Four days before the Petit Le Mans on Saturday, hundreds of people wandered about Road Atlanta in Braselton.
A steady flow of fans trickled up to the ticket windows. Once inside, they walked the paddock areas seeking autographs from their favorite drivers. The diehards among them had already parked motorhomes by the gates, ensuring they’d get their pick of viewing spots around the track.
Andrew Davis couldn’t help but notice all the fanfare.
“This race and the fact that it has become an international event, the crowd seems to grow and grow every year. I love seeing that,” the Stevenson Motorsports driver said Thursday. “We were giving the track walk (Wednesday), and with the amount of campers and people that were already here, I don’t see how we’re not going to break an attendance record this year.”
Fans are turning out in droves to see the 19th annual Petit Le Mans, which begins at 11:10 a.m. Saturday and represents the season finale of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
The 10-hour endurance race will feature a handful of popular IndyCar drivers — such as Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sébastien Bourdais — to augment teams. Even newly crowned IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud is involved, running with the No. 31 Action Express Racing team that currently leads the Prototype point standings.
Petit Le Mans will feature four classes that run at different speeds (Prototype, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona). That presents a major challenge for the racers, especially those in the middle classes with faster and slower cars around them, said Visit Florida driver Marc Goossens.
“It’s pretty tricky,” said Change Racing’s Spencer Pumpelly, “but that’s kind of one of the challenges of sportscar racing: coexisting on the track with the other cars and other classes and still being competitive in your class.”
On top of the clutter and speed differentials, drivers have to contend with an unforgiving track.
Several drivers called Road Atlanta an “old-school” circuit. The 2.54-mile course is notorious for its S-shaped curves, fast blind corners and elevation changes, though a long straightaway stretches about three-quarters of a mile to offset the quick succession of 12 turns.
“No one really wants to give corners,” said Pumpelly, who’s aiming for his third Petit Le Mans class title in the last four years after winning in 2013 and 2015. “So when you’ve got a bunch of cars going different speeds converging in an area of a track somewhat single-file, it could be very difficult to sort the whole thing out.”
As difficult as the track is, it’s a meaningful place for Davis, a Georgia native who currently resides in Athens. Not only can he spend the week at home instead of a hotel room, but he’s quite familiar with the course he first started attending at age 4.
“This race is very special to me. It’s home. It’s in my own backyard,” Davis said. “I have a very strong emotional tie to the circuit and the people here.”
But Road Atlanta will also be a special place for the teams that take home season class championships.
One of the four titles is all but secure. The Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 is a comfortable 32 points ahead ahead in the GTD standings, and Christina Nielsen will become the first female to ever win a major international motorsports championship if the team hangs on to the lead.
The second-place teams in the PC and GTLM classes are 10 and 11 points behind the frontrunners, respectively. In the Prototype class, however, just one point separates the Nos. 31 and 5 Action Express Racing teams.
More than 100,000 fans should be at Road Atlanta to see who takes home Petit Le Mans and season victories. With mandated driver changes throughout the race, teams spent the week hammering out strategies on how to best maintain their cars for 10 hours on this grueling course.
“The easiest thing for people to get trapped into is they say ‘It’s only a 10-hour race,’” Goossens said. “In comparison with a 24-hour race, people think this is way shorter. But really 10 hours is a long time to go.
“Of course we need to be competitive, but on the other hand we need to make sure we stay out of trouble and that we survive.”