When you arrive at the Chateau Elan Hotel & Spa in Sebring, Fla., don't be surprised if the car you park next to is plastered with sponsor logos, with a number on the side and 600 horses under the hood.
After all, Chateau Elan is on the grounds of the historic Sebring International Raceway, where automotive legends such as Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti drove to victory in high-speed endurance races. While the hotel is the place to be for the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race, it's also home to weekend Andrettis who sign up at high-speed driving schools or to race their own cars at club events.
But the hotel isn't for motorheads alone -- it also has a spa to pamper those who are more interested in revitalizing than turbocharging. Take Karen Nuwer, a choreographer for Royal Caribbean Productions, companion to Nick Zaizar, an Orlando contractor who races a supercharged Honda S2000. "I am not very big into the whole car thing," said Nuwer, who was coaxed to Chateau Elan by the promise of room service, reflexology and a deep tissue massage. "I was there to chill out and relax, and that's exactly what I did."
If Sebring's racing flavor wasn't apparent from the parking lot, it will be by the time you step around a composite-bodied Panoz racecar in the lobby to reach the check-in desk. Chateau Elan -- as you may have surmised -- is decked out in a racing theme, with car art on the walls, racing memorabilia in the bar and checkered flag napkins in the restaurant (just wave them when you're finished).
The hotel was built in 2000 by Donald Panoz. Having made billions in pharmaceuticals (his former firm Elan Corp. has a patent on, among other things, a nicotine patch), he turned his entrepreneurial bent to other interests: a winery, a hotel and a sports car company, all near Atlanta. When he decided to promote Le Mans-style endurance races in the United States, he purchased a racetrack, Road Atlanta. Then he refined the concept, purchasing the historic Sebring track and building the Chateau Elan right on Turn 7, the infamous hairpin.
Whether you want to stay on the side of the hotel that faces Turn 7 -- prosaically called the track side -- depends on whether you plan on sleeping in. The hotel has no special soundproofing, so expect a wake-up call from cars revving at dawn -- especially if you sleep with the balcony door cracked open. That said, sitting in the hotel's restaurant while racers wheeled past the windows, we could comfortably use our indoor voices, the cars hardly registering in my mind.
The track side often commands a premium over the quieter side of the hotel, especially during the 12 Hours of Sebring, when corporations pay $4,000 for a suite -- and they are booked far in advance. The rooms stick with the racing decor -- headboards look like racetrack pylons with flags waving atop. The complimentary cable TV is tuned to the Speed Channel, naturally. Rooms, while unspectacular, aren't stripped to the chassis, either. There is a data port on the phone, property-wide Wi-Fi, and an iron and full-size ironing board in each room, in case your Nomex suit is wrinkly. Our room also seemingly had -- judging by the volume level -- a 200-horsepower bathroom fan. Some rooms have a couch seating area and, on the track side, a balcony.
If you don't have your own Porsche GTS, don't worry. Right next to the track are the Audi Driving Experience and Panoz Racing schools.
-- Roy Furchgott
Rooms at Chateau Elan (150 Midway Dr., 800-440-3526 or 863-655-6252, www.chateauelansebring.com) run from $60 to $120 per night for a double, depending on season and availability. Discounts are available to members of racing clubs and students of the two driving schools on the premises. The Audi Driving Experience (888-282-4872, www.audidrivingexperience.com) and Panoz Racing School (888-282-4872, www.panozracingschool.com) charge about $1,000 a day, with one-, two- and three-day sessions available.