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Chapter 11 - The Race

Altvater Library > Sebring Air Terminal

The Race

         There is that delightful story of the description of an elephant by the three blind men who had approached the animal from different angles.  The man who felt the trunk said it was a tree; the one confronted by the side was certain it was a rough wall, while the third man grasping the tail was just as sure it was a rope.  This tale illustrates the reasonableness of differences in points of view in the “recollections of events.”

         Mr. Alec Ulmann has published a very informative book which he titled “The Sebring Story” (1) which, from his angle of approach, is no doubt, entirely accurate but there are other angles which would have to be considered in order to give a more complete Sebring story.  One of these angles dealt with the initial efforts to establish the race and the furnishing and conditioning of the physical property on which the race was run.  There were times when, from this angle, prospects of running the race appeared like a rough blank wall.

         Mr. Ulmann opens his narrative with events which took place in 1950 which was the date of the first running.  He tells of the groundwork and the infighting that occurred in the various racing circles but he only touched lightly on the situation in Sebring in preparation for all the early events, and his text indicates that, at that time, he had as little interest or knowledge of local conditions as the local people had of the racing setup.

         Approximately two years before the first race, two men who introduced themselves as Sam Collier and Phil Stiles, set their airplane down on the Air Terminal runway and asked for the manager.  To their abrupt question as to whether the airport streets and runways could be made available for sports car racing, the manager (Allen Altvater) replied that a decision on this subject would have to be made by the City Council but, if they would outline their plans, he would gladly present them to the Council.

         During a trip by auto over all the paved surfaces of streets, ramps and runways, they outlined their thinking which apparently had not reached any planning phase but was more in the nature of something they would like to get organized but, for the purposes of getting permission to use the field, they proposed the following general ideas: a group of sports car owners (construed to include men of substantial means) wanted to promote races among themselves, by invitation only, not for money or prizes but merely for friendly competition.  (In a jocular manner, one man mentioned the name of a wealthy person who is internationally known and who was known to boast about his cars.  When the other man stated that this personage would accept an invitation but not show on race day, the opinion was voiced that if the famous person could be persuaded to post a $10 entry fee, he would race just to protect his investment.

         The original proposal would exclude any spectators but it was suggested that some steps would have to be taken to prevent people or animals from inadvertently straying onto the course because even if the affair was strictly private, there would be sufficient numbers of curious people to create a hazardous condition.  To offset the costs of protection, the agreement was reached that, if a group could be found that would be responsible for policing the course, a gate fee could be charged but it was stipulated that those interested in the race wanted no part in the gate arrangements or protection measures but the local group would have no voice in the rules or the running of the race.

         The format of this proposition was given to the Sebring City Council and its members indicated their approval.  No immediate or definite action was taken to firm up the plans or to set up an organization but apparently Mr. Collier and Mr. Stiles talked to others including Mr. Ulmann and promoted quite a little interest.

         In the meantime, the prospects were discussed around Sebring and it was agreed that the only organization with enough suitable personnel to handle a project of this nature would be the Sebring Firemen.  They evidenced a strong interest and a willingness to sponsor the undertaking and the Chamber of Commerce offered its cooperation.  In the fall of 1950, Mr. Stiles and Mr. George Huntoon returned to Sebring with some firm plans and the following memorandum from the airport management was sent to the City Council:

To the members of the City Council:

       No doubt you will be asked in the near future for approval of an agreement to operate a road race on the Air Terminal on 31 December of this year, to be sponsored by Sebring Firemen, Inc.  This is the same activity to which you gave your consent approximately two years ago and is under the same management as that which has been operated for the past three years at Watkins Glen, New York, in the summertime.

