American teams gear up for Le Mans glory

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American teams gear up for Le Mans glory

Every year, a number of American teams make the journey across the Atlantic to compete in the "Grand Prix of Endurance," the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The twice-around-the-clock French marathon lends itself well to Stateside teams, as it's run under...

Every year, a number of American teams make the journey across the Atlantic to compete in the "Grand Prix of Endurance," the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The twice-around-the-clock French marathon lends itself well to Stateside teams, as it's run under the same regulations used in the American Le Mans Series. But it's not the convenience factor that attracts teams. Instead, it's the hallowed grounds of Circuit de La Sarthe that draws some of America's finest on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of endurance racing - the place where it all began over 85 years ago.

Traffic signs and flags in downtown Le Mans.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

The 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans features teams based around the globe including France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Monaco, Russia and Japan. The United States is represented this year by five teams, making up seven cars in the 55-car field. Some go all out with hopes of winning their class, while others are just honored to compete in the most prestigious endurance race in the world. But what all American teams going to Le Mans have in common is that they all share the pride of flying the stars and stripes of their country.

The 2008 edition is extra special, as two teams will be making their maiden voyage to Le Mans, both competing in the LM P1 category. Team Cytosport and Autocon are smaller privateer efforts that regularly compete in the ALMS. For years, both outfits have fantasized of racing on the legendary 8.5-mile Circuit de La Sarthe. Now, their dream is soon to become a reality.

Team Cytosport only began racing in the ALMS last year, but the Greg Pickett-owned organization came with plenty of road racing experience from the now-defunct Trans-Am series. After scoring multiple podium finishes in its limited schedule last year with its AER-powered Lola, the California-based squad has now set its eyes on Le Mans. To achieve that, Cytosport has linked up with Charouz Racing Systems and Team Jota to help them along. Pickett purchased Charouz's ex Lola B07/17 Judd as part of a package that put their entry under the Czech team's banner. This alleviated any concern of getting an entry, as over 30 teams were turned away from this year's race.

Cytosport will not receive support from Charouz, but will instead work with Team Jota, a British-based squad led by Sam Hignett. Hignett was responsible for managing Charouz's efforts last year when they ran the same chassis.

"As far as logistics go, it's been a daunting task," said Cytosport team manager Jim Dunford. "It was by far a greater a task than Greg Pickett or any of us could have imagined. It's been basically non-stop work since we got our entry. We're hopeful that we have enough resources now with spares and bodywork. Team Jota has been incredibly, incredibly, helpful in coordinating everything."

#12 Charouz Racing System - Cytosport: Greg Pickett, Klaus Graf.
Photo by Alessio Morgese.

The team boasts a strong driver line-up that falls back on two experienced Le Mans veterans. Klaus Graf and Jan Lammers will join Pickett behind the wheel of the car, bringing valuable experience to the team. Lammers is a past overall winner of the race while Graf has a handful of starts at La Sarthe. Pickett, meanwhile, will be making his Le Mans debut but already has plenty of laps behind the wheel of a racing simulator, hoping the virtual world will help train for the inevitable reality.

American teams have always enjoyed success at Le Mans, and Dunford was reminded of that after speaking with class-winning co-owner Dale White, who spearheaded Petersen/White Lightning's two Le Mans victories in 2003 and 2004.

"It's a glimmer of hope in a way," Dunford said of past American success at Le Mans. "It makes the hair stand up on my neck just thinking about it. Dale still gets teary-eyed just talking about [his wins]. We had a real frank talk. He gave me a great vote of confidence."

Cytosport will be going up against the big dogs in P1, including the diesel-powered Audi and Peugeots. Instead of targeting those factory-backed entries, Dunford is taking a realistic approach, in shooting for a top-10 finish overall. But as witnessed in past years, you never know where you can end up in an endurance race.

"This is a big swimming pool we're going to and we're going right in at the deep end," Dunford said. "We're just happy to be there and we know if we can keep the formula the same as we have all along, let the chips fall as they may, and if we get a little bit of luck, and we keep our head screwed on, you never know where we can end up. And Dale was there to remind me that."

Autocon, another California-based prototype team, will also be making its Le Mans debut. Like Cytosport, the Mike Lewis-owned outfit will also work with a seasoned Le Mans team to help its chances of success. Creation Autosportif will lend a helping hand, but the British-based organization is no strangers to Lewis' team.

