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Petit Le Mans fans get revved up for a day at the track
Crowds pour into Road Atlanta for annual road race
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Reuben Kennedy of John's Creek shows his sons, Colin, 5, and Ryan, 3, right, a close-up look at one of the cars in the Petit Le Mans Saturday morning at Road Atlanta prior to the race when fans can look at the machines.

BRASELTON — Phillip Gross leaned in as his three children, ages 4 to 7, stood at the open door of the race car and stared wide-eyed as the suited-up driver talked about his vehicle.

For the Gross family of Columbia, S.C., the annual Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta has become a family affair.

"We're loving it," said Phillip Gross.

"This a very family-friendly event," added his wife, Carson. "The drivers are great, the owners are great. It's all about the kids and the fans."

The Gross family was among the 100,000-plus spectators packed into the track off Winder Highway for the international event, which was televised by the Speed network.

A sea of fans streamed along the track near the finish/starting line before the race to visit with racing teams and take pictures of them with their cars. Many teams hoisted the flag of the country they represented.

Many fans arrived days before the event in recreational vehicles, camping out at the track. Others poured in Saturday, taking advantage of free parking in front of the registration building and at Lanier National Speedway across Winder Highway.

The Gross family visited last year, when hard rains thinned out the crowds. An avid racing since 1993, Phillip Gross's enthusiasm has spread to his children.

His two sons sported Flying Lizard Motorsports ball caps signed by members of the team, which hails from near San Francisco.

Seth Nieman, the Flying Lizard team principal and one of three drivers for Saturday's 10-hour race, gave Gross' children a brief tour of his car.

Nieman said he enjoys meeting with fans before the race.

"In many ways, it's a nice distraction. It's great. We're here for all these people," Neiman said.

"I remember what it was like when I was a kid. That's why I snag every kid I can, just because it's so much fun to talk to them."

Many fans were pure enthusiasts, such as Reuben Kennedy of Johns Creek.

"I've been coming here six, seven years," said Kennedy, at the race with his wife, Mary Beth, and sons, Colin, 5, and Ryan, 3.

"We love road racing in general and love the event," he said.

"He's got two Ferraris, a Porsche and a Lamborghini, too," his wife chimed in, laughing. "He likes cars and car racing."

Others on hand had a more serious mission.

Families associated with the Austin Hatcher Foundation, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based group that raises awareness about and money toward cures for pediatric cancer, were visiting the track, holding up flags for all the countries represented in the race.

"All the families come for free, get to do the flagging and ride in the pace car and have a bunch of fun," said Jim Osborn, who founded the organization with his wife, Amy Jo.

"It's an opportunity for them to have a few moments of peace in their difficult time of life."

Road Atlanta and the American Le Mans Series sponsor the group at the race. Families gathered under the large white tent, ate lunch and watched the race.

"We do this all over the country," Osborn said. "We've done with it all of the American Le Mans Series. This is our biggest event."

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