Drivers expect challenging, competitive Petit LeMans

Johnny O’Connell, the veteran sports-car racer from Flowery Branch, will race at his home track this weekend when he runs the 13th annual Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, and he’ll need all the home-track advantage he can muster while competing in what promises to be one of the more competitive Petits yet.

O’Connell also has come down to one last chance to give his Corvette Racing team its first win of 2010. The Petit is the final race of the year for both the sanctioning American Le Mans Series and for O’Connell.

Making matters even more challenging for O’Connell is the large number of entries in the race. With 45 cars running on a relatively tight racetrack and several different divisions competing at the same time and running at vastly different speeds, it’ll take some defensive driving to come out a winner after 10 hours or 1,000 miles, whichever comes first.

“It’s going to be an unbelievable event with the large number of cars,” O’Connell said. “It’s going to be survival of the fittest and staying out of trouble, but we’re generally pretty good at that.”

O’Connell races in the GT2 class, which runs much slower lap speeds than the prototype cars that headline the show. That means drivers from the two classes have to race their competition while avoiding the cars in the other classes.

“It’s so difficult,” O’Connell said. “When you have Peugeot and Audi [prototype teams] joining in the fight for the first time this year since Sebring, they’re going to be on total kill.

“That is always one of our biggest fears -- one of them making an overaggressive move and pushing us off. The disparity of speed between classes is enormous.”

And those speed differences, about 30 mph on the straights and 15 seconds per lap, are magnified when the layout of the track is taken into consideration.

“You have long sections of racetrack where it’s difficult to pass, like the esses, and guys lose their patience,” O’Connell said. “But on the other end of the spectrum you do have a long straightaway where they can normally get by you.”

But avoiding contact with the prototypes isn’t the only challenge facing O’Connell and the Corvette team, which is one of the more popular in the paddock at Road Atlanta and other American tracks.

Since they moved to the GT2 class at the end of last year, they have faced some of the strongest competition ever and had to do it with a different engine, one that is 5.5 liters compared to six before.

“I think us entering the class forced the other manufacturers to really up their game,” O’Connell said, adding that the competing Porsche, Ferrari and BMW teams all show up with a cadre of their manufacturers’ top engineers. “The manufacturer involvement in GT2 has probably quadrupled what it was last year. There’s so much pressure on everyone to perform, and everyone is constantly improving.”

O’Connell’s experience at Road Atlanta could become a factor in his battles with the Porsches and Ferraris, but in Petit competition, he has not racked up the wins like he has in other premier sports-car races.

“In 12 Petit Le Mans, I’ve won twice,” he said. “A lot of people would be happy with that, but to me it’s a pretty poor percentage.”

But he said that one way of looking at those numbers is encouraging. His bad luck surely will end sometimes.

“That just means we’re that much closer to winning again,” he said.