Courtesy photo Start of the 1987 12 Hours of Sebring. The 1980s were a tumultous decade for the Races, which came close to disappearing.
published: Sunday, September 23, 2012
The 80s: Revved engines, planes, pot and kilowatts
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
AVON PARK -- The Sebring News opened the 1980s with the headline "Sebring Race headed on collision course in '81" on Jan. 16, 1980.
For once, the paper said, persistent rumors about the race closing down seemed for real.
The Federal Aviation Authority would no longer permit race cars and planes to share the same runways as in the past. In the future, the paper reported, the FAA would not approve closing the airport to air traffic during the event.
Only the near date of the race and its acknowledged international reputation lead to the one year reprieve, the FAA said.
It was the start to a decade of raceway suspense -- more of that story in a moment.
Sebring Utilities begins cracking under stress
The other developing story of note had to do with the Sebring Utilities Commission and its worsening financial situation caused largely by having to produce more electricity while adjusting to rising fuel costs. Those weren't the only problems, however.
SUC chairman Rex Bond was quoted in late 1980 as saying, "This is the time to discuss what we have been trying to talk about for months, even years. Our internal affairs are in poor shape; promises made for improvements haven't been kept, and ... we've slipped badly."
Plans for the construction of a new proto-type diesel power station were dropped, and the commission borrowed $500,000. More of this story later, too.
Marijuana rains down
In the early '80s marijuana regularly fell out of the sky, as drug dealers dumped bales out of low flying planes. At least two of those planes crashed, one in a belly landing at the Sebring Airport, the other out by Arbuckle Creek bridge. Bales of marijuana dropped onto farm land owned by then Governor Bob Graham in Venus, and the Triple G Dairy. Quaalude pills were smuggled in significant amounts. One of the crashed planes carried 88 bales of pot and 71,000 pills.
12 Hours of Sebring is truly over, really, really
Back to the Sebring 12 Hours of Endurance, as the race was then called.
Mike Willingham was then on the Airport Authority board, as was Russ Albritton. Both warned the FAA had the final say. "From this time on, it's over," Albritton said.
With two years on a contract, Charles Mendez, a co-promoter of the race, fought back. What would be the air authority's attitude, he asked during a meeting, if the FAA did agree the race could be run if the airport closed.
"Is it the air authority or the FAA that doesn't want future racing here?" he asked. You have to try harder to change the FAA's decision, he told the board.
"We can't give you a cut and dried answer," Albritton replied. "There are a lot of ifs."
Ultimately, the air authority said, the question was whether it would operate as an airport or as a race.
Sex and racing prove a high octane mix
While the future of the race was being debated, a record number of entries participated in 1980 -- 97 cars. Sports Illustrated and NBC news were on hand to cover the event.
It turned out Hustler Magazine covered it too.
What happened was a small group of men and women had sex on the top of a school bus, parked near the flagpole on the track. Not shy, they performed a variety of acts for all the world to see, even drawing national attention.
The community was embarrassed and angry.
Highlands County Sheriff Joe Sheppard came under criticism for not intervening. He said he'd been afraid to spark a riot.
Olin Shinholser, then assistant state attorney, promised any participants who could be identified would be prosecuted -- by the end of the year a few men were identified and paid fines, one was sentenced to 30 days.
Locally, public support for the race all but about disappeared. In an unofficial poll taken by the Sebring News, 70 percent of respondents felt the race should not be continued, 30 percent felt it should.
On the other hand, the Sebring City Council and Chamber of Commerce backed the race. Petitions in favor of it picked up more than 1,000 signatures the first week.
A study of the race's economic impact was commissioned. The study said the direct dollar impact on the area was more than $1.8 million.
Just when everything seemed calm
The FAA extended its permission to allow the race at the airport through 1982, but that didn't mean troubles were over.
Due to cut backs in security forces in 1981, Sheppard said, "I have no alternative, but to close down the race."
On Feb. 11, 1981, the Sebring News reported "Only a miracle can save the race."
In a sort of a miracle, at the last minute law enforcement officers from different parts of the state were recruited to help.
On the 25th, the paper ran the headline, "It's official, the Sebring 12 Hours is definitely on."
On again, off again -- Mendez and the airport authority grew further apart.
In 1986, the airport's administration changed.
The authority took over running the race and the race committee came up with a new race course design. The authority then denied Mendez a new five year contract. Mendez sued for $1 million. The suit was dismissed in 1987.
In 1989 the race doubled its profit from 1988, but Coca-Cola, which sponsored the race for 10 years, ended its support. Going into the '90s, the raceway seemed to be recovering.
Short circuiting electricity
In the meantime, the Sebring Utilities Commission was having its own problems. Despite borrowing money; reorganizing its structure, particularly the financial department; bringing in new management; and raising fees, by 1986 the utility faced a projected shortfall of $1.6 million.
The Sebring News reported Sebring residents were paying the highest utility rates in Florida. It was time, the newspaper said, to explore other options, including selling out to a private company. The SUC limped into '90s.
Bringing traffic to a halt
In another example of bureaucracy, traffic light was finally installed at the Southgate entrance into town. It didn't come easy.
After two years of pleading with the Florida Department of Transportation -- which claimed a shortage of funds and personnel in delay after delay -- Sebring partnered with the county in 1980 to put in a light in the intersection. FDOT built the needed roadway adaptations a few months later.
The city and county had responded to pressure. A private citizen, John Barnhart was so frustrated with the years of delay he began organizing a huge traffic jam to show the public's loss of patience.
"If there's one more life taken, we'll swarm down the highway like bees," he said.
Finally, the '80s was when the city had to face it was not prepared for hurricanes. Shelter lists were unrealistic, dating from 1967. For example, the Fountainhead Condominium of Lakeview Drive was expected to provide emergency quarters for up to 1,000 people.
The city headed into the '90s with much to do.
zWfaAHOGDNQPYe (by: Posts like this brighten up my day. Thanks for tanikg the time. - 10/4/2012)
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