As the 25th Running of the Iconic Endurance Race Approaches, It’s the Right Time to Look Back at Some Highlights
By David Phillips
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Twenty-four years and nearly 9,300 lead laps ago, the inaugural Petit Le Mans was born at what was then known simply as Road Atlanta.
Envisioned by founder Don Panoz as an American interpretation of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the event became the cornerstone of Panoz’s American Le Mans Series that steadily integrated itself within the world sports car racing scene like no North American-based sports car series before it. Initially contested over a distance of 1,000 miles or 10 hours, whichever came first, Petit Le Mans eventually switched to being a 10-hour timed race.
Whether its duration was dictated by distance or time, what was destined to become the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta has regularly featured the world’s leading marques, drivers and teams on a natural terrain road course as welcoming to spectators as it is challenging to competitors. The past two dozen years have witnessed too many memorable moments to count, but as we approach the historic 25th running of the race on Oct. 1, we’ll try and pick a handful (or two).
1998: Off to a Flying Start
The worldwide sports car racing scene was in disarray when Panoz, who had recently acquired and updated Road Atlanta, joined forces with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which sanctions the renowned 24 Hours of Le Mans. In exchange for Panoz assuming the responsibility of organizing a standalone sports car endurance race, the ACO lent the event its imprimatur including the use of the Le Mans name and the promise of automatic invitations for class winners to the 24 Hours of Le Mans the following June. Should the nascent Petit Le Mans be a success, Panoz and the ACO would establish a season-long championship in the United States and Canada.
The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) sanctioned the race under its Professional SportsCar Racing series rules and, notwithstanding a few challenges (including subtle differences in IMSA and ACO technical regulations), the event attracted 31 entries and produced an entertaining race in front of an encouraging crowd. The early stages featured a battle between Porsche, Ferrari and Panoz’s eponymous Esperante GTR-1 for the overall lead before the Porsche LMP1-98 of Yannick Dalmas flipped on the back straightaway and the Panoz and Doran Ferrari 333 SP suffered mechanical failures.
Thus, the Doyle-Risi Ferrari 333 SP driven by Eric van de Poole, Emanuel Collard and Wayne Taylor took the win from the surviving Porsche LMP1-98. With the ACO’s blessing, Panoz and IMSA inaugurated the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) the following year. Although the intervening years have had their ups and downs, few could have imagined what they would have in store for the event and one of its first winners.
“What happened to 25 years?” laughs Taylor, who will serve as co-grand marshal of this year’s event with his ’98 co-drivers, in addition to fielding the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class-leading No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura. “I can remember thinking, ‘Was this going to be accepted around the world?’ And it’s become one of the biggest races in the world, so it makes me very happy that we were the inaugural winners. They can never take that away from me.
“And that was a very big year for me because we won our class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the first Petit Le Mans, but Petit Le Mans was bigger because it was the overall victory.”
1999: Front-Engine Panoz Pushes to the Front
One of Taylor’s abiding memories of the inaugural Petit Le Mans was a conversation in the paddock with the event’s founder and namesake of the front-engine Panoz sports cars. Panoz gestured to Taylor’s Ferrari 333 SP and said, “Wayne, you’ve got a problem. The engine is in the wrong place!”
Although there was a period during the first Petit Le Mans when it appeared Panoz would be proven correct, the Panoz Esperante was eventually sidelined by a blown engine. Not so the following year as David Brabham, Eric Bernard and Andy Wallace guided the distinctive Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S prototype to a one-lap win over the Schnizter BMW LMR.
“Don was quoted as saying, ‘I’ve never seen a horse push a cart,’” says John Leverett, who served as vice president of marketing and sales for Panoz Sports Cars. “He was committed to front-engined cars and he certainly proved his point. He got a great kick, not so much out of being the underdog and beating the big guys, but by being successful. He was so excited; he was beside himself.”
2000: Auberlen Flies … and so Does Corvette
The next year witnessed featured at least two highlight moments, the first coming 60 laps into the race when Bill Auberlen, destined to become IMSA’s winningest driver, took an unexpected flight in the BMW V12 LMR along the backstraight. Like Dalmas two years prior, Auberlen escaped injury when the BMW landed on its wheels.
“It was quite a ride,” said Auberlen. “Just before I went up and over, my visor got sucked up. I thought, ‘The air must be going the wrong way.’ Then the nose went up.”
Spectacular though Auberlen’s aerobatics may have been, they were overshadowed by a dramatic GTS class finish that saw Andy Pilgrim muscle his Corvette C5.R past Tommy Archer’s Dodge Viper GTS-R entering Turn 1 on the final lap. Archer slid off the road in his efforts to defend the top spot, a fact that didn’t register with Pilgrim – at least initially.
“I flew into Turn 2,” he said, “and there’s always a light up there at the top of the hill. I saw the light in my side mirrors and thought ‘Jeez, he’s right on me!’ So, I drove like a complete lunatic down through (Turns) 4 and 5. I came out of Turn 5 and was massively four wheels off, looked in my mirror … and there was nobody there! It would have been hysterical – crashing the car being chased by a ghost car!”
2008: The Legend of the McNish McMiracle
From 2006-10, the light and nimble LMP2 Porsche RS Spyder and Acura ARX-01a frequently challenged the heavier, more powerful LMP1 Audi R8, R10 TDi and R15 TDi for overall wins across the ALMS schedule. Add cameo appearances by Peugeot with its Le Mans-special LMP1 908 HDi FAP and you had a golden era of ALMS prototype competition.
