It’s ironic, but I find myself racing to a race. It’s 4PM on Friday and I’m hurtling towards the small lakeside town of Sebring, Florida. A good 75 or so miles due south of Disney World – down Highway 27. I was running late and, because of my poor planning, I was to be sleeping in my car that night as I hadn’t been able to reserve a room within a 60 mile radius of the city. Of course, this is the weekend of the 12 Hours of Sebring – so should I expect it.

Upon arriving at registration, I was warmly greeted by a flock of wonderfully helpful women who managed to get me into the gate and settled quickly with my press and paddock credentials. Unfortunately, I’d arrived just after the completion of the GT qualifying and missed Dirk Werner and Dirk Muller placing the all-new BMW Team RLL M3 GT’s in 3rd and 4th place – squarely behind the dangerous challenger of last year, a Ferrari 430GT and a factory Corvette C6.R driven by Oliver Gavin.

I decided to reintroduce myself to the team trailers area and see the sights of the 2011 12 Hours of Sebring.

For those that haven’t been or seen it on television – and it’s pathetic how little coverage this race gets by comparison to NASCAR races – Sebring is sort of like a reverse Superbowl for sports cars, coming at the start of the season versus the end, but with just as many people present and perhaps more beer – akin to the major endurance races in Europe like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Nurburgring and Spa. In the paddock area, there is a smorgusboard of racing gear, photos and paintings, food and beer stands – literally anything you could want to eat or drink is available. Perhaps this is like Bourbon Street mixed with an endurance race? Either way, I ignored the temptations of the delicious beer and moved onward toward the pitwall and over the pedestrian bridge and snaked my way through tents and campers to the BMW CCA’s incredible hospitality tent set up alongside the track between turns 6 and 7. There we met up with Stephen Maguire, our buddy with United BMW of Roswell, and Mike Maguire, instructor from the BMW Performance Driving School. After a quick reintroduction and seeing some excellent examples of Bavarian machinery from the last 40 years, I piled into the front seat of a beautiful Alpine White E92 M3 Competition Package to do a BMW CCA parade lap around the historic venue.

Upon entering the track just beyond Turn 17, heading down into Turn 1, the most apparent thing I could derive from the lap was the massive amount of vibrations that communicated up through seat. The vibrations were caused by large slabs of concrete that make up the airport-turned-racetrack. The drivers and cars especially would have their work cut out for them considering the abuse the track was able to dish out on just a slow lap.

After our lap I was back into the paddock for an outdoor dinner with BMW Team RLL as part of a casual Q&A with the drivers and team. I was lucky enough to be seated in the back corner next to Dirk Werner, Bobby Rahal and the soon-to-be-retired Dr. Mario Theissen. The conversation started with the normal introduction and pleasantries but soon turned to the more pressing matter of the 2011 ALMS season. Rahal was very forthcoming, stating that the team was to be very competitive but that they would keep a close eye down the pitwall on the Ferrari teams for both the all-new 458GT and outgoing 430GT. BMW Team RLL believes their stiffest competition in GT comes from the Ferrari’s straight-line acceleration though Rahal noted that BMW might hold an advantage in the corners.

When the talk turned to the team itself, Rahal beamed with pride about his driver line-up and engineers who’ve prepped the cars for ALMS. Bobby continued on that the drivers are extremely diligent when it comes to the workload required to set up a winning car, these guys get the job done. I then asked if any of the drivers’ personalties are ever a problem or interfere with the progress of the team – as can be the case in many facets of motorsport. He flatly denied that and again affirmed his respect and admiration for his drivers. This was further reinforced later that evening when each driver came by to pay respect to Rahal before turning in for the evening.

Turning to speak with Dirk Werner, the first question was about the paddle shift gearbox, a new addition to the M3 GT for 2011. I’d heard a joking rumor that the E92 M3 road car equipped with the DCT transmission could execute a gear shift faster than the M3 GT – Dirk confirmed this fact but Bobby Rahal chimed in to note that this was only because of an ALMS-spec gearbox required to meet series regulations. Herr Werner went on to say that the gearbox was a bit slower than a traditional manual gearbox but ultimately, the new paddle shift ‘box was much more comfortable for the drivers and on longer endurance races, that would be more beneficial to have over any minor time savings from a standard gearbox.

After speaking briefly with the other drivers, my take-away was a sense of excitement and the desire to impress. Andy Priaulx and Augusto (Gustl is his nickname) Farfus from the BMW Team Schnitzer works team looked ready to impress and win points in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup and Bill Auberlen, Joey Hand(fresh off of an overall win at the 24 Hours of Daytona) and both Dirks all looked ready to carry BMW throughout the ALMS season and remind everyone of why BMW won the GT championship during the 2010 ALMS season.

Once dinner concluded, I wandered the paddock, observing the team mechanics tirelessly working away at their cars in an effort to give their drivers the best possible machine for the next day’s race. Ironically, BMW had cinched up their operations and had both cars prepped by about 10:30PM Friday night – one of the first GT teams to wrap up and close down operations for the day. Creeping through the paddock I found the Risi and Patron Tequila Ferrari 458GT’s in various states of construction – as were the Flying Lizard Porsche GT3 RSR’s who looked to be testing the headlamps on their car. The West Racing Gallardo looked to be in good shape until I overheard a mechanic tell someone that they were still waiting on a part which wasn’t scheduled to arrive 2AM Saturday morning. It would be a day of little to no rest for the rookie team.

Speaking of rest, I managed to grab maybe an hour of consistent sleep in the front seat of my E46, parked in the media lot adjacent to the paddock. Throughout the night I would be periodically woken  by the sound of drunken fans wandering the paddock or heavy machinery echoing from teams’ trailers as mechanics gave their all for the car.

