"You want to know why I came back?" Elvis asked me, in person, early in the evening of March 19. "It's because the drugs are better here than they are in hell!"
Elvis would know. He was flying fast and low on something not prescribed by a physician. And he was directing traffic.
Only at the 12 Hours of Sebring, a world-class party held by Elvis and 124,999 of his friends, which coincidently takes place at the exact same time as one of the world's great sports car races. In the pantheon of sports car races there is Le Mans, Sebring and everything else. Sebring, though, only comes second in the way that Frazier did to Ali.
The party, on the other hand, is second to none. It is one of those somebody-spiked-my-beer-with-a-horse-tranquilizer, "Alice in Wonderland" overload trips. It is absolute, raging, for-the-love-of-God anarchy. It is people with three stories of scaffolding welded on the back of a denuded '75 Ford pickup chassis, with drunk people on each floor, driving at 35 mph. It is 10 guys wandering around for three days in head-to-toe cow costumes with working udders. It is a place where police won't take their own squad cars for fear of vandalism. It is spring-breaking coeds flashing their boobs, portable barbecue smokers the size of mother-in-law suites, recreational use of explosives and 4-by-4s towing 13 rows of bleachers. In other words, it is the best of Florida.
The party and the race have been going on a long time in Sebring, a fact that is explained clearly at the city line. Sebring's welcome sign reads, "Sebring, Florida -- HOME OF THE 12 HOURS of SEBRING INTERNATIONAL SPORTS CAR RACE and Downtown Historic Area." They have their priorities straight.
The race has happened 52 times, while the party has happened 53 times. (The race was canceled in 1973 due to the oil crisis, but several thousand people showed up for the party anyway, confirming what everyone who's ever been already knows; this is a big-ass party surrounded by a nifty car race that makes for interesting viewing during periods of consciousness.)
The professionally weird
To get in on the party you have to get to the track by Friday. Some folks actually arrive the previous weekend and they're wound pretty tight by Friday night. The race happens Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and by that time even the die-hards -- the folks who bring their own D-cup, anatomically correct, water-squirting plastic breasts, for example -- are running on empty.
The other notable feature at the front gate was the small "Firearms Prohibited" sign. Suffice it to say that a high proportion of the spectators were probably insured by companies whose middle name was "&," and you get the idea that sign was as disregarded as a "drug-free work place" posting at a construction site.
The track's infield is divided into spectator parking, family camping and Green Park. The official track map, which you get after paying admission, illustrates to parents with kids in tow what a really poor choice they've made for family-friendly fun, in case they happened to miss all the race fans parading about with inflatable sex dolls. The entire family camping is suitable for a few family-sized tents, in the infield of a track that's 3.7 miles around.
Donning my intrepid reporter hat, I went looking for the family camping area, because I had to know what members of said families were thinking coming here. Asking around proved of little value. "Family camping?" replied one guy grilling what looked to be a recently feral animal. "That's got to be a joke. Like that gun sign." I made the mistake of asking a man in a cow outfit who mocked me with a churlish "mooooooooo!" So ended my search for the family camping area.
As for the rest of the infield, the infamous Green Park is where the professionally weird go for company. There, in years past, spectators have turned to burning cars for entertainment value (or improved lighting). Green Park is where people erect elaborate, multi-level viewing platforms with concrete foundations, stairs and up-to-code electrical service, powered by generators that likely went missing from the Department of Defense. More often than not, the platforms sported 18-inch satellite dishes hooked up to TV sets tuned to stations far more racy than racing. We pitched camp immediately.
While waiting for evening, we decided to take advantage of the access afforded by our press passes (working journalists here!) and check out some of the early races from pit lane. We didn't really need to be in pit lane, but it's hard to resist being envied by every fence-hanger in the paddock.
Those not allowed in the hot pits -- as trackside pit lane is called -- think the name derives from the juxtaposition of running engines and racing fuel. They are wrong. The hot pits are hot because only breathtakingly beautiful women are found there: Hawaiian Tropic Girls (A team and B team), Pirelli Girls, etc. My favorite was a startling, seven-foot Asian bombshell who relegated whatever she was promoting to insignificance. Professional drivers know these ladies as Friends of Racing.
Cars racing, or something
The weekend begins with the Star Mazda formula car series, which nobody came to watch, but they put on a good opening act. With the 240-horsepower Mazda RX-8 engine in a car that weighs 1,100 pounds, these cars accelerate like a John Daly tee shot.
