In the racing world, there are events that are approached with a certain reverence thanks to their history and prestige.
Petit Le Mans, a grueling 10-hour endurance event created as a mirror of its distinguished European counterpart, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, is one of those races.
Having participated in the first-ever running of the race in 1998, perhaps no one has more memories of the event than GB Autosport team manager, Cole Scrogham.
From almost winning the very first Petit Le Mans in 1998, to watching the beloved circuit transform both all at once and slowly over the past 16 years, to fielding an entry entirely driven by women in 2000 and finally winning last year, Scrogham has enough history with the celebrated event to write a novel.
“The cars were different then, very different,” remembered Scrogham of the very first Petit Le Mans. “We were running an older model of the Porsche 911. Most of the cars at Petit Le Mans in that era would have a problem during the race. It was so much more of an endurance race format.
“Today everything is so reliable, the cars just run all the time. Back then that wasn’t the case. You were just waiting on somebody to have a problem. So that first year you would see the leaders separated by multiple laps.
“We had a very good chance of winning the very first Petit Le Mans and then we had a problem. We had an oil leak that we had to stop and fix and then another 911 took the lead and they had to serve a three-lap penalty and watch their lead disappear. It was a really interesting race.”
But aside from the obvious and inevitable change in the cars and technology of the race, Scrogham specifically remembers the sudden change in the actual racing circuit of Road Atlanta and the investment of Dr. Panoz from the very beginning of the event.
“The very first Petit Le Mans was right after Dr. Panoz bought the facility and I remember the massive renovations that were going on just before the race. We were working on the car, getting it all ready for the race early in the week and they were literally changing the landscape of Road Atlanta.
“They built the professional paddock. Right before that race, that didn’t exist. It was just a creek and a hillside. Before that the paddock that was across from the track was all that was there. So we had no idea of this.
“We showed up for the race and they told us to go up and down the hill and then around to the back and meanwhile they were literally cutting the side of that hill away and making tiers for the RVs and everything you see today.
“We were working along and there was this army of people just swarming over the hill, planting grass and everything. That is what I remember most about that first race.”
Scrogham also recalls not only the monetary but the intense personal investment of Dr. Panoz in the track itself and the Petit Le Mans event.
“What I remember the most about that first race was that Dr. Panoz came by and personally introduced himself to everyone on our team and gave me his personal email,” said Scrogham. “He told me if I ever needed anything I should let him know, and I still have that and still correspond with him, but I would assume he did that with every team that was there.
“And that was really a bit different for me, just his level of enthusiasm and interest for the sport and that race, it really was his baby and his brain child. It was unique and he created it. It would be hard to leave him out.
“You could see that he was just so excited about being there and that was really cool. So here we are, how many years later, and it has all transitioned again. It feels a little corporate now. But I had a lot of respect for that man.”
In the 2000 edition of the race, Scrogham made more history by fielding the first ever entirely female entry with his team G&W Motorsports. Cindi Lux, Divina Galica and Belinda Endress drove the No. 81 G&W Motorsports Porsche 911 to a sixth place finish, just two spots behind the team’s other entry piloted by Darren Law, John Morton and Michael Schrom.
“The girls were on the ball all weekend and just determined they weren’t going to make mistakes,” explained Scrogham. “They really did a great job. There was a lot of press, but that was still when Petit Le Mans was still relatively new and young and didn’t have the huge fan base it does now. But it was a really interesting project.”
In the 15 years the event has run, Scrogham has participated in a majority of the races, but perhaps his sweetest memory comes from winning the esteemed event for the very first time last year.
With an excellent strategy to begin the race with what Scrogham describes as a “trick start”, he called the No. 8 BAR1 Motorsports entry to the pits to change to dry tires during the pace laps and was then able to pass everyone on the initial laps and maintain the lead for the rest of the race.
“Finally winning Petit last year with BAR1 was a big deal,” smiled Scrogham. “We had a great race. I really feel like I contributed a lot to that win because it was a mixed start. And it is such a difficult race to win because it is so easy to go down by three, four or even five laps, but we were able to stay up at the front the whole race. So that was a really rewarding race for me personally last year. “
As the event has grown and developed over the years, Scrogham has also enjoyed watching it succeed and grow, even if it meant certain changes that not everyone agreed with, for example the addition of the chicane that now constitute Turns 10a and 10b.
“The only time that I ever actually drove the track that chicane wasn’t there,” remembered Scrogham. “It just went straight up to the top of the hill. It definitely slowed down the cars and made it safer, adding that chicane. But for the purists that was sacrilege.”
As the debut season of the combined TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season comes to a close with Petit Le Mans, Scrogham remembers the history of the event and wonders about its future.
“I have done a lot of Petits and I have seen the change over time,” said Scrogham. “The fan base that will show up there is just tremendous. It is really well attended and strongly supported. Honestly, the first race we were there almost felt like a club race. But I don’t know how many more years we have left at Road Atlanta.
“When I first went there, it was a difficult track to deal with from a logistical standpoint because you had to stay so far away. There wasn’t anything within 45-minutes of the track. Now civilization is growing to the race track and I can foresee, even in my lifetime, Road Atlanta becoming one of those endangered racing circuits, although I sincerely hope not.”
So as the TUDOR Championship prepares for a maiden outing in an event that has years of history, GB Autosport’s Scrogham is happy to have been a part of the long history of the race, and even more eager to be a part of winning it once again.