SEBRING - Looking out at the raceway from the comfort of a hotel lounge, Bob Deshon said he could still feel the sense of the time, the rush of the event, the glory of the day,
As he stood inside the Chateau Elan Hotel on the grounds of the Sebring International Raceway, Deshon, who won the first Twelve Hours of Sebring in 1950, said although the race is still demanding and takes extreme expertise, things rolled a different way in his day.
"The cars now are all computer-driven. The drivers just push buttons to shift; we shifted gears manually and involved a lot of skill and legwork punching the clutches," said Deshon, 87, who still attends the races annually. "I think I'd still do pretty well; I never spun out, never went off the course. I was very lucky."
At the time, the Highlands County News of Nov. 10, 1950 reported that an automobile race had been booked at the Sebring Air Terminal. The Sam Collier Memorial Trophy Grand Prix of Endurance would be run on December 31 and Deshon was there.
Following the Sebring Hall of Fame induction luncheon Friday, Deshon looked out a window onto the track and reflected on the past but admired the present. He said one of the biggest changes is in the track itself. When he was putting rubber to surface as a racer, from 1941 to his retirement in 1962, like most tracks, Sebring's was littered with bumps and small holes. There was a hairpin turn that sand would blow onto - which has since been refined into an "S" turn - where cars regularly ran into and rolled over.
"It was always rough then, it was a rough ride," said Deshon, attending the race with his son, Taylor. "It was all heel-to-toe shifting then."
On that first race day, 38 cars were registered, 28 started and only 17 finished, and for the first time ever in America, drivers used the "LeMans start" that was to become the trademark of the race during the early years, according to Road & Track magazine. Competitors were lined up opposite their vehicles, and on signal, would run across the track, jump in the driver's seat, start their engines and take off.
Once the green flag dropped that way, a Cadillac-Healy of Phil Walters and Bill Frick was the first car away. For the first two hours it was the Cadillac Allards of Walters, Fred Wacker and Erwinn Goldschmidt, that were locked in a three-way duel for the lead.
But in the end, the winner was a Crosley Hot Shot - the only American car entered in the race, driven by DeShon and Fred Koster.
When Deshon, a U.S. Navy veterean originally from Greenwich, Conn., who moved to Miami in 1941, watches the modern 12-Hours, he admits although he's way past his prime, the hankering to take the wheel again never goes away. When he first raced, the cars were open cockpit and drivers were at the mercy of skill and fate. He said competing drivers were even able to wave at each other as they passed or went around turns.
When a car was damaged, crew members would take out hand tools to tap out dents and dings. He had to withdraw a Fiat Coupe in 1952 due to mechanical issues.
"In the old days, we used a hammer and bars to beat it back to where you could get to turn the wheel," he said, grinning.
Throughout his career at Sebring and other raceways, Deshon competed against some of the biggest names in road racing: American Mario Andretti, Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio and Italian Piero Taruffi were some of his competitors.
During the 1950 race, it was Tampa's Vic Sharpe's car predicted to win, but because Sharpe was not an SCCA member, Deshon and Koster were enlisted to drive his car.
The two racers increased their chances with a few slight modifications: they took off Crosley Hot Shot's bumpers and windshield to help reduce weight and added a piece of plexi-glass as a windscreen. Deshon said the plastic was a part of one of the B-17's that had been stationed at what was a World War II bomber training facility.
Deshon and Koster completed only 89 laps in the six-hour affair, but it was enough for an easy win under the current race formula.
Deshon's legacy is still cherished today as a living testament to the race's history. Following the induction ceremony, Wayne Taylor of W.T. Racing Orlando, winner of the 1996 12-Hours, said he's in awe of the drivers from the early days of road racing. He said having Deshon at the race is always an honor.
"It's incredible. It's a great historical event and to have an original winner here is hard to believe," he said.
Next to him, Derek Bell, who recorded Sebring's fastest lap in a Porsche 962 in 1986 - 113 mph - said he admires Deshon's desire to remain part of the racing family.
"It's fantastic that he bothers to come to the races. It makes a big difference to have him here," said Bell, five-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner.
Deshon, who lives with his wife, Nancy Grout, in Melbourne, said he'd love to be back behind the racing wheel again, but knows the glory days are behind him.
Of the original 1950 racers, Deshon said, as far as he knows, he's the last one on the track of life. He said in 2012 two of the other first-race drivers - John Fitch and Bill Milliken - died.
"I absolutely would love to get back there. It was so neat to be able to see the crowds. It was a fun time," he said.