On Friday, Cooper MacNeil and Jeroen Bleekemolen didn’t even know if they would be taking part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yet on Sunday afternoon, the WeatherTech duo bagged an unlikely top-five finish in the GTE-Pro class following a marathon drive by both pilots and the ProSpeed Competition team.
MacNeil, Bleekemolen and co-driver Bret Curtis were originally entered in the GTE-Am class but an accident by Curtis in Thursday’s qualifying session sent the American driver to the hospital — and ruled him out for the race — and left a wrecked Porsche 911 GT3 RSR.
The Rudi Penders-run operation sourced a spare car — the ex-Paul Miller Racing Porsche, now in the hands of ELMS outfit Crubile Sport — which would have seen Bronze-rated Sebastien Crubile replace the equally ranked Curtis in the lineup. However, the ACO denied the driver change due to the Frenchman not getting any nighttime driving laps.
Instead, the decision was made to do the twice-around-the-clock endurance classic with a two-driver squad. What’s more, their No. 79 Porsche was forced to move from GTE-Am to the predominately factory GTE-Pro class due to no Bronze-rated driver being in the lineup, which also came with weight and gurney penalties to the two-year-old 997-based Porsche.
With the odds stacked against them, MacNeil and Bleekemolen not only got the the finish, but impressively recorded a fifth place result in class, and doing it with one of the oldest cars in the race that didn’t turn a lap at Le Mans until warmup on Saturday.
“The car ran flawlessly the entire race,” MacNeil said. “The ProSpeed guys did a great job to rebuild the car and it was just as good, maybe better, than the primary car. They didn’t sleep for two days.”
Former Le Mans class winner Bleekemolen completed the maximum 14-hour drive time, while 21-year-old MacNeil, making only his second Le Mans start, racked up more than 1,100 race miles himself, often in triple or quadruple stints.
Remarkably, their only significant setback for came with two tire punctures.
“We did what we set out to do,” Bleekemolen said. “We were going to run our own race, keep the car safe and run consistent lap times. Cooper did a great job and never had an issue in traffic and never put a wheel off. After the beginning to the weekend we had Bret along with us in our hearts and we brought it home.”
While the GTE-Pro class saw its share of attrition, including an early race accident for the No. 71 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia and the No. 52 Ram Racing Ferrari retiring with gearbox failure, as well as delays for the No. 97 Aston Martin and No. 91 Porsche, MacNeil and Bleekemolen credited the assistance from fellow teams that helped make their marathon run possible.
“We had nothing but support from everyone in the paddock for Jeroen and myself to take on the race with just the two of us” MacNeil said. “Our American racing friends all helped us this weekend. We got a ton of ice from Pratt & Miller to keep us cool and Porsche North America and Dempsey Racing gave us use of their medical services if we needed them.
“Jereon and I were well taken care of by the ProSpeed physio team and we were always ready to get back in the car. It was a challenge, but I think I got over 1,100 miles of Le Mans laps under my belt this weekend. That will pay off when I come back next year.”