For the past seven years I’ve worked in the motorsport industry as a reporter, and in that time, I’ve enjoyed the comforts of free coffee, clean toilets and air conditioned media centres at circuits all over the world. As a result, I (and I feel my peers), have lost touch with what it’s like to actually be a race fan. Certainly, working in media means getting up-to-the-minute information and news that is digested, then delivered to race fans in a coherent manner; but it also means, losing the essence of what being a follower of motorsport is all about. Let’s not forget, it’s the paying fans who help to bring the money into the sport, via entry fees and sundry purchases, plus they are the key component of bringing a special atmosphere to racing.
Yet despite this, most of the motorsport media are detached from the fans of racing, instead, choosing to view the ‘paying punters’ from afar, as an inconsequential part of motorsport, which frankly is wrong. Without race fans, and their perseverance to suffer at the hands of the elements, whilst taking their lives into their own hands with a diet of under-cooked chicken (an experience I personally enjoyed at Spa Francorchamps), and the horror of porta-cabin toilets that’d make the most hardened of men shed a noxious tear, events like Le Mans, the Daytona 500 and Sebring 12 Hours would come and go like a club meeting at Knockhill. There would be no razzmatazz, atmosphere, or influx of money into the local community of race circuits.
Go back to 2005, and the likes of Radio Le Mans could be found exploring the vast camp sites, meeting and talking to fans, whilst getting their unique perspective of motorsport – a process that has been sadly lacking in the past few years. In an attempt to redress the balance, I left my media credentials for the 12 Hours of Sebring race in the dresser draw, to spend five days going back to my roots of being a race fan at the infamous Turn 10.
The first thing that stands-out when joining the likes of the Turn 10 race fans is their sense of organization and attention to detail, with months of planning going into their operation ahead of the ALMS season-opener at Sebring. This includes preparing and safety checking their ‘grandstand’ scaffolding, designating tasks to different members of the Turn 10 crew and getting their RVs parked in line several weeks before the race week arrives, to ensure they secure their regular spot at arguably one of the best viewing corners of the Florida circuit.
The underlying reason thousands show up to this little corner of Highlands County, is to see some of the best motorsport around and be part of the ‘fans community.’
Once the gates open at 5am of the Wednesday morning ahead of the 12 hour race weekend, it’s like a military operation as RVs, trailers and tents are herded into a small enclave of the 3.77 mile track. With Turn 10 occupied by a cosmopolitan mix of Americans, British, Dutch and Kiwis, a well-oiled machine springs into action like a praying-mantis, and within a couple of hours, the viewing platform is assembled and collection of grilles put together to create the camp kitchen.
With ‘home-from-home’ set up, it’s time to meet the neighbours, in the form of the fan group ‘Turn 9.9’ and the dedicated corner workers of Turn 10. In fact, the bond between the marshals of Turn 10 and the fans that occupy it is a strong one, with the white overall brigade, (whose dedicated volunteering ensures everyone gets to enjoy racing), sharing breakfast, lunch and dinner with the fans on a daily basis; it makes up for the measly can of fruit, crackers and cheese stick the circuit unashamedly supply to the safety teams who risk life and limb to put on such a major race event.
Mistakenly, the likes of Turn 10 and other similar groups of fans are viewed as beer-swilling Neanderthals, who see Sebring as a party with a race thrown in as a source of entertainment. The truth is, they carry an insight into the world of motorsport that’d put many contemporary journalists to shame. This is reflected by the many team members and drivers from the past and present who can often be seen gracing the likes of Turn 10, such as Jan Magnussen, Shane Lewis and this year, Divinia Galica.
Sure enough, alcohol does play a part in alleviating the effect of the scorching hot Florida sunshine; there’s even ‘some woman’ who has designed her own petrol-powered margaritas maker from the guts of a garden trimmer motor! But the underlying reason thousands show up to this little corner of Highlands County, is to see some of the best motorsport around and be part of the ‘fans community.’ Just exploring the surrounding area of Turn 10, you’ll find the likes of La Bomba who each year build a mock-up of a race car attached to a bus chassis (this year it was an Audi) and the F-Troop group of fans, who tirelessly provide entertainment in the form of live concerts and stage shows every night of the week in the camp site.
When ‘mad-Friday’ arrives at Sebring International Raceway, it’s the Turn 10 fans go at bringing entertainment to the paddock, with their mock racing team: Team Impala. Adorned in a variety of costumes, the Slug, N.E Monkey and Evel K Nevel sign ‘driver cards’ and hand- out Turn 10 memorabilia, whilst bringing a big smile to the ALMS teams – something unique to America’s biggest road racing event of the year.
When race day arrives, the anticipation for the start of the race is palpable, and by the time the green flag is about to drop on the mixed class racing, the Turn 10 ‘grandstand’ is packed to the rafters with fans clamouring for a view of the start. Due to its very location and set up, the view from the scaffold is unprecedented, with race cars visible from the exit of the hairpin, all the way through to Turn 11, and throughout the 12 hour race, there’s barely any space available. This is where the Turn 10 fans are in their element, as they unflinchingly keep their eyes peeled on the action for the entire race, taking photos and analyzing the cars’ performance over the bumpy concrete surface. Then, as the chequered flag drops and the fireworks fire into the sky, each member of the Turn 10 fans congratulates each other on their own endurance performance, regardless of the team or car they are supporting. This extends into the early hours of Sunday morning, as the race and preceding days are analyzed, before heading to the RVs for the final night of fitful sleep. Then as the sun rises once again, but with less gusto than when arriving, the grandstand is dismantled, then packed away, whilst friends, old and new, shed a tear as they say a long goodbye for another year and head to their far away homes.
And this is what makes being a race fan so unique and important: whilst you may arrive as friends, you leave as family. So as the plans for 2013’s visit to Sebring International get under-way, it looks like that media cred will continue to occupy a corner of my sock drawer.