Petit Le Mans – A Fan’s Perspective

It all started in 1998.  At that time, the “American Le Mans Series” didn’t even exist.  I am not even sure how I first heard about it.  I was not a big sports car fan at the time, but I liked the motorsports.  The race was billed as an “American Celebration of the 24 hour classic in France”.  It was unique in that the race would follow the basic rules from the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Sports car teams from around the world were invited to participate and many took up the challenge.

In 1998, I was an avid open wheel-racing fan, CART and Formula 1 mostly.  I had been to Road Atlanta a number of times and dreamed of a day when top level open wheel cars would race there (never happened).   As soon as I heard that Road Atlanta was putting on a 10-hour/1,000-mile race I knew I wanted to go.  Unfortunately, a family commitment prevented me from attending the inaugural race.  When I saw the highlights of the race on television I vowed that would never happen again.

And it hasn’t...  I have made it to every Petit Le Mans race since, rain or shine (but let’s not talk about rain, I still have flashbacks of 2009).   In the 14 years since the inaugural event, I have had the opportunity to witness some of the greatest drivers and cars compete on one of the greatest natural terrain road course in the world.  With that in mind I eagerly await this year’s race.

Over the next few weeks I will be contributing to this blog as a fan’s perspective of the race.  From determining what to bring if you plan on camping at the track to what to do on race day. I hope that some of what I have learned over the past 14 years will be useful to you. I learned some of it the hard way; maybe you can learn it the easy way.

If you have never made the trip to Road Atlanta for Petit Le Mans now is the time to do it!  The face of sports car racing in the United States is changing… for the better or the worse remains to be seen. One thing I am sure of is that like most of the 14 Petit that have preceded it, this should be another classic.

In my opinion, one of the things that makes Petit so exciting is it fact that every year the race proves to be an event.  It’s bigger than a race. The crowds are huge, but typically very manageable.  I have been to the Sebring 12 Hour six or seven times in the last few years and I love the atmosphere, but honestly, a good portion of the fans are there for the party, not the race itself.  Petit always feels different.  Sure everyone is there to have a good time but my impression is that Petit brings out the hard-core sports car racing fans.  The racing knowledge seems to be better, which is great if you’re new, because you can always ask the guy standing next to you what’s going on and can usually get an accurate answer. 

Then there is the race itself.  Very few races provide you an opportunity to watch cars compete for the better part of a day and into the night.  To me that is one of the most impressive aspects to Petit.  Watching cars race at full speed in nearly complete darkness with only headlights (for the most part) lighting the way is fantastic. 

Since the race is 10 hours or a thousand miles, you have so many opportunities to experience different aspects of the event.  Unlike traditional sporting events where you are sitting in bleachers or stands for a few hours then go home, Petit enables you to move around the track and view the action from multiple vistas.   Whether watching the teams work on pit lane or standing at the bottom of Road Atlanta’s Esses, there are so many great ways to spectate.  I’ll share some of those with you in a blog closer to the race.  With this year’s race taking place in late October the temperatures should be cool, providing great weather throughout the race week.

Also, let’s not forget about the cars.  Whether a purpose built open-topped prototype, an experimental car like the DeltaWing (www.deltawingracing.com) or a GT car based on cars you may aspire to own, Petit has it all.  Corvettes, Porsches, Ferraris… some of the biggest names in auto-building are competing, and while the top level LMP cars have been limited in recent years, the production based GT cars have been thriving.  The current level of competition in GT is truly some of the best racing I have ever witnessed in any series. (If you want more information on the ALMS class structure and car types, the ALMS has really good explanations here - http://www.alms.com/alms101/classes ).

Finally, I want to mention value.  Considering the race length and the fact that if you choose you can come for multiple days to enjoy practice and qualifying, Petit offers a good bang for your buck.  For less than $100 you can get four days of activities that include support races, autograph sessions, paddock access and the main race.

That covers my introduction to Petit Le Mans.  In next week’s blog I will be talking about preparation for race week.  What to bring, especially if you’re camping, but also it you are planning to be there for just race day.  You can just show up and watch but I’ll give you some great ways to get the most out of one of the racing’s best events. Hopefully this first blog gets you a little more excited about coming out.

 By Dean Richardson, longtime Petit Le Mans spectator 

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