By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s no secret that Sebring International Raceway is a challenging place to race.
The bumps. The harsh transitions between concrete and asphalt, with widely varying levels of grip. The intense Florida heat, relentless humidity and inevitable pop-up showers. The larger-than-normal field.
Now throw darkness into the mix, and it all adds up to the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the second round of the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
With 17 corners strewn over 3.74 less-than-smooth miles, Sebring is a tough track to tame in the daylight. It only gets more difficult after sundown, yet for some drivers, the three-or-so hours from twilight into darkness that conclude the Twelve Hours are the most enjoyable part.
Temperatures drop. Grip levels and intensity rise.
“I love the whole racetrack at night,” said Antonio Garcia, a four-time Sebring winner for Corvette Racing who will drive the No. 3 Corvette C8.R GTD in the GTD PRO class in this year’s race along with Jordan Taylor and Tommy Milner. “When it’s full dark and you know it’s coming to the end of the race, the grip is usually back in the car. That’s the most joyful time of the race.
“No matter how tired you are, if you are in contention for the win, then that’s when the whole magic of Sebring comes,” he smiled. “That’s what we all remember … those last stints at Sebring and when you are in contention or winning the race.”
For Garcia, the nighttime challenge starts at dusk – especially if the race is staged on a sunny day. Anyone who has traveled due west into a blinding sunset on the highway knows that even the best polarized sunglasses don’t completely eliminate the kind of glare drivers encounter in Turns 5, 7 and 17 at Sebring.
“With a full bright sky, you know it’s going to be really, really tough,” Garcia said. “You need to pick the right visor and everything needs to be perfect. I’ve been in every single condition around there, but for sure in the sunset – if it’s full bright – it’s tricky. That’s a time where you don’t want to be fighting too much with somebody, and traffic gets very, very tricky in those conditions because someone may not see you. It’s only 20-25 minutes, but it’s very, very tricky.”
While Garcia concentrates on choosing an appropriate tint for his helmet visor, Mercedes-AMG racer Jules Gounon goes one step further and wears vision-enhancing glasses similar to those used at night by rally drivers and ice racers.
“I think all of us have our small tricks,” remarked Gounon, who earned his first career WeatherTech Championship victory with a GTD PRO class win in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona. “I always try to keep my dark visor down during the whole pit stop because in the pit lane there is a lot of light and sometimes it can get blurry. On top of that, I have some special glasses that help with the contrast during night racing.
“Then it’s all about experience, and it’s tough even if you know the place by heart,” he added. “Driving in the dark on a perfect track like Paul Ricard or a Formula 1 track is one thing, but driving at Sebring with the bumps in the dark is really something crazy.”
Ben Keating won the Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class at Sebring in 2021 on his way to the season-long class championship and repeated the Sebring victory last year. For this year’s SuperSebring weekend, Keating is back in the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA LMP2 07, and he is also entered in a GTE Am class Corvette in the FIA World Endurance Championship’s 1000 Miles of Sebring that takes place Friday, a day ahead of the Twelve Hours.
The Texas-based driver pays close attention to the way grip levels vary at Sebring between the concrete and asphalt portions of the track, and how much overall traction improves in the cooler conditions after nightfall.
“I think it’s wise to do a lot of setup work and a lot of running night practice,” said Keating, a three-time Sebring class winner. “You have to make sure you have a car that is set up to do well when the sun goes down because the track changes a lot more than you might think.”
Keating maintains that Sebring is no darker than other racetracks in nighttime conditions, but he’s in the minority. One dissenting opinion comes from his Corvette Racing WEC teammate Nicky Catsburg, who shared the winning GTD PRO Corvette in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with Garcia and Jordan Taylor in 2022.
“Sebring is one of the more difficult ones,” Catsburg noted. “Turns 10 through Turn 14 get really, really dark and there’s one part where you really struggle to see how close to the outside of the track you are. We have great lights on the car but it’s not nearly enough to really see what’s going on. Then you have a lot of bright headlights in your rearview mirrors constantly flashing, which makes it very, very hard to see where you’re going.
“If I had to compare it, the (Nurburgring) Nordschleife is very dark but somehow not as dark as Sebring, which is hard to imagine!” Catsburg continued. “The same goes for Le Mans. I always find that relatively easy in the dark. Spa-Francorchamps is more difficult again.
“I don’t know really why this is, but some tracks are just more difficult in the dark than others,” he concluded. “I must say that doing it more often does help you get better at it and to remain more calm.”