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January 19th 2005

Book Review: 12 Hours of Sebring 1970

By Pete Vack

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12 Hours of Sebring 1970, as author/photographer Harry Hurst makes clear, is not intended to be a definite record of the event. Instead, it is a work of art, the fantastic images accompanied by poignant and relevant quotes from those who were in the cars, in the pits and in the organization. Hurst's book provides an entertaining and unique perspective of one of the most exciting races ever witnessed at Sebring.

Ignazio Giunti in the 512 which would eventually win the race. Mechanics are repairing a broken headlamp.

Hurst is a photographer with skills equal to the more prominent cameramen of the era. What is most amazing, is that Hurst was only 19 years old at the time. Perhaps one of the most interesting photos is that of Steve McQueen. It is at night, in the pits, the lighting is poor, the space crowded. Hurst was shooting with Tri-X black and white film pushed to 1600 ASA. McQueen, with his foot and ankle in a cast, sits on the wall, tired, pensive, thoughtful as he ponders the chances of winning. Behind him a group of his overeager fans vainly try to catch a glimpse of their hero. Hurst was there at the right time, with the right lens, the right film, understood the scene and waited for the moment. This does not occur accidentally. It is the work of a true professional and visionary artist.

McQueen's fans gasping for a glimpse.

With a minimum of words used to maximum effect placed neatly with outstanding, dramatic photography, Sebring 1970 highlights one event but captures a dangerous, exciting era of motor racing. Hurst does not dwell on the danger or death, but the images and dialogue triggers memories of Siffert, Rodriguez, Revson, Cevert, Courage among others who would not live to see the 1980s.

McQueen, seen here, could have been a very good professional driver, but nonetheless it was Revson who managed to almost win the event.

Between 1967 and 1980, both Grand Prix and Sports/Prototype racing was a particularly lethal combination of great power, immature technology and ancient circuits. Rear engined cars were still twitchy and ill handling, but a three liter limit for F1 and a short lived 4.5 liter limit on sports prototypes meant huge power outputs. Aerodynamics was a black art. In the book, Brian Redman recalls how the Porsche 917s were tamed. John Horsman noted the speed difference between the short tail version and longtail, which was slower. "He fastened a sheet of plywood across the rear, where it dipped, with aluminum and duct tape, and it was three seconds faster on the straight."

Revson sits in the pits, exhausted by the drive.

Jackie Stewart was beginning to plead and demand for safety improvements, but it would take years for most of his ideas to be implemented. In the meantime, the races were still held on tracks unchanged since the early 1950s, and including an untouched Spa, the old 14 mile Nurburgring, a tree lined Le Mans, and of course Sebring, whose surface was still the concrete slabs laid out in WWII. Said Wayne Sparling, "..the asphalt expansion strips between the concrete slabs had risen up over the years and hardened. Driving over them in a race car at speed was like hitting a 2x4 in an ordinary car on the Interstate."

For the most part, drivers still raced for love and glory, there was little money involved. And they raced anything with wheels, in particular Mario Andretti, who drove stock cars, Indy cars, sports cars, midgets, and F1 with equal skill. It was also the era of the movie stars who, with both skill and enthusiasm, gained the respect of many professionals. Steve McQueen perhaps the best of the lot, nearly won the Sebring event with Peter Revson.

All of this is unimaginable today; race cars are incredibly safe and strong, the drivers are fine tuned to a single discipline, the tracks (aside from Indy and Monaco) are void of trees, dangerous barriers, and poor surfaces. Movie stars are limited to vintage racing. Deaths today are extremely rare; there have been no driver deaths in Formula 1 for over ten years.

Hurst also evokes a more innocent time, when drivers could be more human while at work. Remember all those WWII planes parked by the back straight? Gurney recalls how he—presumably accompanied by other interested drivers--would go out and take a look at the disabled planes, and went up into the cockpits…like kids at play.

Somehow, Hurst talked Wayne Sparling to add his insight to the book. Wayne is somewhat of a recluse, and while he loves to talk, he is very modest about his achievements, which included working for NART for almost 25 years. Sparling was a outstanding (he hates being referred to as a genius) mechanic and metal fabricator extraordinaire, who took the cars as shipped from Ferrari and made them raceworthy. His comments on the Ferrari 512 are illuminating, to say the least.

Ferrari Team Manager Mario Forghieri asks Andretti if he thinks he can catch Revson.

Although the book is not intended for historians, Sebring 1970 includes a complete listing of the results of the race, plus the entrants, appears in the back of the book.

Most of the images are in black and white, and as such are superb examples of this difficult medium. The contrast is remarkable, as are the details and texture, creating a visual delight. Says Hurst, "The black & white images are duotones (the black is supplemented with a mid-range gray to accentuate shadow details) and then converted to actually print in 4-color. This way you get a very rich black while still maintaining good midtones and highlights. It is a more time consuming process (and more expensive to print), but the results are worth it."

Add the comments from Andretti, Redman, Sparling, and others, and the result is pure poetry. Sebring 1970 is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, and leaves one thirsting for more.

Harry Hurst has two more books in the making. The first is a look a the 1970 Road Atlanta Can-Am, and Hurst will be supplementing his photos with others from Bill Warner. The second will cover the 1959 Sebring event and will use the photos of Tom Burnside.

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