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Indy 500 champs hit Road Atlanta
Scott Dixon waits his turn for a practice run at Road Atlanta. Dixon won the Indianapolis 500 earlier this year. Dixon is driving an Acura ARX-01B for de Ferran Motorsports. - photo by Tom Reed

The Petit Le Mans is already the premier race in the American Le Mans Series. This year, it’s also a meeting ground for four recent Indy 500 champions. Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002), Gil de Ferran (2003), Dario Franchitti (2007) and this year’s Indy 500 and IRL points champion, Scott Dixon, are all former Indy champs racing in the Le Mans Prototype-2 classification in the 10-hour race Saturday at Road Atlanta in Braselton.

Dixon, 28, is driving with de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud in the de Ferran Motorsports’ Acura ARX-01B Acura. Dixon is one of the hottest names right now on the IRL circuit after completing one of the greatest seasons in IRL history with six wins. He’s up to 16 wins and 15 poles in 96 races in his IRL career. Now he’s trying to help Acura win the points title in the P2 classification.

The final race of the ALMS season is Oct. 16-18 at the Monterey Sports Car Championships in Monterey, Calif.

“I definitely can’t wait for this race,” Dixon said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.

“Gil is a guy that I looked up to when I was younger, and he has achieved a lot.”

Since debuting in May at Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake City, de Ferran is no stranger to the ALMS, winning the overall pole in LMP2 at Mid Ohio in July, and finished in third place twice. He found it an honor to bring Dixon on board to race with the No. 66 Panasonic ELS Acuracar.

“Scott is certainly on the best drivers in the world today,” de Ferran said. “So when we were thinking about it, sort of who will be the greatest guys to have on the car, his name was certainly on the top of the list, and obviously we know each other from our years in the Indy Car Series.”

The main difference between the Indy 500 and the Petit Le Mans for drivers is the course. The Indy 500 runs on an oval track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Petit Le Mans runs on the 12-turn, 2.54-mile Grand Prix Course at Road Atlanta.

“I think a key talent that a driver must possess is to have an understanding of what situation he’s finding himself in the race, and really learning and knowing how to identify that,” de Ferran added. “I think in every race, not only in Indianapolis, but in the Petit Le Mans, and even the shorter races, there are also some key and crucial moments that you need to know that you’re entering them.”

The LMP2 points race is coming down to a battle between Acura and Porsche. In 2007, Penske’s Porsche squad ran away with the title with a P2 record eight overall wins — six by the No. 7 car of Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas.

This season Acura has narrowed the gap with the Patron Highcroft Racing team’s Acura ARX-01B car of David Brabham, Scott Sharp, and the addition of Franchitti for the Petit Le Mans. Acura has closed the gap to only four points behind Penske, in the tightest of all four classifications of the ALMS circuit.

Sharp and Brabham already have LMP2 victories this season at Long Beach, Lime Rock and Road America, and Brabham won the pole at Lime Rock and Detroit.

This is a complete change of pace for Franchitti, 35, after racing most of the 2008 season in NASCAR. He’s run the No. 40 Dodge Avenger with Felix Sabates for Chip Ganassi Racing. In 2007 he won the IRL driver’s championship, and was the first Scottish born driver since Jim Clark in 1965 to win the Indy 500.

He appreciates both venues to get to race.

“I’m lucky that you know with the Patron Highcroft team, they’re really on top of their game right now,” Franchitti said. “They’re challenging for the championship.

“Hopefully, I’ll be in there and doing my part to help them achieve what they want which is to beat the Penske guys.”

Franchitti is also going to race against his brother, Marino Franchitti, for the first time. Marino Franchitti is racing with the Dyson Racing Team of Butch Leitzinger and Andy Lally in the Porsche RS Spyder.

Castroneves is with the Penske crew and Ryan Briscoe in the Porsche RS Spyder. He became the youngest IRL driver to win back-to-back Indy 500s, and the only driver to win the biggest race on the IRL series in his first two attempts. He was the first back-to-back driver to win the Indy 500 since Al Unser in 1971.

The Brazilian driver also rose to prominence on television in 2007 as the winner of the series “Dancing With the Stars.”

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