There was definitely a big American “invasion” at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, and for GTE-Am winner Bill Sweedler, it was a particularly proud moment to hear his country’s national anthem playing from the podium.
In what he described as “a crazy weekend,” Sweedler once again teamed up with Townsend Bell and Jeff Segal in the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari F458 Italia in an attempt to improve upon their third-place class finish last year.
However, they perhaps didn’t quite expect to take such a dominant class victory in their all-American Ferrari.
“I remember watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a kid, and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t that be a dream to be able to participate in that race?’,” Sweedler told Sportscar365.
“[I was] thinking about last year, getting on the podium on the first time and how incredible that was, and there was a lot of luck in that also with everything that happened.
“I never got the seat time because the weather was so crazy last year. We showed up on the test day and it was raining.
“To go out there without ever being on that track, in the rain, it was hard. Both Townsend and I were jet-lagged on top of it. It was only in the race we got solid seat time.”
Even so, the trio came through to finish on the third step of the podium in 2015, but leaving them hungry for more.
“Coming back here was a world of difference for me, immediately, even at the test day,” he said. “As the weekend ensued, and I got seat time, I didn’t want to get out of the car!
“We just made no mistakes, I upped my game, and we really hit it.
“I can remember at the end of the race, I never wanted to say we were in a good spot when we were leading by a lap, and I didn’t even want the thought to enter my mind of, ‘Wow, we’ve got a one lap lead right now!’
“It was just insane. The seconds were ticking by, and I was thinking, ‘I can’t deal with this.’ I would have much rather been in the car than sitting and watching the last three hours, which was a nightmare.”
At the end of the race, amidst shock in LMP1 and controversy in GTE-Pro, Segal brought the No. 62 Ferrari to the line with an almost three-minute lead over the second-placed AF Corse entry of Emmanuel Collard.
It was an emotional victory for Sweedler, to stand on the top step of the podium in the world’s most prestigious and grueling sports car race.
“Over the years, and when I stood on the podium last year, you never really understand the significance of hearing your own anthem,” he explained.
“Last year, I thought to myself it would be amazing if it were the Star-Spangled Banner playing in front of all of those people.
“It’s the magnitude of looking up, seeing the American flag, hearing the Star-Spangled Banner, and being awestruck. When I heard that, I knew we did it. We won.”
The last time an American-run Ferrari with an American driver lineup won the race was North American Racing Team (NART) in 1965 with the Ferrari 250 LM driven by Americans Masten Gregory and Ed Hugus along with Jochen Rindt.
“[Luigi] Chinetti was the guy racing the NART Ferraris that won [in 1965],” said Sweedler. “We always had that in mind, and what a legacy to be able to lead in that car, that normally-aspirated F458 Italia. To have an American Ferrari again, we thought it was so cool.”
What’s more, this victory completes the endurance racing “triple crown” for longtime co-drivers Sweedler and Bell.
They won the Twelve Hours of Sebring in 2012 with Alex Job Racing and the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2014 with Level 5 Motorsports, the latter also with Segal.
“When I set out racing, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, how cool would it be to win one of these big endurance races?'” Sweedler said.
“When Townsend and I did it at the Twelve Hours of Sebring, we thought this was pretty cool and we had to figure out how to show up and win at Daytona.
“When we did it at Daytona, I said to him, ‘Hey, we’ve got to figure out how to get to Le Mans!’ The fact that we set out and accomplished it, is so cool and awe-inspiring to me, that we actually did it. It’s crazy!”
However, the next step for Sweedler isn’t very clear. Scuderia Corsa will get the automatic invite from the ACO for next year’s race, and he’s hopeful of assembling the same lineup and effort for 2017.
But back Stateside, it’s been a rocky year so far for the reining GT Daytona champions, whose new venture to O’Gara Motorsport ended when the team folded after Daytona.
They were picked up by Change Racing, and contested its Lamborghini Huracán GT3 at Sebring and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, but will not take part in next weekend’s Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen with the team.
“I love the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship,” Sweedler said. “The high of this year was to be at Le Mans, but the low of this year was not being able to compete in the [full] WeatherTech Championship. It was really disappointing with what happened at Daytona.
“What’s on the table now is to focus on next year, maybe dabbling in a race or two in the U.S. I’ve got to figure out what that is, but I know one thing: I want to be back in the U.S. and just as important, I want to be able to compete again at Le Mans.”
John Dagys contributed to this report.