It is difficult to believe that this week will produce the 20th edition of the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.
In a world where everyone looks for a perfect scenario and ways to minimize risk, it is easy to forget that professional sports car racing in the U.S. was in considerable disarray when Dr. Don Panoz and his group made a bold move in creating the event in 1998.
Big events have something special. Right from the start, Petit Le Mans had character and quickly developed the tradition and history to make Road Atlanta a proper bookend to the season openers at Daytona and Sebring and a fitting place to conclude what is now the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Early Days at Petit Le Mans
That first year, Porsche’s Allan McNish was asked about nighttime visibility and noted that his headlights pointed into the trees as cars climbed down the backstretch. “You want to be in the middle of the track approaching the crest to be in position for the landing zone,” he said.
In the race, co-driver Yannick Dalmas, trailed a TWR Porsche at the crest, and was launched into a spectacular flip (see below).
Even practice sessions have provided drama as in later years, Scott Sharp took a couple of mighty hits during practice and Gunnar Jeannette once found himself upside down aboard the DeltaWing.
Petit Le Mans has also provided some spicy treats. Porsche brought its Porsche 911 GTR Hybrid, a test bed for what was to become the Porsche 919 hybrid, to Road Atlanta in 2010.
In 2012, the DeltaWing created a sensation with its North American race debut with Gunnar Jeannette and Lucas Ordonez aboard for an impressive run to fifth place overall despite not being permitted to pit with the other prototypes.
This year, Team Penske prepares for its 2018 return to sports cars with an LMP2 entry featuring a star-studded line-up of drivers Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, and Simon Pagenaud.
Motul Petit Le Mans GTLM teams have added stars like Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais at Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, Marcel Fassler and Mike Rockenfeller at Corvette Racing, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber at Porsche GT Team, Kuno Wittmer and Nicky Catsburg at BMW Team RLL and Alessandro Pier Guidi at Risi Competizione Ferrari.
An Ideal Combination
Ten Hours at Road Atlanta is a winning combination. Starting on an early fall morning and ending well after dark with changes in track conditions, the race is long enough to open up different pit and tire strategies and expose any weaknesses in the team, car or driver line-up.
At 2.54 miles, Road Atlanta is a fast, challenging circuit with a relatively short lap time of 73-74 seconds for Prototypes and 78-80 seconds for GTLMs.
Traffic certainly comes into play and with the race win, WeatherTech championships and manufacturer, sponsor, team and driver contracts on the line, the margin between boldness and discretion in traffic is constantly tested.
Michelin has participated in Petit Le Mans since the outset and, like Sebring and Le Mans, has a big data base and hands on experience to draw on in assisting its technical partner teams.
In 2014, SRT Viper’s Kuno Wittmer finished in third place in GTLM to clinch the class driver and team Championships. Viper had pulled the plug on the program before he reached parc ferme.
The following year Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet passed and repassed the entire Prototype field in the wet to take their Porsche 911 GTLM entry to an historic overall race victory. Less well remembered is that BMW Team RLL’s John Edwards, Lucas Luhr and Jens Klingmann were close behind and made it a GTLM 1-2 overall race finish.
Last year, after heartbreak in the previous race at Circuit of The Americas, it was Risi Competizione Ferrari taking a popular GTLM win.
While Corvette Racing’s Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia are poised to claim the WeatherTech GTLM Driver Championship, the manufacturer battle sees Chevrolet and Ford separated by just four points.
Putting PLM in Perspective
Leaving Braselton, Ga. the morning after one of the first Petit Le Mans races, a local radio station was promoting an upcoming event in the nearby town of Flowery Branch.
The announcer was excited to report on the upcoming week-long celebration for the grand opening of the Flowery Branch State Package Liquor store.
On Monday, they were hosting an appearance by the track champion from Lanier Motor Speedway.
The next day, they would have the winner of the big feature race and on Wednesday, well they had a former track champion.
On Thursday, there was driver who had never won the big feature or track championship, but had a lot of fans. And on Friday, they were hosting a guy who had driven a NASCAR truck a few times, plus the Jägermeister girls.
This would lead to the grand finale on Saturday featuring a champion bass fisherman complete with his boat and trailer.
Thinking back to the big crowd at Road Atlanta the previous day, there was an appreciation of how much Dr. Panoz and his Road Atlanta team had accomplished launching a major international sports car endurance race deep in NASCAR country in the middle of football season and on the eve of the grand opening of the package liquor store.
This weekend’s attendance at Petit Le Mans will likely be north of 120,000. Few are expected to bring their bass boats.
And according to Johnny O’Connell, a former Petit Le Mans winner who resides in nearby Flowery Branch, the package liquor store closed a couple of years ago. But thankfully, Petit Le Mans goes on better than ever.