Over the past year, Autocon has run a Creation CA06-H chassis in the ALMS, benefiting from support from the Ian Bickerton-led outfit. However, since hybrid chassis are no longer able to compete at Le Mans, Autocon will be using one of Creation's newer CA07 chassis for the race. The front suspension and rear assembly of the car, including the gearbox and Judd engine, will come from Autocon's CA06-H chassis. Autocon had originally hoped to take delivery of its own CA07 chassis to run as a complete in-house package, but manufacturing delays have prevented it from happening.

#12 Autocon Motorsports Creation CA07-002 Judd: Michael Lewis, Chris McMurry.
Photo by Kurt Dahlstrom.

Nonetheless, Lewis will team with regulars Chris McMurry and Bryan Willman in the No. 23 machine - the same number used when McMurry and Willman drove Team Bucknum's Pilbeam at Le Mans in 2003. Lewis, though, will be making his Le Mans debut. The colossal effort needed to make this program happen has been in the planning stages well before the start of the 2008 ALMS season.

"And that explains why we've been preparing for this race since October of 2007," Lewis said. "A full eight months ago. Not only does Le Mans and all its grandeur and significance deserve your greatest effort, it is something that won't work for a team that doesn't put all its resources behind competing in it. On average, half of the 55-car field will not finish." That's why Autocon will be banking on getting the car to the finish line in one piece and making the most of their opportunity. The team received an automatic entry to Le Mans for finishing runner-up in the 2007 ALMS teams' championship. With the ever-increasing level of competition in the ALMS, Lewis feels like this could be a once in a lifetime shot at fulfilling his dream.

"You never know when it's going to happen again," Lewis said. "You've seen the interest in Le Mans, and for a small team, and we are the epitome of a small team, you don't know if it's going to happen again. Sports car racing is defiantly on the rise. Manufacturers are going to fill up all those entries soon, so we really have to make this count."

In contrast to the two privateers, a third American-supported operation will take center stage in P1. Two factory Audi R10 TDIs have been entered under the banner of Audi Sport North America, joining a Reinhold Joest-entered machine. While all three cars will carry the German flag, Dave Maraj's Champion Racing personnel will support the effort.

Corvette Racing has been a mainstay in the LM GT1 category since 2000, and their track record speaks for itself. Five class victories spread over the last eight years has made the American icon a racing legend at La Sarthe. However, after losing out on the win to Aston Martin Racing's effort last year, the Doug Fehan-led organization is as motivated as ever to take back the crown.

The team retains its driver lineup from last year, with Johnny O'Connell, Jan Magnussen and Ron Fellows teaming in the No. 63 Corvette C6.R and Olivier Beretta, Oliver Gavin and Max Papis aboard the No. 64 machine.

It's a colossal effort for the Pratt & Miller organization to get to Le Mans every year. Thirty-six crewmembers made the trip this year, not including the six drivers plus family members. Add three medical staff, four public relations representatives, four marketing personnel, two chefs and a support crew from GM Europe, and it's could be one big organizational nightmare. But in typical Corvette Racing fashion, it's anything but that.

"Yes, we have it down to a routine and almost to a science," said Steve Wesoloski, GM road racing group manager. "But it still doesn't get any easier. Then you throw in the curve of putting the race at Salt Lake City basically three days before all of our equipment has to be in the crates and on an airplane on its way to France. It's a very tight schedule."

#63 Corvette Racing Corvette C6.R: Johnny O'Connell, Jan Magnussen, Ron Fellows, #64 Corvette Racing Corvette C6.R: Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta, Max Papis.
Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt.

This year, Corvette Racing and two other teams faced the challenge of competing in the ALMS race at Miller Motorsports Park, then immediately preparing the cars and equipment for transit to Le Mans. A specially equipped transporter was ocean-freighted immediately after the Utah Grand Prix, while the team's two cars and extra spares were flown overseas on May 22, just days after the race. But all of this work pays off once the two yellow C6.Rs are unleashed to go racing against some of the Europe's finest GT1 teams.

"It's well worth the effort to be on the global stage against all the best manufacturers in the world," Wesoloski said. "The audience at the event and on television rivals any other race in the world, and it's about being relevant to the consumer. That's why we're racing the Corvettes, again this is our opportunity to be around the world."

Two American teams are represented in LM GT2, both aiming to take home the category win for the first time. Flying Lizard Motorsports makes its fourth consecutive race appearance. The California-based squad helped sweep an all-American GT2 podium in 2005, finishing third with drivers Johannes van Overbeek, Seth Neiman and Lonnie Pechnik. But the fan-favorite Porsche team has yet to revisit the podium since its debut year.

