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Jeremy Shaw: The sights and sounds of Sebring

A soundtrack of sports cars stirs the mind like no other
Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The sights, the sounds and even the smells that abound at a major auto race provide much of the allure for seasoned aficionados and inquisitive newcomers alike. With the passage of time I have forgotten the intimate details of the earliest race meetings I attended as a teenager in the late 1960s, but I can readily recall some of the sensations – the spectacle, the atmosphere and the thrill of watching the competition unfold before my eyes. I was hooked immediately, mesmerized by the colorful cars, the huge, throbbing crowds and the piercing – and varied – sounds of engines straining at the limit.

It is for precisely those reasons I am so much looking forward to traveling to Sebring, Fla., for the opening round of the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patr¢n.

When I was first introduced to the sport, as now, Formula One represented its pinnacle. The throaty roar of the numerically dominant Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 was a joy to behold in those days, but it had plenty of rivals. Unlike in today’s largely homogenized world – especially in F1 which mandates the use of V8 configurations – there was a veritable cacophony provided by the wailing Matra and BRM V12s, the unmistakable Ferrari flat-12s and even such technical marvels as the whooshing Pratt & Whitney gas turbine which Colin Chapman and his team shoe-horned into their Lotus 56B for a few outings in 1971.

It was a similar story at the premier sports car races, which featured a wide variety of cars and engine configurations. One could stand at trackside with eyes closed and still have a pretty good notion of which cars were speeding past.

The Formula One cars of today still sound sensational – arguably even more so with their shrill notes and 18,000-plus RPMs, a level unimaginable 40 years ago – but I challenge anyone to distinguish a Mercedes from a Renault from a Ferrari. To my ears at least, they all sound alike. The same goes for many forms of the sport, including NASCAR and IndyCar; but emphatically not in the ALMS.

If it’s true that variety is the spice of life, then sports car racing is particularly alive and well, and I would encourage anyone to attend this week’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida. The old airfield road course in central Florida most assuredly lacks many of the creature comforts of more modern facilities, but therein lies much of its charm. The amenities have been substantially improved in recent years yet Sebring has retained the ramshackle character that has made it a massively popular venue for race fans since the early 1950s. Visit the infield "Green Park" if you hanker after (or dare to partake of) the Spring Break fever that will ensure some truly memorable sights and sounds.

For more traditional auto racing entertainment and excitement, take note of the plethora of disparate sounds as the cars speed by. A bumper entry of 56 cars has been received for the 59th running of this historic event, which doubles as the opening round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. It is the largest field since 2003, and both the quality and the variety are top-notch.

In the premium LMP classes, marvel at the sophistication of the turbocharged diesel-powered cars from European powerhouses Audi and Peugeot. The engines have been downsized this year, per new regulations as sports car racing trends toward more environmentally friendly and efficient technologies, but they still produce plenty of horsepower. Audi’s V10 and Peugeot’s V12 seemed very evenly matched last year, and once again they are pursuing slightly different solutions for 2011 while maintaining their turbo-diesel ideology. The German juggernaut has chosen a 3.7-liter V6 turbo configuration - although for Sebring has chosen to run a restricted version of its 2010 Le Mans-winning V10 turbo - while its French rival has plumped for a 3.7-liter V8 turbo which will be making its eagerly anticipated world debut this week, while the privateer ORECA Team Matmut organization will persevere with a restricted version of the V12 which proved so potent last year.

There are myriad other E10-powered configurations on offer, too. The Rebellion team will debut a new 3.4-liter Toyota V8 in its trusty Lola chassis; Oak Racing will field a pair of 3.4-liter Judd V8-powered Pescarolos. Two ALMS teams from last year will step up from the smaller, less sophisticated LMP2 class –the stalwart Dyson Racing squad with its distinctive Lola coupe still powered by a 2-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder Mazda MZR, while Greg Pickett’s Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing team has opted for an updated Lola-Aston Martin V12 that is entered under the ACO’s “grandfather” clause which seeks to permit older cars in the interests of cost-effectiveness. The British six-liter V12 will be burdened by a significantly smaller air inlet restrictor, thereby trimming horsepower to keep it in line with the newer breed of cars, but it still sounds sublime.

The latest LMP2 regulations demand production-based engines, which presently include a 2.8-liter twin-turbocharged V6 from Honda, a 4.5-liter V8 from Nissan and a 3.6-liter Judd V8, all of which should offer some intriguing aural distinctions.

Then there are the GT classes, which for many fans evoke some of the strongest allegiances. The rivalry between Ferrari and Porsche has raged since the 1950s and shows no signs of abating as the familiar flat-6-cylinder Porsches take on the latest breed of V8-powered Ferrari F458 Italias. Add in the glorious-sounding BMW M3 GT V8s, the throaty Corvettes and Jaguar XKRs, the gorgeous V8-powered Ford GT, the distinctive Panoz Abruzzi "Spirit of Le Mans" and the exotic V10-powered Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4, and you have all the ingredients for an acoustic phenomenon. I fully expect it to provide yet another reminder of why I fell in love with this sport in the first place.

See you there!

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