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Michael Shank Racing team prepares for Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta course
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2015 Petit Le Mans

When: 11:15 a.m., Oct. 3

Where: Road Atlanta, Braselton

TV: Fox Sports 2, Fox Sports 1

Tickets: RoadAtlanta.com

BRASELTON — Most people know the thrill of being handed a freshly laminated driver’s license at 16 years of age, but not many have experienced the thrill of getting the keys to a 450-horsepower supercar at 16, especially at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In fact, no 16-year-old had ever felt that thrill until Matt McMurry became the youngest driver ever to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans just last year.

“It’s such a big show,” McMurry said. “There are so many people there. It’s just really cool to be at a place with so much history and to be on the track with so many great drivers.”

This year, he has his eyes set on the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

“(Road Atlanta) is a really fun track,” McMurry said. “I’ve been her a lot of times, so it’s sort of like my home track. I’m from Phoenix, but there are no tracks in Phoenix, really.”

McMurry and fellow Michael Shank Racing teammate Ozz Negri were able to get in some practice runs this week at the 2.54-mile road course as they prepare for the final race of the IMSA Tudor United Sportscar Championship in October.

“(Road Atlanta) is a very traditional track,” Negri said. “It’s a track that I like. The elevation change, blind corners and fast turns. It is a track that suits our car. Our car has done pretty good here. We’re just working to make it better and better and better.”

With only three races between now and the Petit Le Mans, teams are starting to gear up for the season finale as a series championship may very well hang in the balance when the drivers return in October.

Currently in sixth place, Michael Shank Racing is not out of the running for the title, but their goals remain more realistic.

“I’d love to finish top three in the championship,” Negri said. “We’ve podiumed three times in the last four races and the one we didn’t podium, we didn’t finish. It was one of the races I thought we could have won. We had a very good car.

“We’re just working a race at a time. Trying to do well a race at a time. It’s like I say, if you work hard and it’s good enough then you’ll be OK.”

The track at Road Atlanta, while fun, is not without its challenges. This is why McMurry and Negri, as well as the rest of Michael Shank Racing, are spending time there more than two months before the green flag drops.

“This weekend, turns 5 and 6 have been challenging,” McMurry said. “They’re both kind of deceiving when you’re coming up to them. They look a lot slower than they are. They look like a normal corner, where you go in and slow down and turn and go, but it’s really faster to roll a lot of speed in because both of them have a lot of banking.

“Turn 5 is up a hill, so you don’t have to break hard because it slows you down as you coast through it. Turn 6 is banked pretty heavily, so it catches you as you go in even though it’s a pretty tight corner.”

While McMurry is fine tuning the details, Negri is focusing more on the fact that this is a 10-hour race.

“I just want to make the car work on the longevity of the tires,” Negri said. “What is challenging about here, I would say, it’s driving at night. I hope my eyes will be good enough.

“You have only one straight to rest. Everything else is brake light, brake light, brake light. It’s pretty challenging.”

This will be Negri’s fourth race at Road Atlanta, so he knows what to expect, especially when it comes to the 130,000 fans that are expected to descend on Braselton for the four-day event.

“The Petit Le Mans is a traditional race,” Negri said. “It has hardcore fans that come in and camp for days. It’s so cool to come to a track and see all that going on. They are there to watch you race. You get a pretty cool take on a run on that situation.”

The third member of Michael Shank Racing, John Pew, wasn’t able to make it to the Road Atlanta practice this week, but both Pew, 59, and Negri, 51, have been very helpful in the now 17-year-old McMurry’s development as a professional race car driver over the course of the season.

“They’ve been awesome,” McMurry said. “After every session, we’re always working together to make the car better and (Negri) is always teaching me things that he’s doing, and we’re looking at data and video trying to make each other faster.”

“We all work together for one objective, which is to do well,” Negri said. “I like when a young guy comes in because every day you need to be open to learn. Earlier on I saw something (McMurry) was doing well and I’ll try it.”

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