As the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring celebrates its pewter, 60th anniversary with this year's running, so, too does America's sports car ring in its 60th year of production. Chevrolet's Corvette sports car is 60 years old in 2012 and becomes the first American manufacturer to be inducted in the Sebring Hall of Fame this week.
On the former training field of B-17 bombers, Corvette forged its racing reputation. It was on Sebring's punishing concrete runways that Chevrolet's iconic fiberglass sports car first seriously challenged the Europeans; on March 24, 1956, John Fitch and Walt Hansgen raced to a Class B victory at Sebring; they were ninth overall. Wearing the USA's traditional blue and white racing colors, these two drivers made Corvette's first step onto a world stage, labeling the car as a top-level competitor.
There have been a total of 231 Corvette racecars that have competed in the Sebring half-day contest and 24 of them have scored class or category wins in this difficult and legendary test of endurance. And, just as the Sebring circuit has evolved from a makeshift 5.2-mile airfield circuit into a 3.7-mile permanent road course, so too has Corvette made the transition from boulevard cruiser to world class sports car.
The Fitch/Hansgen Sebring victory became Corvette's cornerstone to legend. Corvette continued to win at Sebring with victories in 1957, 1958, 1960, 1961 and 1962 with such notable drivers as Dr Dick Thompson, Briggs Cunningham, Jim Jeffords, Jim Rathmann (the 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner), Jerry Grant, Jim Hurtubise and Don Yenko.
Five lightweight Corvette Grand Sport racecars constructed in 1962-3 were built behind closed doors when General Motors discouraged racing. Distributed to independent racers, Roger Penske and Jim Hall teamed to win the GT Prototype class at Sebring in 1964 with a Grand Sport. Independent racers saw the value of Corvette's small block V8, which became the preferred power for Lister-Corvettes, Scarabs, Cheetahs and other bespoke racing specials. Hall and Hal Sharp scored an overall win in the 1965 Sebring race in a small-block Chevy-equipped Chaparral with automatic transmission that traced its roots to Chevrolet R&D and "godfather" Zora Arkus-Duntov. Theirs was the last Sebring overall win by an all-American car driven by American drivers.
The third generation Corvette in 1968 sparked a Sebring racing revival and brought Corvette the GT class wins in 1968, 1970, 1971 and 1972. There were a total of 18 Corvettes on the 1973 grid, with John Greenwood, Ron Grable and Michael Brockman finishing third overall, Corvette's highest finishing position until Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen duplicated the feat in a Corvette C6.R in 2006.
In the IMSA GTP era of the 1980s, the Corvette GTP of more than 1000 horsepower proved to fast but fragile on the tough Sebring road course, recording a best finish of ninth in 1988 with Sarel Van deer Merwe and Elliott Forbes-Robinson driving a Hendrick Motorsports entry. Wally Dallenbach Jr and John Jones brought the Gen IV Corvette its sole class win in 1988, taking the GTO trophy in a Protofab Corvette.
The current era of Corvette success began in 2002 with the first of seven Sebring class victories came in a C5-R. With win the prior year at the Daytona and Le Mans 24-hour races, the Corvette team added this third jewel in endurance racing's Triple Crown.
Corvette Racing begins a new page in its fabled Sebring history Saturday as the latest evolution of the Corvette C6.R takes the green flags, beginning at 10:30AM EDT.