       It is our understanding that through the cooperation of Mr. C. D. Richardson of the American Industrial Sales Corporation, the sponsors will have adequate financing and man power to do all the work needed to actually run the race and I presume that some arrangements will be made to provide physical improvements that are needed to prepare for such an event.  As you know, the finances of the Terminal will not permit any extensive expenditures at this particular time although we are prepared to do a certain amount of work which would be normally done at some time or other such as clearing the runways of weeds and the minor amount of repairs to streets.  However, should work be necessary beyond which we would normally expect to do, we would not have the money for that purpose in our funds and arrangements would have to be made in some other manner.  For the work which we would expect to do we would also have to ask for the use of our road repair equipment.

          We would like to cooperate heartily with the Sebring Firemen in this venture as we have always believed that it would be of incalculable value to the town as a whole, not only from the point of view of furnishing much needed tourist entertainment but it would bring a great deal of money into the town to the hotels, restaurants, filling stations and garages at a time when they are not overcrowded.
         It is also our understanding that such a race would give wide spread national publicity to the community from several different angles and it was planned for a date when many would be enroute to Miami for the New Year’s game and would probably stop overnight here for this event.  We se only a few disadvantages.

          No doubt the general chairman of the event, Mr. Forest Howard, will approach the Council at an early date seeking permission to enter into a contract with the management and we would strongly recommend that such a contract be authorized subject to a provision to be made to hold the city harmless in the event of loss or accident.

         For several reasons, the City Administration wanted to eschew any involvement in the race but did give the Firemen permission to use the property.  And the Firemen, to a man, threw their energy into the project.  They learned many valuable lessons.  The first year’s event was comparatively simple to handle as spectators were relatively few in number but even so, every member of the Firemen was needed to sell tickets, patrol the sidelines of the course and flag the corners.  The patrolling was done by dozens of men in Jeeps and on horseback.  For flagmen at each of the turns, the older and less active members were supplemented by personnel from the Chamber of Commerce.

         Even though all operations were handled by strictly volunteer, non-paid people, the expenses exceeded the income by more than $2,000 and the differential in the second race was even greater.  As promised, Mr. Richardson absorbed a large part of these losses for which the Firemen voted him an honorary membership and he had his name on the program as an official.

         Anyone making an estimate of the attendance at the first events would have been justified in thinking that the Firemen were making huge profits instead of sustaining a substantial loss.  In making his report of receipts, Floyd Schumacher, the treasurer, stated that there were 2,800 paid admissions and an equal number of passes.  The contestants and officials were the only ones authorized to issue passes for their pit crews and functionaries.  How the racing fraternity fared financially is not known.

         As Claude Richardson could not be expected to continue indefinitely as an “angel” for expenses, and as the funds of the Firemen were limited, a day of decision was reached.  The work involved was arduous for at least a week before each event and race day was thoroughly exhausting - all in a losing financial battle so, a vote was taken by the Firemen to continue or discontinue sponsoring the race.  A negative vote would have meant the end of the program because it was generally conceded around town that if the Firemen couldn’t make it go, no group could and, as the airport had sustained substantial losses and damage, there was slight chance that the government would look with favor on a similar operation in which the Firemen were not involved.

         The motion to “try it one more year” carried by the slenderest margin.

         One of the factors that influenced the negative votes of the dissidents was the perfectly miserable weather that followed the downpour described by Mr. Ulmann as the cause of delay of the start of the second race.  A typical “cold front” moved in after the rain.

         It was a balmy morning when the Firemen met at the airport before dawn to “sweep the field” of spectators who had come out earlier or the night before and who were hiding under warehouses or in the tall grass to avoid payment of the $1.00 admission.  So they were totally unprepared with warm clothes when the cold moved in.  As there were not enough Firemen to relieve those on patrol and flagmen on the curves, these men could not leave their posts so, by the midnight end of the race, they had nothing but unpleasant impressions.

         At that hour, it would have been impossible to find a single vote in favor of a third race!

This article appeared in the Sebring Historical Society,
Bulletin No.18,  January 1975

(1)  “The Sebring Story” by Alec Ulmann; Chilton Book Company, 1969.

