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BRESLAUER: A Look Back at the First Petit Le Mans

A look back at the first Petit Le Mans, held Oct. 11, 1998…

Photo: John Brooks/Road Atlanta

Sports car racing historian and Sebring International Raceway Director of Media and Communications, Ken Breslauer, takes a look back at the first-ever Petit Le Mans, run on Oct. 11, 1998. This weekend’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale marks the 20th anniversary of the Road Atlanta endurance race. 

Although every Petit Le Mans has been sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), many endurance racing fans don’t remember that IMSA changed its name to Professional Sports Car Racing (PSCR) under the short but tumultuous period of ownership of Andy Evans.

With new owner Don Panoz now at the helm of both the Road Atlanta circuit and PSCR, the first Petit Le Mans was not just the season finale of the PSCR schedule, but also a special one-off format in conjunction with the ACO that was the springboard for the American Le Mans Series that debuted the following year at Sebring.

The race had an interesting blend of international entries and current PSCR competitors.

The 31-car entry (29 started the race) included a wide variety of cars in several IMSA and ACO classes. Tech inspection for the first Petit Le Mans was held at Lenox Square in Atlanta.

Twenty years later, some teams continue to compete in today’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and two drivers on the grid for this weekend’s 20th anniversary event drove in the first Petit Le Mans: Bill Auberlen and Scott Pruett.

To many fans, the inaugural Petit Le Mans will forever be remembered for the infamous back flip by the No. 26 factory Porsche 911 GT1, however many of the other aspects of the race have been forgotten over the past two decades.

One fact not overlooked is that Wayne Taylor’s Doyle-Risi Racing Ferrari 333SP won the race.

Taylor, Emmanuel Collard and Eric van de Poole drove to victory. Finishing second and on the same lap was the factory entered Porsche LMP1-98 driven by Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Joerg Muller.

Of course, Wayne Taylor Racing is a big favorite at this year’s 20th anniversary race, and it was just two years ago that Wayne’s sons won the race, with Jordan Taylor becoming the first American-born winner of the classic (John Pew later became the third American driver to win).

Rounding out the podium in 1998 was Champion Racing’s Porsche 911 GT1 with Bob Wollek, Thierry Boutsen and Ralf Kelleners at the wheel. They were a full ten laps behind the winning Ferrari.

Uncharacteristically, the first car out of the race was the Alex Job Racing Porsche. Job would compile a fine string of victories over the next two decades, and his team in entered in this 20th edition.

Some unusual entries in the race included a Marcos LM600 (DNF after 49 laps), and of course the Panoz “Batmobile” GT-1 (finished 8th) with Pruett, Andy Wallace, David Brabham and Eric Bernard driving. Panoz would win the second Petit Le Mans in 1999 with its new LMP1.

A couple of cars with an incredible amount of competition miles on them were Team Ecuador’s Nissan 240SX (DNF) and Cameron Worth’s Mazda RX-7, which finished a respectable 15th.

IMSA legend Jim Downing’s rotary powered Kudzu prototype (aka AutoExe AE99) ran to a very respectable sixth place overall.

Ron Fellows, who would become a Corvette legend in the ensuing years, drove a Porsche in the inaugural race, finishing 13th.

Butch Leitzinger helped pilot the top-finishing American car, a Ford-powered Riley & Scott Mk3 with co-drivers Scott Schubot and Henry Camferdam. They were the WSC class winners.

Other class winners included the Freisinger Porsche with drivers Lance Stewart and Michel Ligonnet (LMGT2) and the Team ARE Porsche in GT3 with drivers Peter Argetsinger, Richard Polidori and Angelo Cilli.

Ken Breslauer is the communications director and track historian at Sebring International Raceway. He is the author of the book "Sebring: The Official History of America's Great Sports Car Race."

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. jason

    October 4, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Porsche 911 GT1 dominates the race. Flips 3 hours in. The article did not say that the Panoz GTR1 led the race overall into the night, before they hit mechanical trouble.

    1998 was a very interesting year because of the WSC (prototype) vs GT1 interclass battles throughout the season. I miss that. Closest thing we have had to that ever since was the 2015 Petit Le Mans.

  2. Tobin Smith

    October 4, 2017 at 11:01 am

    The Panoz entry was so competitive in so many of its events but had horrible reliability issues. Standing just down from the bridge on the back straight I still remember hearing that car come up through the gears and shake my stomach as it roared past- my best memory of road Racing. Oh, that and Hulmann straight at Sebring at night while standing outside the track- really two of the greatest experiences of my life. Still my fave of all time and reason Brabham and Mags are still my favorite drivers.

  3. Paul Heffelfinger

    October 8, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    I was at the first race. I remember that you could almost park anywhere you wanted,they were lucky to have 25000 people now look at it. Love the track,atmosphere and facility.

  4. southcove

    January 16, 2018 at 7:45 am

    what would have been more fun with this too short recap would have been a bunch of pics from the race…just looking at the only photo makes me want to see many more!

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