Next up was the Skip Barber Formula Dodge series. While the cars were slower, the race featured Michael Andretti's son Marco in the field, as well as 13-year-old phenom John Edwards. Edwards won his first professional car race in December, at the age of 12. In the pouring rain. By 26 seconds. Mr. Guinness was subsequently notified.
As he circled Sebring I could see how slight Edwards was, even sitting on what appeared to be the Miami phone book.
After the race it was time for some track food. The sheer number of hot dog stands made me think that Home Depots across Florida were doing without outside food vendors this weekend. I settled for a $6 hamburger purchased from a guy wearing a "Possum: The Other White Meat" T-shirt. Of course I needed a beverage to go with my burger, so the next stop was the beer wagon, where the local VFW was selling $3 cups that could subsequently be used to pot a large plant: the bargain of the weekend.
A little after 10 p.m. we managed to almost get run over by an Audi Quattro wagon storming up the road. Seeing the car park about 50 yards ahead and being more than a little annoyed at almost becoming the fifth ring on an Audi hood ornament, I felt a discussion was in order.
Approaching the Audi, I saw a dark-clad driver get out. Just as I opened my mouth to begin a one-sided discourse, I noticed his sidearm. I was frozen, slightly off-balance, with my mouth wide open and finger in pointing position as I realized I was about to yell at a cop. He turned to look at me, probably thinking I was a mime. It would hardly have been the strangest thing he'd seen that evening. With a good-natured look, he turned toward a rapidly approaching ambulance. We stood there watching the EMTs work over a person at a nearby camp who was unconscious and bleeding, looking like the victim of an industrial accident. A cop explained that this gentleman, now in neck brace and backboard, had been in a fight.
"With what ?" I asked incredulously.
"Damned if I know," the officer said matter-of-factly, "but he lost."
I asked a few more questions, but the cop wasn't in the mood to answer them. He smiled and just laughed, saying only that he was just trying to get through the night.
I did learn that the Highlands County Sheriff office had upgraded their vehicles since the last time I was here more than 10 years ago. At some point they had made the decision not to use their squad cars for Sebring track duty. In 1993 they rented white Chevy Cavaliers and stuck magnetic "police" signs on the door. The undercover cars -- the same Cavaliers without the magnetic signs -- surprised quite a few people that year, including one irate perp cops collared on the hood of my car.
The downside that year was that in the absence of visible police presence the natives were completely unrestrained. One camper, I recall, blasted the side of a cop Cavalier with a potato gun. The cops inside jumped out, thinking from the report and the impact that they were taking fire.
The cop by the ambulance politely referred me to a gentleman sitting on a four-wheel ATV in the middle of all the commotion. The man was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a red plaid flannel shirt over it and a worn Florida Gators baseball hat. He looked like someone from the Agriculture Network's central casting, and I was feeling fairly perplexed. Of course, I'd had $9 worth of VFW beer.
"OK," I said looking back to the officer. "But who is that?"
"The sheriff, of course." He looked at me as if I had failed to recognize Dubya himself.
"Of what?" I asked with enough sincerity not to get my ass kicked.
"The guy on the ATV, with the plaid shirt, is your sheriff?"
"Uh-huh." The officer replied, with a slight smile.
I walked through the crowd of drunks to introduce myself. He told me his name was Howard Godwin, sheriff of Highlands County. "You've got to be shitting me," I thought to myself.
Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary likely would have arrived in a helicopter, and he'd probably have a SWAT-team sniper pick off a few of the bigger troublemakers, then club the rest into submission. Sheriff Godwin had a different approach.
"Sheriff, I notice you seem to have struck a pretty good balance between keeping things under control and being too heavy-handed," I said.
"Well, I've found over the years that you get better results from people if you don't get overly confrontational and make enemies with them. If you're nice, most times they'll listen to you. Plus, there aren't really enough of us to be heavy-handed," he said, surveying his troops. "Don't want to say that too loud," he added with a slight grin.
I was beginning to like this guy.
"I notice your deputies are all driving Audi wagons instead of squad cars. Are they rented?" I asked.
"The Audis are what they call 'manufacturer vehicles'. See, I just didn't think it was fair to expose the taxpayers' vehicles to this kind of risk, so we got these Audis provided by the track."
The Audis, which he pronounced "O-dees," were a step up from the Cavaliers of years past, yet they adhered to the primary rule: When policing Sebring, use someone else's car.
