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Drivers, fans flock to Road Atlanta for return of Petit Le Mans
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Petit Le Mans

When: 11:30 a.m. Saturday

Where: Road Atlanta, Braselton

Race: 10-hour or 1,000-mile race is the final race of the season on the American Le Mans Circuit.

Tickets: Admission with paddock access $70; parking pass $50.

For more information: 800-849-7223

What keeps Road Atlanta president and general manager Geoff Lee excited about Petit Le Mans is that it brings a little bit of everything to sports car enthusiasts. 

“We really get the best of all worlds for us in this race,” Lee said.

Even with the chase for the GT title already locked up by the Corvette team of Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin, fans of these cars will still flock to the track in Braselton to see the host of cars, such as Ferrari, Porsche and BMW, to name a few.

With the Prototype cars, both titles are still up in the air and will be decided Saturday during the 10-hour or 1,000-mile season finale of the American Le Mans Series. Muscle Milk Pickett Racing can lock up the LMP1 season victory by completing at least 70 percent of laps finished by the overall winner. In LMP2, it’s a similar scenario for Level 5 Motorsports to win its second consecutive title, ahead of Conquest Endurance.

Road Atlanta also has a sterling reputation among drivers for its high speed and technical approach that must be followed. Muscle Milk driver Klaus Graf, who is hoping to win his first ALMS title in the P1, knows Road Atlanta as well, if not better, than any other driver. When driving for Panoz Racing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Graf, originally from Germany, lived in Gainesville and called Road Atlanta home for about three years. He’s run plenty of laps at the track and knows what it takes to be successful in Petit Le Mans.

“Road Atlanta is a very technically difficult course with its slope and elevation changes, but is also my favorite track,” Graf said.

And the key to winning at Petit Le Mans for Graf will not be a tightly guarded secret.

“We’ll try to be a little more careful and run a mistake-free race,” Graf said.

This season, the major addition to Petit Le Mans is the North American unveiling of the state-of-the art Nissan DeltaWing, which will run unattached to any classification during the race, but will be qualified to run all of next season in the American Le Mans Series.

The pioneering, dart-shaped car was designed to perform like a contemporary sports prototype, while cutting weight, fuel consumption and tire use in half. In its North America debut, the flashy DeltaWing will be driven by Gunnar Jeannette and Lucas Ordonez, winner of the PlayStation GT Academy. The DeltaWing’s only previous race was the 24 Hours of Le Mans last June in France.

“It’s a car that looks really futuristic,” Lee said. “It’s really phenomenal.”

Also, actor and Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey will make his Petit Le Mans debut and fifth American Le Mans Series appearance as the co-driver of the Dempsey Racing’s Lola-Judd coupe car in P2, along with Joe Foster of Lawrenceville. The Dempsey Racing Shop is based in Flowery Branch.

Also driving in Petit Le Mans is four-time IndyCar Series Champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti (Level 5 Motorsports) and reigning IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay (SRT Motorsports).

The figures point out that Petit Le Mans remains a major engine for pumping dollars into the local economy. Last year, Petit Le Mans brought in a record 130,000 fans for all four days, capped off by the main draw on Saturday, according to Lee. That was up from the previous record of 125,000 in 2010.

“We should have another great race crowd (Saturday) with temps expected in the mid-to-upper 60s with sun and no chance of rain,” Lee said. “Actually, in four of the last five seasons, we’ve increased our crowd at Petit Le Mans from the season before.”

The only exception was in 2009 when steady rain during the last half of the race forced it to be cancelled.
The impact of Petit Le Mans is big for Hall County. According to figures from the State Department of Economic Development, Road Atlanta puts nearly $200 million annually into the state. The Lake Lanier Convention and Visitor’s Bureau says $53.5 million — 27 percent of annual tourism economic impact — comes from Road Atlanta.

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