|We recently made our 3rd annual trek to Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia for the 13th annual Petit Le Mans, which is a race of 1000 miles, or 10 hours, whichever comes first. The decision to travel a large distance for an automobile race seems silly to the uninitiated, but this isnt just any automobile race. Far from it in fact. Endurance sports car racing has a huge fan following in America, which is evident by the droves of fans that invade the beautiful Road Atlanta facility and create mini villages throughout the rolling hills and vast paved lots, seemingly as far as the eye can see.
Audi came to Road Atlanta and Petit Le Mans this year as part of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. Fresh off of a thrilling victory at Le Mans, where Audi capitalized on Peugeots unreliability while at the same time enjoying the reliability of their own R15 plus to cross the finish line first, hopes were high that the momentum would continue to swing in Audis direction. Other than last years rain shortened race, which saw an uncharacteristic mistake by Audi driver Allan McNish punt the Audi R15 from first to third place, Audi have won every Petit Le Mans they have entered, since 2000.
As was the case at Le Mans, the Peugeots were noticeably faster than the Audis in practice, and qualifying. As we watched practice, it seemed that Audi was struggling with setup a bit, and in fact a few Audi drivers had some off track excursions, which was a bit troubling. Dindo Cappello had one particularly bad moment at the top of the Esses where the car was so heavily damaged it couldnt be driven back to the pits. As it turned out, the #7 car had been essentially rebuilt twice already before this point, and Audi saw fit to ship a third carbon fiber tub, which is what makes up the main structure of the car, to Georgia so the team would have it in advance of the next race. This happened to be a stroke of good luck, because the team ended up using that third tub to put the car into race shape before the race started.
Part of what makes this kind of racing is the facility itself. Road Atlanta is not a huge sprawling facility, with a track length of just over 2 miles (compared to Sebring for example, which is more than 1 mile longer). Its rather cozy in fact, and its easy to walk from end to end in not a lot of time, though a rented golf cart does come in very hady. For fans, this is a good thing. Its possible, depending on where one decides to set up the tent and chairs, to see multiple corners of the track simultaneously. The most fan friendly location would be the area around turns 10a and 10b, which has permanent seating areas, and a huge portable jumbotron to watch the racing action thats taking place on the rest of the track. That area is also closest to the Vendor areas, where the event takes on a bit of a carnival atmosphere.
A close second, and our location of choice for our base camp, would have to be Spectator Hill. This grassy hillside area above the Esses (the signature Road Atlanta section starting at turn 4 and winding downhill and then back up to turn 5). During the race, this area becomes a virtual sea of people. We saw not one single open space of grass while we were there. There is a jumbotron in this area as well, and Radio Le Mans is broadcast on speakers all around the track, as well as broadcast on various FM and scanner and XM stations.
The cars come down through the esses at very high speed, and while its generally not a great spot on the track for overtaking because its such a fast and flowing section, spectators are treated to the thrill of watching the cars weaving through this series of turns. Its quite exhilarating in fact when the fastest cars, the LMP1 prototypes such as the Audi R15 plus rocket through this section. Another part of the specticle for fans is admiring the cars that people drive there. There are corrals for Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, Audi, and others. Parade laps are popular with various car clubs. Walking around the various corners of Road Atlanta, it’s amazing what kinds of cars you see.
But in reality, its a disservice to you to stay in one area the whole time. There are many great places to watch the racing action at Road Atlanta. The area at turns 6 and 7 are particularly fun. Turn 6 is at the end of a fast straight section, and the cars enter under very heavy braking. Turn 7 is a slow turn, where the cars set up for the beginning of the long back straight, which while far from being actually very straight, is VERY fast. This year, the Peugeots were recording maximum speeds over 200 mph, which is something thats not been done at Road Atlanta in prototype racing for some time. We can tell you too, when standing at the apex of turn 10a, which is at the end of this very fast straight, the cars come in extremely fast, and brake extremely hard.
Just prior to the start of the race, spectators at the Petit Le Mans are treated to the traditional Grid Walk, where the cars are parked, Le Mans style at a slant in order of how they qualified. Teams stand at their cars, and often will answer questions and sign autographs, and pose for photos. Its a lot of fun for sure, to be able to stand that close to your favorite car just before the race, and see the people who make it all happen. There is excitement in the air, because we know that in just a short time, the race will begin!
With all the pomp and circumstance of a sporting event of this level, fans begin to file off the grid. The pipe and drum corps plays their way through the crowd, skydivers fly the Stars and Stripes in while the national anthems is sung, balloons and confetti and fireworks are launched. And then the most famous words in racing are said: Gentlemen Start Your Engines. The cars take 2 formation laps, and then the race starts!
As expected, the Peugeots took the lead early, but Alan McNish charged hard! He along with teammates Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello fought the #7 Joest Audi R15 Plus into second place, and kept it there, eventually taking the lead for quite some time, even through driver changes, and fuel and tire stops. The record crowd was treated to some of the finest back and forth prototype racing ever seen, with hard fought battles between Audi and Peugeot.
The race remained mostly uneventful for Audi till André Lotterer had a very dramatic off track excursion in the Esses. He got the car high on the inside curbing while passing a slower car, which ripped the front spoiler mostly off of the car. Through some very crafty maneuvers, going backwards and forwards, he managed to remove the mangled bodywork from the car, and limp back to the pits where the crew would replace the nose of the car. Unfortunately, this repair would consume 15 laps, essentially eliminating any chance for the #9 car to have a victorious finish.
Then, in the 6th hour, something very odd happened. While leading the race, Audi driver Dindo Capello had a very scary and unexpected problem. Inside the helmets of the race drivers is an uninflated air bladder system called an E-Ject. This is used in the event of an accident where medics can gently inflate the bladder with air, which helps remove the drivers helmet without straining the neck. Somehow, this system came loose and fell out of position, causing Capellos helmet to become loose, which in turn allowed the balaclava (the fireproof head covering that drivers wear under the helmet) to cover his eyes. As if the setting sun wasnt bad enough, the wind pushing on his helmet and suddenly the balaclava over his eyes, he was forced into the pits to get this situation fixed. The team scrambled, and Allan McNish who was not expecting to be forced into duty rushed into the car. Unfortunately, the Audi team Joest #7 car lost a lap due to this problem, and was never able to make it back.
As darkness fell over Road Atlanta, the racing stayed heated up. Audi chased their French rivals till the bitter end, but sadly for Audi fans, the Peugeots managed to hold together to finish the race first and second, and Audi had to settle for third place. Nevertheless, it was hugely exciting for Audi fans to see their heroes, even if they didnt claim top spot on the podium.
As the fireworks exploded overhead, and teams celebrated, fans packed up their sites, and started heading for the exit. All in all it was once again a tremendously good time. The folks at Road Atlanta know exactly how to put on a good show for the fans. Sanctioning body IMSA keeps things safe for driver and fan alike, and the teams bring the most technologically advanced hardware, the best drivers. All of that combined with some of the best weather weve seen for Petit Le Mans (especially after last year!!!), this years Petit will stay in our memories for a long long time!
Were positively going to attend next years Petit Le Mans, and we hope to be able to encourage more people who maybe have never been to a race like this, to go to this one. Its truly a special track, extremely fan friendl