"A win would be huge," said team manager Eric Ingraham. "It's the biggest endurance race in the world. It's the biggest race in our type of racing. It's a huge event. The work is very different. It would be an incredible achievement, something that we would be very proud of and something we want to do sometime in our career. But we realize how big of an undertaking it is."

For this year's quest, the Lizards retain its same driving squad run in 2007 - van Overbeek, Neiman and Jorg Bergmeister. The team is more focused than ever to concentrate solely on performance, rather than get involved in the spectacle that Le Mans presents. Last year, the Porsche was decked out in a stunning livery created by Troy Lee Designs, but this time around, the car will sport the team's more modest ALMS livery.

#80 Flying Lizard Motorsport Porsche 997 GT3-RSR: Johannes van Overbeek, Jorg Bergmeister, Seth Neiman.
Photo by Richard Sloop.

"This year, we're really focusing our racing effort," Ingraham said. "It's not that we've never focused on it, but we're paring everything down to the bare minimum and strictly focusing on a fully prepped car, a fully prepared crew, complete spares package, everything being as good as it could be for us to enter this race and have as much of a chance as we can to win the race."

Twenty-two crewmembers are a part of the Lizard's squad for the month. Ingraham is looking forward to not only battling ALMS rival Risi Competizione, but also a brace of European entered Porsches and Ferraris. European favorites IMSA Performance Matmut and Team Felbermayr-Proton will have equally strong lineups in its Porsches as well.

"We always love racing against new competitors," Ingraham said. "We love the guys we race against in the United States. We're happy for example that Risi will be there. I think our two teams couldn't be any closer and more symbiotic and happy to be racing against each other and with each other."

Risi Competizione is one team that's enjoyed past success at Le Mans. In 1998, the Doyle-Risi Ferrari 333SP entry of Wayne Taylor, Eric van de Poele and Fermin Velez won in the P1 class, finishing eighth overall. Ten years later, van de Poele reunites with the Giuseppe Risi-owned organization for this year's race, hoping to rekindle some past magic.

Since 2002, the Houston-based squad has campaigned Ferraris in the GT2 category, winning numerous races and capturing the ALMS teams' championship in 2006 and 2007. The two-car effort will be seen at Le Mans for the second straight year, one of the Ferrari F430 GTs under the Krohn Racing banner. Defending ALMS class champions Mika Salo and Jamie Melo will be joined by Italian hotshoe Gianmaria Bruni in the No. 82 car while the Krohn Racing entry features van de Poele, Nic Jonsson and Tracy Krohn at the helm of the lime green No. 83 machine. Krohn and Jonsson (along with Colin Braun) finished second last year, and the team would like to improve on that effort this this year.

#99 Risi Competizione Ferrari 430 GT Berlinetta: Tracy Krohn, Nic Jonsson, Colin Braun.
Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt.

"It's so difficult to win Le Mans. It would be fantastic," said team manager Dave Sims. "The Porsches are going to be so strong there. They keep on getting stronger and stronger in each ALMS race because last year, they didn't want to be dominated like that again."

Sims said 20 to 22 crewmembers are making the trip to Le Mans, with some additional fly-ins as well. Like Corvette and Flying Lizard, Risi's adventures started immediately after the checkered flag in Utah. However, the team was faced with an even tougher challenge as one of its cars suffered race-ending damage. Luckily though, only the right-rear quarter panel had to be replaced as well as the car's shock tower. Both cars made it in time for last Wednesday's departure.

The cost of competing at Le Mans has become an ever-increasing challenge for American teams. It hit home for Tafel Racing, which had an entry to this year's race but elected to withdraw last month. The decision by team manager Tony Dowe and owner/driver Jim Tafel was made so they could focus the team's efforts on the ALMS. But it was also in part due to the current economic situation.

"It's a tough economy," Tafel said in an interview at St. Petersburg in March, prior to the team's withdrawal. "If you think about what's going on in the financial market and real estate market, and you think about where our dollar is at, it hasn't gotten better in the last six months. It makes it very difficult."

Nonetheless, the hopes and dreams with teams flying the stars and stripes lie with five other American outfits, all aiming to return with each owns goal's fulfilled.

Teams begin their journey this weekend by taking part in scrutineering and administrative checks on Friday and Saturday, before taking to the historic 8.5-mile Circuit de La Sarthe on Sunday for the Official Test Day. Then it will be onto the race week itself, with activities getting underway Monday, June 9, leading up to the start of the 76th 24 Hours of Le Mans on Saturday, June 14 at 3:00 p.m. local time.

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Series LEMANS