It’s certainly not the cheapest way to go endurance racing but I’d suggest it’s the most effective. One chap next to us has rented an MPV and is simply sleeping in the back. Whatever it takes, I suppose.

There’s a small display of Sebring past masters in the paddock that warrants investigation. From sublime BMW V12 LMR through to ridiculous Deltawing, there’s a cool cross-section of the event’s history here, including one the works BMW 3.0 CSLs of the sort which took outright laurels in 1975. There’s a little something for everyone in here.

The IMSA pit area is quite so open and easy as Daytona but it’s still significantly better than you’ll find at a typical European event these days. We bump into Tristan Nunez again – this time he’s deep in conversation with engineer (and endurance racing celebrity) Leena Gade and there isn’t a guitar in sight. Several other drivers are kicking around the back of the pits catching up on the latest strategic occurrences and keeping themselves nourished.

Meanwhile, time hasn’t stopped for the WEC runners and their own paddock is being dismantled. The cavernous Michelin tent is remarkable and houses more than 16,000 tyres for potential deployment over the weekend. It’s an incredible logistical exercise for the French company to supply 140 cars across four separate series. The smell is overpowering.

This side of the circuit really defines Sebring as you would know it from the media and the legend. The pit straight and the corners immediately either end of it are on the old concrete runways and they’re ferocious. Sunset Bend, turn 17, is the last of the lap and loops round 180deg but it’s still a properly quick corner. It’s hellishly bumpy and the cars look upset throughout, with only the invisible help of aerodynamic downforce apparently keeping them facing forwards. The GT runners are more compliant but that means more body movement and the AMG GTs kick out sparks as they compress over the worst of the bumps while fully loaded.

It looks absolutely punishing for the cars and must be grim for the drivers.

This continues through the flat-out Turn One. Lined on the inside by an unyielding concrete barrier, the drivers simply have to turn in on blind faith, for the apex and exit are out-of-sight. It’s super dusty out there and even the racing line looks slippery. Woe betide any driver who misses their turn-in point – the margins take no prisoners.

It’s an absolutely mighty corner and there’s plenty of good spectating if you’re happy to skip between the RVs and the usual crazy homebrew grandstands. The spectators’ wild accommodation creations are one of the most notable features of the weekend. The RVs were queuing for days before the gates opened to ensure they were ready to hit their favoured spots. While many of the trackside berths are predetermined years in advance, there are plenty of pitches right on the fence for those prepared to get there early enough. The more ingenious your rig, the better you’ll fit in. There can be few greater pleasures in motorsport than kicking back on your own grandstand right on the apex of Turn One at Sebring with a few close pals and a couple of cans of your preferred brew.

Sebring is certainly a circuit of contrast. Airfields have been tempting would-be racers for decades and the Sebring pioneers were enjoying the pleasures of runway running at the same time as their Austrian counterparts at Zeltweg and the Brits at Goodwood and Silverstone. While the Floridians still hammer down the original concrete in parts, the track also sprawls across a wider area onto purpose-built asphalt. There are moments where you might be at a traditional road course, surrounded by mature trees with the scent of oranges on the breeze. But turn around and there’s heavy plant and industry right on the site boundary – and look further on and there are aeroplanes on the ground. It’s a strange mix where it actually feels like the crowds and their funny makeshift town are what really give the place its beguiling personality, as much as the facility itself. Given the sheer anonymity of the region, this race is like Burning Man Festival – an oasis in the desert.

Still the race pounds on - and now the light is fading. Cadillacs are to the fore, with the #31 of Pipo Derani, Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr in control. Behind them, the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing entry – recent winner of the Daytona 24 Hours in the hands of one Fernando Alonso – has suffered a slow start to the race but hits hard as it nears its conclusion.

A full course yellow right towards the end of the race means a seven-minute dash to the flag, with the lead runners all nose-to-tail. Jordan Taylor, part of the Daytona winning squad, gives the #10 its fastest lap of the race on the final tour but it’s not enough to knock Nasr off his stride; the Brazilian making amends for a missed opportunity at the sodden Daytona season opener. The final margin of victory is one second – the closest finish in the race’s history. The #5 Cadillac completes the podium, just three further seconds in arrears.

Staggeringly, Acura manages to sneak home in fourth; Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and Alexander Rossi having dropped off the lead lap while the track was at its worst. The Penske runners simply don’t have enough sheer speed in their pockets when it matters, and they fall away quickly during the final dash to the flag.

GTLM is just as fiercely competitive. The four manufacturers each fill the top four positions, with the Porsche of Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Fred Makowicki ahead at the end. The two works RSRs are sporting Brumos tribute liveries for the event – a nice break from the corporate white, black and red of the WEC entrants. The 911s, much like the Acuras in DPi, looked woeful during the first phase of the race; apparently suffering with the Michelin wet tyres. Once it dried, though, they ascended the order on absolute pace, with Tandy in particular taking no prisoners as he rose to lead for the final portion of the race.

The final laps are held in total darkness and once more we are able to savour the glowing brake discs and bursts of flame as the machines pound out the last miles of a gruelling event. There’s something properly special about long-distance races – the changes in weather and light; the cumulative suffering of the cars, drivers and team members. To win a modern endurance race requires almost total perfection and to achieve that through adversity and the ever-changing environment is no easier now than it was 70 years ago.

This is one of the best spectator events in the world: an old school circuit and old school experience. It’s a fine way to sign off on a holiday which has rather surprised me. I am now a Floridaphile and keep looking for excuses to head back for more beach time and more racing. Thankfully, there’s still plenty of the state to explore – and a few race tracks too.