If you were lucky enough to have witnessed the inaugural Petit Le Mans in 1998, you literally saw history in the making. Fifteen years later the dream of Dr. Don Panoz has become reality- a world-class endurance racing event recognized in the same breath as Le Mans and Sebring.
The first Petit Le Mans was sanctioned by Professional Sports Car Racing (PSCR), previously known as the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). The name change took place in 1997 while the organization was owned by Andy Evans (the IMSA name returned not long after Evans departed).
It was a time of transition in sports car racing. The World Sports Car (WSC) formula had “run its course” and it was time for a change. The first Petit Le Mans, however, was really a special stand-alone race. The American Le Mans Series wasn’t officially launched until 1999 at Sebring.
An event similar to Petit Le Mans was held ten years earlier in Tampa, Florida. The IMSA-sanctioned “World Challenge” non-points race was not part of any series, but a special stand-alone race open to all major international endurance competitors. The following year it became part of the IMSA Camel GT series before fading into history a few years later.
The inaugural Petit Le Mans attracted a very diverse field of 29 cars for its debut on October 11, 1998. The headline entries were the factory Porsche 911 GT1 driven by Allan McNish, Yannick Dalmas and Uwe Alzen (this car is best remembered for a spectacular flip) and a Porsche LMP1-98 driven by Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Jorg Muler. Several Ferrari 333SP and Riley & Scott entries rounded out the WSC/LMP class. Atlanta’s own Jim Downing also entered his Mazda Kudzu.
The Florida-based Champion team was a favorite in the GT1 class with their Porsche 911 GT1 Evo for drivers Bob Wollek, Thierry Boutsen and Ralf Kelleners. The new Panoz GTR-1 was expected to be a factor in the GT1 class as well. Also, hybrid version of the car was entered, long before Audi was racing a hybrid!
The GT2 and GT3 classes had several top Porsche and BMW entries, and there was even a Nissan 240SX, Mazda RX-7 and Chevrolet Marcos!
Earlier in the week, the entries for Petit Le Mans all arrived in downtown Atlanta for tech inspection, emulating Le Mans’ long-standing tradition.
The race itself did not disappoint. The winner was a Ferrari 333SP driven by Eric van de Poele, Wayne Taylor and Emmanuel Collard. The Alboreto/Johansson/Muller Porsche finished a close second place. The Champion Porsche took first in GT1.
Other class-winning drivers included Lance Stewart, Michel Ligonnet, Peter Argetsinger, Angelo Cilli and Richard Pollidorf.
Several drivers from the first Petit Le Mans are still very active in endurance racing today, including Butch Leitzinger, David Brabham, Bill Auberlen and Allan McNish, to name just a few!
Author: Ken Breslauer