While we were talking, a beautiful teenage girl in a cowboy hat walked towards us from a group of rowdy teens. "Hey Daddy!" she said, giving Godwin a hug.
"Y'see," Sheriff Godwin continued, after introducing his daughter, "folks don't necessarily like us on Friday or Saturday, but come Sunday when they're all safe and on their way home, they love us. We get thank-yous and all kinds of stuff as they're leaving. So that's what we're here to do -- get everyone to Sunday."
We walked back through the near-complete insanity to the relative safety of our tent. We had some late-arriving neighbors.
"Dude, how could you forget the tent poles? What the fuck are we gonna use now, MacGyver?" one asked the other.
"Listen, you corndog-smuggling fucker," the other cheerfully replied.
With that I went to sleep trying to imagine what exactly constitutes a corndog smuggler.
Start your engines
We woke to the music of high-performance motors being flogged within an inch of their life, and headed for the pits. To get to the pits for the start of the race we had to meander back through Green Park, past a camper with plastic pink flamingos and a working 5-foot concrete water fountain in the front yard, past a little hole in the ground marked "Saddam's former palatial estate" and right by the adult store. Adult store?
I spent all of my teenage years and many of my adult ones hanging out at racetracks, and I've seen track vendors selling some odd stuff -- colon-cleaning drinks, stimulants promising to keep truckers awake for 12 hours, recently invented religions, etc. But I had never seen a trackside adult store. No wonder every third person in the infield had an inflate-a-date.
I didn't get any further than the corner of the adult store tent when a small sign marking an adjacent grassy area caught my eye: "Family camping," it read.
The start of the race is all pomp and circumstance, with Friends of Racing bearing the flag of the driver's country of origin, or maybe the car's country of origin. Each was getting photographed more than all the drivers combined.
There are four different classes of cars that race in the 12 Hours of Sebring: purpose-built racers looking for all the world like Batmobiles with smaller engines; Corvettes/Dodge Vipers, and Porsche 911s and the cars that will lose to them.
The Batmobiles, aka LeMans Prototype 1 or LMP1 category cars, look like something out of Blade Runner with picnic-table-sized wings on the back. The fastest ones are built by Audi, and so the drama this year isn't so much what kind of car will win, but which Audi. At the other end of the field is the GT class dominated by the Porsche 911, one of the few street cars that can be turned into a decent race car. In this class, if you don't have a 911, you're going to have a very long day.
In an endurance race, such as Sebring, cars are driven by teams of three or four drivers who take shifts throughout the race. Unlike NASCAR, drivers of all skill levels are on the track at once. At the sharp end of the field you have highly paid professional gunslingers driving very fast cars, and the other end you have people with more money than talent. This creates what is called a "speed differential" or a "talent gap," which on the track often leads to a situation called a "shunt," which is what happens when a driver runs out of road and talent at the same time.
After the starting ceremony we receded to the hot pits for the actual start of the race, only to be told that we couldn't be in the hot pits anymore because we weren't wearing fire suits. Making journalists wear fire suits in the hot pits is a new rule this year, and may have been enacted as late as that morning. A fire suit is as necessary for a journalist as a Pope hat, and I didn't have either.
But comply I did. Before long I located one for $60, a steal, as custom suits go for up to $1,000. My cheap suit was modeled after a Farmer John outfit. It was ugly in an agrarian way, and may in fact have been designed to protect farmers from cow-fueled methane explosions or something.
Nonetheless, there I was in the hot pits rubbing elbows with folks like Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan, Formula One drivers Allan McNish and Justin Wilson, and Champ Car driver "Mad" Max Papis.
Rockets' red glare
The clock ticked away, the cars circled the course and when 10:30 p.m. arrived, everyone from Danny Sullivan to the 10 guys in cow costumes seemed to be grateful for the finish. For the record, Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx, with drivers Frank Biela and Allan McNish, won the race.
As the checkered flag fell, fans cheered, drivers hugged and Green Park was rocked by violent explosions that nobody paid any attention to. At that moment Green Park was probably the only place in America where a terrorist attack could go completely unnoticed.
While the winners mounted the victory podium and sprayed champagne, magnificent fireworks lit up the sky. As we were leaving the track I congratulated an official, and noted that the fireworks had really capped off the moment.
"Yeah, that was something, wasn't it?" he agreed.
"Do you do that every year?" I asked, my question being met with a blank look.
"Son, the track doesn't hire them people. Those came out of Green Park."
Of course they did.