From the minutes of the Sebring Firemen, Inc.,
meeting of November 3, 1950

         Chief Howard reported on Auto Races we hope will be held at Hendricks Field under the sponsorship of the Department.  After a lot of discussion a motion was made by Fred Baguley and seconded by Ray Graddy that a committee be appointed to work out the necessary details pertaining to putting on the races.  Motion carried.

         F. Howard, Ford Heacock, Bill Mackey, Bob Butts, C. E. Weaver, A. C. Altvater and Jim Fulton were appointed by the president to do all the work in connection with putting on the race.  The committee was given a unanimous vote of confidence.

From Trivia, October 1985

1 December 1950

The Race Committee met at Mr. Richardson’s office with the Race Program Chairman, Phillip Stiles, Monday night November 27, 1950.  

The following suggestions for the successful sponsoring of the race were offered to the Committee:

1.    The Committee is asked to furnish 15 flagmen over 25 years of age, each equipped with a yellow flag and a green flag 20” x 20”.  Also signal lights for night.

2.    One First Aid tent, 3 ambulances and 2 tow trucks.

3.    Two 4’ x 4’ signs.  One painted yellow and lettered - No Passing and one painted white saying pass.  Two lines painted across course at signs with corresponding colors.  Also 9 turn signs same dimension.  All signs painted with Scotchlight.

4.    Lights installed over pit area and start and finish line.

5.    22 areas on the course banked with hay bales two high and 4’ apart.

6.    Empty oil drums marking course on straight-aways. Drums to be painted yellow, spaced 100 ft. apart.  Approximately 212 drums needed.

7.    Ham operators.  (furnished by A.I.S.)

8.    Gasoline and oil furnished the drivers free.  It was suggested that an oil company be contacted to furnish this fuel and in return be allowed a full page ad in the program, a banner across the start finish line and the placing of their truck with a sign in a conspicuous place for refueling the cars.

9.    Also suggested that Champion spark plug distributor be contacted to furnish spark plugs.

10.   Between 4- and 50 pit benches must be furnished.  Benches to be 2 1/2’ high, 2 ½’ wide and 8’ long.

11.   The following tickets should be printed, $1.00 General admission.  25 cents students, $5.00 box seats, reserve seats at pit area $2.00. Other reserve seats $1.00.  All tickets should be printed with stubs.

12.   A bridge is recommended to span the course.

13.   A rope or cable barrier should be put around the course.

14.   About 50 people should be lined up for selling programs.

15.   Trophies should be furnished for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places in the six classes represented.

16.   Arm bands should be furnished for the drivers, pit workers, officials and police.

17.   Approximately 50 police are required.  All dogs loose on the field must be shot.  Four of the police to be mounted on horses.

18.   Salute flares are desired to be shot at intervals before the race.

19.   State Road Department should be contacted for painting stripes in center of course.                   

                                                         Respectfully submitted,
                                                         Forrest Howard

From the Sebring Historical Society archives -

The above report is a record of a meting that was held just a month before the running of the first sports car race at the Sebring Air Terminal.  The purpose of the meeting was to make plans for the event which took place on the 31st of December 1950.  Those who were a part of the first series of races will enjoy pleasant memories generated by the report of Forrest Howard who was cochairman (with Ford Heacock) of the Sebring Firemen’s Race Committee.

It will be noted that Phil Stiles was acting as chairman of the Race Program Committee.  The statement that the (Firemen’s) Race Committee met with the Race Program Committee might be somewhat confusing but it is easily explained.  The Race Program Committee had the responsibility of conducting the race, while the Firemen had no authority in that area but were responsible for the track, the physical facilities and spectator control.

The recommendations by Mr. Stiles were made in the nature of suggestions.  He was deeply involved in the nationwide Sports Car Club and racing activities and was well qualified to organize a race program.  On the other hand, the Sebring Firemen had no experience but this shortcoming was offset by a deep dedication to “get the show on the road” no matter what the demands on their time and effort.

