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Estes: The Sebring Double-Header “Has A Future”

Sebring's general manager on the inception, challenges and future of the IMSA-WEC round in Florida

While there’s been much to unpick from the WEC’s ‘Super Season’ announcement back in Mexico, a major talking point has been the addition of Sebring to the calendar for the 2019-leg of the 18-month season. Sebring International Raceway’s general manager Wayne Estes spoke to DSC at length, explaining that at the moment there are “more questions than answers”, but that the event will run as planned.

At present, after some tweaks, DSC understands that the WEC’s race at Sebring will be a 1500-mile event, held two hours after the conclusion of the IMSA Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. That still leaves logistical challenges for the organisers of both series, to ensure that it runs smoothly.

“The announcement was made on the Friday at Mexico. Prior to that Gerard and Pierre had a meeting in Miami. I was at Sebring, unaware of it. I got a call on the Thursday evening from Scott Atherton, who said that the WEC is coming to Sebring. So it was as big of a surprise to all of us at Sebring as it was to everyone else,” he said.

Surprisingly, the double-header came as news to those working at Sebring International Raceway, Estes (left) revealing that originally, that he found out less than 24 hours before the announcement, after meetings between the FIA WEC CEO Gerard Neveu, ACO president Pierre Fillon and IMSA head Scott Atherton in Florida prior to the WEC’s trip to Mexico.

“Scott met them in Miami, and the WEC liked to idea to run a race roughly the equivalent to the 12 Hours of Sebring, after the 12 Hours of Sebring.

“Our first reaction was ‘holy cow! Really?’ It was a little overwhelming, but it’s a terrific idea, very exciting for all of us.

“I’ve been at Sebring for two years, and since the day I got there, the running joke has been: “when are we going to see the WEC cars, and bring them back to Sebring?” Sebring fans have grown accustomed to seeing those cars, so it’s going to be terrific. There are far more questions than there are answers now, but it’s going to be a joy, working everything out.”

As part of the early preparations for the event, Estes made the trip to the WEC’s meeting at CoTA last weekend, and explained that the overall feeling in the paddock is positive, after meeting with various teams, drivers and of course the WEC organisers.

“Everybody has questions based on where their interest lie, the competitors in the paddock have been expressing their needs to us, which I get a kick out of. How much of what they ‘need’ is just a ‘want?’

“I talked to competitors, they have embraced this. There’s a lot of young drivers too, who see Sebring as a magical place to race. There’s older folks who have done Sebring, but for a lot of the younger drivers, it’ll be special.”

We’ve got 18 months to plan it, and there will be plenty of us involved in the negotiations on how to solve the problems

Logistics wise, finishing the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, and getting the circuit ready for the WEC race just two hours later is going to be a challenge, and one that is going to take a lot of work to get right prior to race week.

“Some things are still going to have to be massaged. I can’t imagine the challenges, like swapping the pits, getting all the IMSA cars away from the track for the WEC cars!

“The podium is now moved to Turn 17, we have a new winner’s circle area, so that will be ok,” he said, when asked about the post-race IMSA celebrations potentially getting in the way of the pre-race WEC festivities. “Pit lane is going to be the interesting area, just because of the paddock space and the fact that the WEC teams have less than two hours to set up their pits. But we’ve got 18 months to plan it, and there will be plenty of us involved in the negotiations on how to solve the problems. The WEC and IMSA are working extremely well together on this, they’re cooperating.

“The midnight start is one of the more innovative ideas here. Obviously the WEC cars run 24 hours at Le Mans. Now, in two hours, could they get the track clean after the IMSA race, spotless? No, there will be paint out there, rubber, but it will be cleaner than Le Mans after 17 or 18 hours. There will be two hours to work on the circuit, but we have time. We welcome the challenge.”

Another key to getting the event right will be ensuring that IMSA’s 12 Hours of Sebring doesn’t get overshadowed by the FIA World Championship’s race. Estes explained IMSA’s event is still the main endurance race at the Floridian circuit. Because of this, he believes that running with a combined grid again like the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2012, with the WEC and ALMS, was not a major factor in the original planning meetings.

They were always negotiating with the aim of maintaining the reputation and stature of both series

“To win the 12 Hours of Sebring, you’ll have to win the IMSA WeatherTech race. The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring is the 12 Hours of Sebring,” he explained. “I think the WEC were initially saying 12 and 12, partly because they wanted to see what the reaction would be.

“But we need to be careful and keep the identity of the 12 Hours of Sebring.

“I have asked if (combined grids) were a consideration, but I haven’t been told a great deal about those meetings between the WEC and IMSA. What I have been told is that they were always negotiating with the aim of maintaining the reputation and stature of both series. They didn’t want to have a field combined, that prevents people from having the opportunity to effectively race in both series, separately.”

Interestigly, even this far out, Estes feels that then IMSA-WEC double-header has a future beyond the ‘Super Season’. With CoTA out and Sebring in for next year, Estes is confident that the races in 2019 as a duel-event will not be a one-off.

“I don’t think we’d host this, if we didn’t think it had a future or was sustainable,” he explained. “Anything that we do, whether its for racers, sponsors, series, we always want to do something sustainable.

“It may not be in the same format each year, but I think the WEC and IMSA will get together side-by-side for years to come.”