13th Petit Le Mans gains prestige

The 13th annual Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, the 10-hour, 1,000-mile sports-car race that gets the green flag at 11:20 a.m. Saturday, is shaping up to be much bigger than the race’s name might lead one to believe.

For starters, the American Le Mans Series schedule has been changed this year to make Petit the final race of the season, giving the Braselton-based sports-car circuit something many feel that NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series could use -- prestigious races to start and end the season.

Like NASCAR, the ALMS starts its season in Florida, running at Sebring Raceway, which to road racers is just as special as Daytona International Speedway is to the stock-car set. Now the ALMS is ending its season with an event that is growing in stature internationally.

“It’s kind of cool to start at Sebring and end at Petit,” said ALMS publicist Bob Dickinson.

And to top it off, the points championships in all four of the regular ALMS classes are up for grabs at Road Atlanta.

In the Prototype class, Patron Highcroft Racing’s David Brabham and Simon Pagenaud lead Cytosport Team Muscle Milk’s Klaus Graf by 16 points with 30 points up for grabs in the season finale.

The championship likely would be even closer if Graf’s teammate Greg Pickett hadn’t crashed in practice at Mid-Ohio, forcing the team to withdraw from the race.

Then there’s the fact that Petit is part of the first Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, a series that this year will hold races in England, America and China to decide its champion.

The Le Mans Cup series is turning out to be a significant happening in the racing world, and next year’s schedule will see four major races -- the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours of Lemans, Spa and Fuji -- added to the lineup.

Dickinson said the Cup series “gives an international flavor to the Le Mans racing brand.”

The Road Atlanta race also marks the first North American run for Porsche’s innovative 911 GT3 R Hybrid and the debut of Don Panoz’s Panoz Abruzzi "Spirit of Le Mans."

The Porsche entry features a regenerative flywheel system that captures and releases energy. It made its debut at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring earlier this year and led the race for nearly eight hours until a mechanical problem unrelated to the hybrid technology sent it to the garage early.

In the GT class, Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Corvette and Jaguar have been battling it out with Porsche’s Flying Lizard drivers Patrick Long and Joerg Bergmeister carrying a 22-point lead over Risi Competizione Ferrari driver Gimmi Bruni into the finale.

And the Corvette team, which includes hometown driver Johnny O’Connell, has one last chance to end a season-long winless streak.

All those factors have led to the largest entry list -- 45 teams -- since 55 entered the race back in 2002.

But for many road-racing enthusiasts, the lure of the Petit Le Mans is the renewing of the battle between the prototype race cars fielded by rivals Peugeot and Audi.

The Road Atlanta race will mark the first head-to-head competition between the two on U.S. soil this year. Peugeot won the season opener at Sebring, but the Audi team did not compete there. Then Audi cruised to victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans after the Peugeots dropped out with mechanical woes.

Last year’s Petit was shaping up to be another classic showdown between Audi and Peugeot, but heavy rains ruined that for drivers and fans. Audi’s Alan McNish spun in deep water following the pace car under caution and was unable to make up the lost ground before the race was called early because of torrential downpours, and Peugeot got the win.