The 11th running of the Motul Petit Le Mans was one for the ages, with the drama beginning when Allan McNish’s Audi slithered into the tire wall on the formation lap. The Scotsman limped back to the pits, where the Audi mechanics set about repairing the damage in time to join the race in hopes of getting back to the front. The Audi duly joined the action two laps down whereupon McNish, Emanuele Pirro and Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello drove the ensuing nine-plus hours at 11/10ths before McNish got around Christian Klein’s Peugeot and set sail for victory lane.
“It was one of my worst personal races and one of my best personal races,” McNish says. “After I put it in the wall, the team was absolutely stunning in their recovery – as they tended to be – and both Emanuele and Dindo delivered in every way to get back.
“When we got into second place, I thought, ‘There’s no way I am not going to get past the Peugeot.’ And I got him down into Turn 6; I wasn’t really intending to pass but the opportunity came and from then on, I just eked away in traffic. So, crossing the line was a relief, but then I had to phone Dr. (Wolfgang) Ulrich (Audi motorsports director), who couldn’t be at the race. I said, ‘It’s OK, we won, but I did shunt your car on the way to the grid.’”
2010: Porsche Preview of Hybrid Things to Come
Technical innovation has long been an IMSA hallmark, never more than when Porsche entered its 911 GT3 Hybrid featuring a gasoline-powered, six-cylinder, four-liter engine coupled with a spinning flywheel that was automatically charged under braking by twin synchronous motors.
How futuristic was the 911 GT3 Hybrid? In all other aspects the Porsche fit IMSA’s GTC class regulations but, given its unique powertrain, it was relegated to a class of its own: GTH. Although the Porsche lost time owing to non-powertrain issues, Mike Rockenfeller, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas steered it to 18th place overall, 13 laps clear of the GTC-winning Porsche 997 GT Cup, all while using an estimated 10 percent less fuel than the conventional Porsches.
A dozen years down the road, the 2022 Motul Petit Le Mans will be the swansong for purely gasoline-powered Daytona Prototype international (DPi) cars in advance of the new generation of hybrid GTPs in the 2023 WeatherTech Championship.
2015: Porsche 911’s Stunning Wet-Weather Win
This was another, er, high-water mark for Porsche as the 911 RSR of Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Richard Lietz splashed to an improbable overall victory in monsoonal conditions. The Porsche was aided and abetted by Michelin “confidential” rain tires designed for the performance characteristics of each marque, as was typical for the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class. In contrast, the (theoretically) faster Prototype cars were bound to run a competitor’s “spec” rain tires.
Perhaps the biggest challenge came on restarts following the succession of full-course cautions as, according to IMSA procedure, competitors were grouped by class with the Prototype cars promoted to the head of the queue each time.
“After the caution, there might be 10 or 12 of these really much slower cars in front of you,” Tandy told Racer.com. “And the restarts are where it was really difficult. I remember getting stuck behind one guy. He was doing a fairly decent job, but we clearly had a lot more pace in the slower corners, but I couldn’t get past him. And then every time he got to the straight, coming out of Turn 7, he’d have enough speed down the straights to be able to pull past.”
After no less than 10 cautions and with no let-up in the rain likely, IMSA had little choice but to wave a water-logged checkered flag just shy of the eight-hour mark.
“I get this call, ‘Caution’s out, caution’s out,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, OK, here we go again,’” Tandy says. “And I think I was probably on the backstraight somewhere, and we’ve got no idea it was the last lap. The first I knew that the race was being checkered was when I came around the corner and I saw the flag man waving the flag, and I think I radioed it to the team and said, ‘It’s over. We’ve won it. We’ve won it.’ Even before anyone else had realized.”
2020/2021: Unforgettable DPi Battles to the Finish
The past two Motul Petit Le Mans races are paired for the final installment in a collection of short stories. Although each year stands on its own, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The final hour of the 2020 race saw Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 battling tooth and nail with Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R. With the race win on the line, Taylor made a bold move into Turn 7 that Derani parried … enthusiastically. Contact ensued and both cars spun, enabling Renger van der Zande to take the victory in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac.
The tables turned last year as Taylor (now in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura) tried to wrest second spot from the Whelen Caddy of Felipe Nasr in the final laps. The DPi championship was riding on the outcome, although the Mazda DPi of Jonathan Bomarito, Oliver Jarvis and Harry Tincknell had the race win well in hand. Approaching the Turn 10/11 chicane one last time, Taylor left his braking later than late, slid through a gravel trap and back onto the track ahead of his rival. Taking a more conventional line, however, Nasr emerged from the chicane with a head of steam and powered his way past Taylor to take second place – and claim the DPi titles for Cadillac, Whelen Engineering Racing and Nasr and Derani.
In addition to a “wow” finish, the race had a notably bittersweet air to it. Not only was it the final outing for Nasr and Derani as a driver pairing, but it was a victorious closing chapter to Mazda’s DPi program even as Matt Campbell, Mathieu Jaminet, Cooper MacNeil and the No. 79 WeatherTech Porsche team captured the final event in a GTLM class destined to be supplanted by the GTD PRO class in 2022.