BRASELTON, Ga. (June 10, 2003) -- It's the biggest and most important sports car race in the world, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans offers special challenges and thrills to racing drivers and teams that contest the daunting Circuit de La...
BRASELTON, Ga. (June 10, 2003) -- It's the biggest and most important sports car race in the world, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans offers special challenges and thrills to racing drivers and teams that contest the daunting Circuit de La Sarthe in France.
The 71st running of the famous endurance racing classic will be this Saturday and Sunday, with 50 cars and 150 drivers set to take part. Practice and qualifying runs begin Wednesday.
The American Le Mans Series, which was formed in 1999 based on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, is well-represented in the starting field for this year's race. Twenty-one of the race teams in the event are regular competitors in American Le Mans Series races, and 32 competed in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the event that opened the 2003 ALMS season in March.
The American Le Mans Series annually builds its schedule around the 24 Hours of Le Mans, allowing race teams that want to travel to France for participation in the event the opportunity to do so. Because of the relationship that exists between the ALMS and the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO), organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, race teams that regularly compete in ALMS events receive special consideration in the selection process for the 50 cars that compete at Le Mans.
Don Panoz, the Founder of the American Le Mans Series, was honored by the ACO and named Grand Marshal for this year's Le Mans.
For drivers and teams, the 8.625-mile racing circuit and the event itself are revered. The crowd of 200,000 and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the event remind all participants where they are.
"Every year, I'm amazed," said Johnny O'Connell of Flowery Branch, Ga., who has raced at Le Mans since the early 1990s. He will drive for Corvette Racing and will seek his third consecutive GTS class win. "The number of fans, even as early as Monday when we have scrutineering, is incredible. And they are so knowledgeable and enthusiastic."
"This is such an amazing place," said Gunnar Jeannette of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who drives for JML Team Panoz in a Panoz LMP01 and will be making his fourth Le Mans start. "There is so much history and the atmosphere and the fans is what really makes this place so great. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world."
A massive grandstand across the track from the pit area is usually packed to capacity for the start of the race, and in the hours leading up to the start. Fans wave the flags of their favorites and try to catch the attention of drivers and teams as they prepare for the start.
"Last year, we used a giant slingshot and launched a thousand t-shirts into the stands across pit lane," said Peter Baron of Deerfield Beach, Fla., driver for Orbit Racing in a Porsche 911 GT3 RS. "We want to be the most fan-friendly team. We have more shirts this year -- kids sizes too -- and thousands of autograph cards. We're ready."
The race itself is considered by many to be one of the most difficult races in the world to win, with car preparation, pit work and driver ability and concentration all coming into play even more than in a normal race. Then, with the endurance aspect of the event, factors such as driver and crew rest as well as proper nourishment must be considered and planned for.
"You can't leave anything undone," said Terry Borcheller of Phoenix, driver for Risi Competizione in a Ferrari 360 Modena. "Everything has to be thought through from food to preparation of the drivers and team. Nothing can be left undone or you're going to have problems."
"Le Mans is about experience," said Shane Lewis of Jupiter, Fla., driver for ACEMCO Motorsports, also in a Ferrari 360. "Everything about it from the layout of the track, to the process of where to go and what to do when you get here, where you stay to where and when to eat is unique to this track, this event and this city."
The race is run from 4 p.m. Saturday until 4 p.m. Sunday (France time), no matter if it is raining or clear. In 2001, almost the entire race was run in the rain.
"I remember driving down the straights at 3 a.m., going 160 mph and sliding from one side of the track to the other," said Oliver Gavin of England, driver for Corvette Racing. "Half the time you end up looking out the side windows for visibility, thinking to yourself 'I must be nuts to do this.' Every lap you pray that the line will get dry. Just when you find it, it starts raining again."
But the rewards of winning, which Gavin experienced last year as a co-driver with O'Connell and Ron Fellows, are worth the hardships and effort. Dave Maraj, owner of the Pompano Beach, Fla.,-based ADT Champion Racing Audi R8, fields an American team with a very strong chance of taking the overall win.
"It would be a dream come true for me if Champion could win Le Mans," he said. "It would also be a tremendous achievement for an American team to win arguably the world's toughest motor race."
In North America, race fans will be able to watch 17 hours of live coverage of the event on the SPEED Channel, beginning at 9 a.m. (EDT) on Saturday. Live coverage of the entire race can be heard online at www.radiolemans.com.
The American Le Mans Series resumes action with the Chevy Grand Prix of Atlanta at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga., June 27-29.