IRL: Open-wheel veterans gunning for Petit glory

Andretti Green Racing started its American Le Mans Series program on top with a win in the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The driving trio of Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan outlasted the Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyders to give Acura their debut win in the ultra-competitive LMP2 category.

#26 Andretti Green Racing Acura ARX-01a Acura: Bryan Herta, Vitor Meira, Tony Kanaan.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Fast-forward seven months and the veteran IndyCar Series team has yet to visit victory lane since that memorable March day. This weekend's 10th running of the Petit Le Mans could change that.

Herta, who has been in the cockpit of the No. 26 XM Satellite Radio Acura all-season long, teams with two veteran open-wheel Brazilians for the 1000-mile/10-hour endurance race. The 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan and 2004 "IRL Rising Star" Vitor Meira are eager to end their 2007 seasons with a win.

Meira received a late call from Andretti Green to fill the seat of Dario Franchitti, who had been released from his contract to go racing in NASCAR with Chip Gansssi. Meira is no stranger to the Road Atlanta circuit, having competed with Highcroft Racing in the 2006 edition, finishing third in class in his ALMS debut.

After getting seat time in the Acura on Wednesday and Thursday, Meira instantly found differences between the IndyCar and the LMP2 prototype.

"One thing that stands out is the braking in high speed corners," he explained. "Compared to last year, [the track is] a lot smoother and faster. Comparing the times from last year to this year, you can definitely see the improvement on the track. That translates to the driver a lot."

Kanaan agrees saying that you have to drive the Acura in a different way compared to the open-wheeled cars.

"It's a bigger car," he said. "You have to watch out to not hit the curbs and [damage] the bodywork because [of the size of the car]. The downforce levels are higher in the corners. When we tested here two weeks ago, we had a lot of grip on the racetrack. I was worried about doing a double stint [because] I was getting tired. It's defiantly more physical than an IndyCar."

Meira noted that traffic is also a major difference between the two types of racing. With four different classes of cars racing on the track at the same time, navigating around slower cars is crucial for success.

"The first thing you learn is how to deal with traffic," Meira said. "You may drive the car a tenth faster every lap but if you can't deal with traffic correctly, you lose [a lot] in a hurry."

Kanaan is fresh off a two-day IndyCar test at Iowa Speedway and found it a challenge adjusting to the Acura. However, after a few laps, he was quickly able to get up to speed.

"I jumped out of an IndyCar yesterday so its even more of a reality check for me," said Kanaan. "My first few laps were like 'whoa, I better not crash the car otherwise Bryan will kill me.'. With this track, you get a wake-up call. It's fast, very fast."

Since debuting in the IndyCar Series in 2002, Meira has been close to scoring his first series victory on a number of occasions. Finishing second seven times, he hopes that getting more seat time will help him land that elusive first win.

"We constantly learn everywhere if you're racing ALMS, IndyCar or a go-kart race," Meira explained. "That's why we want to stay in a car as much as possible and do as many laps. I'm definitely going to learn something here and I hope it's enough not only to make the car better there but also start winning races [in IndyCar]."

Bryan Herta, a veteran of IndyCar, shifted his focus this year to the ALMS as the team's lead driver. He hopes this up-and-down season will end on a high note.

"I think its been from the highest high with winning our first race at Sebring, which was unexpected, to going through a tough period through the summer that I think we fell a little bit behind," Herta explained. "We're finishing stronger now and are getting more out of the package. I think Acura has done an amazing job with giving us a really good car in their first season of sports car racing. I think we've had strong driving lineups and have that again here with Vitor coming in. We don't have any weak links. The long race will probably give us a better chance of what it takes to win."