Le Mans Series founder Don Panoz yesterday announced that outright and class winners at Adelaide's Race of Thousand Years next New Year's Eve will be given automatic entry to the 2001 Le Mans 24 Hour.

Adelaide will be one of only three races in the 12 round 2000 Le Mans Series in which victory will guarantee a place on the packed Le Mans 24 Hour grid.

Such is the demand from sportscar teams to race in the fabled French race, event organisers, the Automobile Club l'Ouest, stage a separete pre-qualifying weekend to narrow the field down to the final 48 starters.

Last year 75 entries were received to contest the race with only five cars guaranteed of a grid position for the race - leaving 70 cars to fight over 43 spots.

Whether they be private or factory entries - if the teams do not make the qualifying time in their class, the car will be missing from the 24 Hour.

Individual teams can spend up to $500,000 (U.S.) on the pre-qualifying weekend alone to prepare for the event.

Adelaide will join the Road Atlanta Petit Le Mans event in the U.S. and the newly announced Nurburgring race in Germany as the direct qualifying events. Panoz made the announcement at the prestigious Autosport Show in Birmingham at the weekend.

"The chance to gain a direct entry into the Le Mans is a major incentive to sportscar teams right around the world," Panoz said.

"If you have a problem on the pre-qualifying weekend and miss the 24 hour, your entire program can be ruined. By gaining direct entry in the 24 hour, you can use the pre-qualifying weekend as a test session or by-pass that weekend and concentrate on your development.

"No matter what happens in pre-qualifying, you know you will be on the grid for the main event. It certainly makes life easier for teams for planning, sponsorship and logistics."

Pre-qualifying for this year's Le Mans 24 Hour will be staged on April 30, with the race itself on the weekend of June 17 and 18.

Race winners in the Prototype, GTS and GT classes in the Adelaide event will have guaranteed grid positions in 2001.

Panoz said the decision to make Adelaide one of the three qualifying races will further ensure its success.

"As I have said before, I think Adelaide will be one of the Œjewels in the crown of our series and we are keen ensure it will be a major success," Panoz said.

"Adelaide's reputation for providing a fantastic motor race and an even better party remains strong in the international motorsport community and the feedback I have been getting throughout the world is extremely positive."

"We plan to position Adelaide as one of the world's great sportscar races. Every driver wants to have victories at Le Mans, Sebring and Petit Le Mans on their C.V. - we want racers to be desperate to add Adelaide to that list."

The Audi and Panoz marques have already committed to the entire Le Mans series in 2000 and an announcement is expected soon regarding BMW's expected involvement.

Customer chassis from specialist racecar manufacturers Reynard, Lola and Riley and Scott are expected to swell the grid. The bonus of automatic Le Mans qualifying is also expected to attract teams from the Japanese GT championship.

Panoz confirmed the calendar for the 2000 Le Mans Series with Silverstone in the U.K. (May 13) and the Nurburgring in Germany (July 9) filling the final two spots on the calendar.

The announcement gives the series 12 races on three continents for the 2000 racing campaign.

CALENDAR March 18: 12 Hours at Sebring, Sebring, Florida, U.S. April 1: Lowes Motor Speedway, Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. May 13: Silverstone, England July 9: Nurburgring, Germany July 23: Sears Point Raceway, Sonoma, California, U.S. Aug. 6: Mosport International Raceway, Ontario, Canada, Sept. 2: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas, U.S. Sept. 10: Portland International Raceway, Portland, Oregon, U.S. Sept. 30: Petit Le Mans, Road Atlanta, Braselton, Georgia, U.S. Oct. 15: Laguna Seca Raceway, Monterey, California, U.S. Oct. 29: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. Dec. 31: Race of a Thousand Years, Adelaide, Australia