In spite of the fact that the Firemen were “gung-ho” to put on a great and safe race, they had no treasury balance with which to set up a racing operation but they did have excellent credit and they used it to the limit.  They had to use all available credit to comply with suggestions one through five.

Suggestion number six is still a matter of wonder to all except Woodrow Harshman.  He was given the responsibility of rounding up several hundred barrels and he delivered.  The wonder is, where did he get them?  

Number seven covered only ham radios.  For the first several years, Bill Dutton headed the subcommittee that strung miles and miles of wires connecting flag posts by telephone.  Then, they had to retrieve the tangled mess after all the excitement was over.  A stupendous task!

To implement suggestion number eight, Col. Richardson exercised all his business clout to pressure the Pure Oil distributor (Green of Avon Park) to furnish fuel without cost.

American Industrial Sales Corp. (Mr. Richardson was its president) furnished a large number of attractive and suitable folding tables to serve as the suggested pit benches.  As they were easily merged with racing equipment, most of them failed to be found after the race.  This was also the fate of the airport’s fire extinguishers and even other articles of lesser value except as mementos.

Floyd Schumacher, in making his report of the ticket sales, after the race, remarked that 2,800 tickets had been sold while an equal number of passes had been issued.  There were practically no sales of reserved seats or “box seats.”  In all, the receipts were scarcely half of the expenditures.  The Firemen’s tally of the losses for each of the first two years was about $2,000.

While it is possible that 2,800 passes might be a slight exaggeration, it is true that a great number were justified.  Each contestant would have drivers, pit crews and their families and, as there were more that fifty entries, (each with a compliment of at least 10) they would account for no less than 500.  Then there were flagmen, officials, guards, concession operators, program vendors, gate attendants, news men, as well as people who lived on or worked on the airport.  So, the estimate was not too far overstated.

During the race, Sebring Firemen on horseback and in jeeps continuously patrolled the shoulders of the course to control spectators.  No animals were reported on the property.  This phase of the program was organized by “Pink” McAdams.

From the Webpage entitled… “Forgotten History: The First Sebring Race – 12/31/1950”

           “On New year’s Eve, 1950, this sleepy Florida town became the site of America’s revived interest in long-distance endurance racing when airport runways at Hendricks Field, just outside Sebring, were pressed into service for top-speed competition.

         “Alec Ulmann, an aeronautical engineer, had been looking for storage sites for war-surplus aircraft to be converted to civilian use or to be rebuilt for the air forces of smaller nations.  While visiting Hendricks Field, Ulmann, an auto-racing enthusiast, saw in the mile-long runways the possibilities of a smaller-scale Le Mans endurance race there.  Obsessed with the concept, he worked with Sebring business friend, C. D. Richardson, to organize such an event as soon as enough interest in the world of auto racing could be mustered.

         “Hendricks Field had few amenities for spectators; no grandstands, security, ticket booths or public address system, and few lavatories.  By enticing the local firemen’s association to become involved and with a small group of sports-car enthusiasts, Ulmann, Richardson and Ulmann’s wife, Mary, set out to put together America’s first modern-day major endurance auto race, a ‘Little Le Mans’.

         “After the first hour of racing, the handicap formula showed, to everyone’s amazement, that the No. 19, the little Crosley driven by Frits Koster and Ralph Deshon, was in first place. In a close second was Jim Kimberly’s No. 55 2-litre Ferrari.

         “At the end of the second hour, No. 27, a Mercury-powered Allard had to drop out, leaving 26 cars in the racing pack.  The Crosley Hotshot remained in the lead, but the No. 20 Fiat driven by Bob Keller edged ahead of Kimberly’s Ferrari.        

         “As darkness began to fall, the headlights came on. Marshall Lewis replaced Jim Kimberly in the Ferrari, and overto