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Braselton geared up for 14th Petit Le Mans
Event has impact on local economic development
Spectators fill the front stretch of Road Atlanta prior to the Petit Le Mans race last year. - photo by FILE

Petit Le Mans

When: Today through Saturday, with the race beginning 11:30 a.m. Saturday and lasting 1,000 miles or 10 hours
Where: Road Atlanta, 5300 Winder Highway, Braselton
Contact: 1-800-849-RACE or 770-967-6143

Related story: O'Connell taking on new role of broadcaster for Petit Le Mans

The 14th Petit Le Mans begins today at Road Atlanta in Braselton, bringing with it millions in tourist dollars for the surrounding areas.

In a 2005 survey of the economic impact Petit Le Mans has on the area, "just in Hall County we had an impact of $53 million," said Geoff Lee, president of Road Atlanta. "That's one-third of the tourism impact in Hall County, only behind Lake Lanier."

The 2011 event is expected to bring between $40 million and $60 million to the area, he said.

With upward of 124,000 people coming to see the various weekend events in 2010, Lee expects this year's crowds to eclipse that.

"It does have an impact, especially on hotels in Braselton at (Ga.) 211," said Tommy Jennings, president of the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce. "We are thrilled whenever Road Atlanta has an event, but Petit Le Mans is one in a series of events that create economic development in this area." Braselton sits at the intersection of four counties - Barrow, Gwinnett, Hall and Jackson.

Jennings said Braselton's proximity to Interstate 85 brings in race fans from the Carolinas as well as the Atlanta area.

"Those dollars generated then, whether it's people eating at a restaurant, Petit Le Mans itself or just buying gas, they all have an impact," Jennings said.

Lee said Petit Le Mans, the "little sister" race to the Le Mans in France, is one of the most popular international sporting events. The 2010 races reached 900 million households across the globe. BMW, Ferrari, Audi, Porsche and Peugeot are just a few of the vehicle models on the tracks.

"It's fun for the regional folks to see some of these cars of international acclaim come to town," Lee said.

There's an expo with video games, the latest prototype models and memorabilia up for purchase, plus a kids area with televisions set up so parents can still see the races while their children are playing.

"The paddock's open. You can just walk right in, meet the drivers and see the cars being worked on," Lee said.

Spectators can watch practice rounds, qualifying and races for several series, including the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship, IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama, SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup and the main attraction, Saturday's Petit Le Mans.

The actual Petit Le Mans race is an endurance challenge, requiring drivers to have the stamina for a 10-hour or 1,000 mile race — whichever happens first.

Braselton resident Bryan Sellers races the American Le Mans Series for Team Falken Tire Porsche. He said this weekend's events at Road Atlanta are some of the most difficult and biggest events he races.

"If you win or do well, it shows how good your program is," Sellers said. "It's huge proving groups for people to come out and attempt to race."

He sees both sides of the Petit Le Mans weekend: The community development and the physicality required as a driver.

Not only is the track one of the toughest Sellers races, the 125-degree temperatures inside the car and high-G turns make for a physically rough 10 hours. It's also a challenge mentally.

"I think we have 53 cars this year. It's constantly watching your mirrors for traffic," Sellers said. "It's very exhausting, but it makes getting to the end that much sweeter."