Up before dawn the next morning and it was over to Turn 17 to shoot pictures of the historic cars plus the parade/warm-up laps of the entire 56-car field for the actual race. Sebring is a beautiful place in the early morning light and created a wonderful backdrop for a field of clean, complete cars – stark contrast to what things would look like across a darkened former airfield just 12 hours from then.

Before the sun got too high above the track, I left the incredible spring weather to go put on my size 62(being tall has its downsides in racing) BMW Team RLL firesuit in order to be in the “hot” pit. While suiting up, I spied a glimpse of Gustl Farfus napping on one of the couches inside of the BMW Team RLL trailer just an hour before the race – a supreme demonstration in nerve control prior to a race!

After the start of the race, the GT segment turned into what many expected: a very tightly packed sprint race. Dirk Werner qualified 3rd in GT and Herr Muller in 4th – just behind the Chevrolet C6.R in 2nd and the AF Corse Ferrari 430 GT in 1st. With a record number of cars in the field, many teams anticipated that after the 10:30AM start there would be quite a few yellow flags resulting from racing incidents. It would seem that many of those predictions were correct when just a few hours in, Patrick Long hit a rough patch of track in turn 17 – throwing him directly into Magnussen’s Corvette C6.R. Dirk Muller also had an incident where he collided with one of the Jaguars while braking into a corner – Muller also made contact with one of the LMP cars early on. A few hours later, a Porsche GTC car would spin off and hit the tire wall in turn 17 less than 100 yards from where I was standing to shoot photos – racing is still dangerous, folks!

As the race unfolded – I managed to make a walking lap around the inside of the 3.7 mile circuit – unfortunately while wearing half of the BMW racing suit tied off around my waist. I found myself in the more colorful and interesting side of Sebring’s RV parking area where many occupants had been staying for days. It seemed that there was an undisclosed competition between a number of camp sites for most outrageous theme. Wandering corner to corner in the RV park, I saw many sites with wildly decorated blow-up dolls or mannequins or just an unbelievable beer can count stacked up outside the tents. One group of fans managed to erect a two story scaffold with the exterior decorated identical to the Audi R15++ piloted by Mr. Le Mans himself, Tom Kristensen.

Upon exiting the RV park I made my way back to the BMW Team RLL trailer to partner up with Horatiu and upload video and photos. By this time, the pair of BMW’s had reached first and second in class and then lost ground to the #62 Risi Competizione 458 GT. By this time Andy Priaulx and Dirk Werner were back out and gunning for the Ferrari’s. Horatiu and I headed over to the BMW CCA tent for some views of the M3 GT’s between turns 6 and 7 and to catch up with our friends from the Performance Center and United BMW as they auctioned off a handful of BMW shirts and gear as well as an M School certificate and tour through the hot pit lane later that evening.

By this time, the sun was starting to set and the rowdy, somewhat inebriated crowd had changed its mood. The feeling of wreckless abandon and celebration morphed  into a quiet, serious one as everyone settled in for the final hours of the race. All eyes were back on the track as the 2011 12 Hours of Sebring were beginning to draw to a close. Horatiu and I made our way back to the BMW pit where we found an interesting turn of events as the last hour of the race began to tick by.

Upon our arrival and examination of the current leaderboard, the #55 BMW was in first and separated from the #56 car by, ironically enough, former BMW Team RLL teammate Tommy Milner in his new Corvette C6.R. Milner, who left BMW Team RLL during the winter of 2010, still has a strong rapport with his team and despite his vacating the seat of one of the M3’s, is still respected by his BMW brethren which reinforces Milner’s reputation of a highly-regarded driver.

As the last 30 minutes of the race crept by, Dirk Werner managed to fight back from a tire puncture an hour earlier and eventually push by Milner and began to extend the distance between himself and the Corvette. From there, it was just a matter of keeping the pair of M3 GT’s on the track and shiny(well, whatever parts still had a sheen to them after 11 1/2 hours) side up to win the 12 Hours Sebring. Underneath a paddock lined with past winners of Sebring like Porsche and Ferrari, BMW crossed the line to snag a 1-2 finish in GT for both the American Le Mans Series and the Intercontinental Le Mans Series. This was the first time since 1975 that BMW had won the GT category and what better way for them to start the ALMS season?

As the pair of M3’s crossed the finish line the BMW Team RLL pit erupted with applause and high fives. Dirk Muller was jumping up and down and clamoring for hugs, Andy Priaulx was high-fiving and I was just surprised to receive a warm pat on the back and hug from an elated Dr. Theissen. Bobby Rahal emerged from the #56’s control center and was once again beaming with pride and even a little relief as the grueling 2011 12 Hours of Sebring had been concluded and BMW Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing emerged victorious over a field of equally talented and fast competitors. The longest race of the ALMS season and ironically the first race was over and all of the team’s effort had gone the distance to close out the competition.

On our way to Parc Ferme and podium, we were congratulated by a handful of people on “my win.” Our confusion was short lived when we realized that the racing suits we had to don to be on the pit lane were covered in BMW Team RLL logos. Ironically, these same suits gave Horatiu and myself access to Parc Ferme were we stood by as the battered but proud BMW M3 GT was pushed into its spot behind the podium where it was able to rest for the first time in over 12 Hours.

As we trudged back to the BMW trailer to return our suits, exhaustion began to set in. The enjoyment and excitement of the odyssey of the 12 Hour Hours of Sebring still rang in my head along with the sounds of brutal V8’s pounding around the unforgiving circuit. The memories of the day kept me awake on my 3.5 hour drive home but surely the wonderful memories will keep BMW Team RLL motivated throughout the rest of the season as they storm towards another championship in GT.

Please enjoy our quick video of a recap of the day from the 12 Hours of Sebring and look for our coverage of BMW Team RLL throughout the rest of the season.