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Petit Le Mans Preview Pt.2

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On: Wed, Sep 23, 2009 at 11:46AM | By: John Welch


Petit Le Mans Preview Pt.2

Dr. Don Panoz (say 'PAY-nose') is the savior of sports car racing in America. NASCAR began dominating national media towards the end of the twentieth century, leaving little room for other forms of motorsport. Trans-Am was a shell of its former self and several accidents were beginning to erode support for big time GT1 racing. After the rise and decline of Group C in the late eighties, the fate of road racing on American shores was becoming darker and grimmer by the day. Dr. Panoz decided to stop the hemorrhaging and created an endurance race to rival any run in Europe or the rest of the world.

The Petit Le Mans.

Originally run under IMSA sanctioning (The ALMS was not created until 1999), the first Petit Le Mans suffered many challenges and setbacks. The class structure wasn't all that, well, structured. 'GT1' was the dominant class, featuring cars that were supposed to be glorified road cars. They most certainly were not. The Porsche 911 GT1 is one of the more recognizable GT1 cars from this era, and was the first to display an interesting tendency these cars possessed. As you can see in the video below, late nineties GT1 cars enjoyed flying almost as much as they did driving . . .

After this accident, and several involving Mercedes CLK GTRs at Le Mans in 1999, the GT1 rules were radically altered. The rule changes were intended to limit the aero tricks the teams were using, thus eliminating the 'flipping' issue. Also in 1999, Panoz cooked up the American Le Mans Series. Closely relating the series rules to those of the FIA-sanctioned Le Mans rule book, the ALMS was able to secure new teams such as Audi and Corvette Racing, teams that would not have considered racing under IMSA rules. The series featured Corvette's brand new C5.Rs, several WSC (World Sports Car) teams, the then-new Audi R8R, the BMW LMR12, and Panoz's own Le Mans Prototype, the Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S. The Panoz was a special little monster, a front-engined prototype. Long ago most sports racing prototypes had adopted a rear or mid-mounted engine for balance and cornering reasons, Panoz wanted to prove that a front-engined car could match, and even beat, conventional mid engined designs. The ALMS was the perfect place to showcase the car before taking it to Le Mans.

Facing tough competition, the Panoz squad managed a seventh place finish at Le Mans in 1999. The race went much better than the result would suggest, and Panoz rode that momentum until the second Petit Le Mans, on September 18th, 1999.

The second Petit Le Mans was an absolute showdown between the aforementioned Panoz and the BMW LMR12s. Swapping the lead several times over the course of ten hours, the two prototype teams were nose to tail with five minutes to go. Having won Sebring and Le Mans in 1999, BMW was confident in its ability to take the win at Road Atlanta.

BMW LMR12 Winning at Sebring in the spring of 1999

Using the impressive torque generated by its seven-liter, Yates-sourced Ford V8, the Panoz was able to blast out of Road Atlanta's tight corners, giving it enough wiggle room coming on to the long backstretch to cancel out the BMW V12's top end advantage. By the end of the ten hours, the #001 Panoz had thirty seconds in hand on the BMW, cruising to a well deserved victory.

The success of the first two Petit Le Mans solidified its place within the world's spots racing calendar. It is now considered the third most prestigious event, behind the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Audi Team Joest are racing only in those three events this year, and the first two are more then 60 years old. If this doesn't prove the Petit's significance, then the rest of the driver and car line-ups should. Petit Le Mans attracts several European race teams, aside from Audi, as well as many drivers from other series, the IRL, for instance.

The Petit Le Mans Powered by Mazda 6 will air on September 26 at 11:00 am EDT, on Speed


Photo Gallery (click a thumbnail to enlarge)


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