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Petit Le Mans: Hoping for home course advantage
Local racers look forward to competition
Alpharetta resident Jim Tafel’s No. 73 car. - photo by For The Times

Some of the biggest names in racing will be on the track Saturday at the 2008 Petit Le Mans, but a couple of drivers not many people have heard of, may prove to get the loudest cheers.

Flowery Branch resident Johnny O’Connell, and Jim Tafel of Alpharetta, may not carry the fanfare of fellow Petit drivers, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, but what they have is home field advantage.

“The amount of emotional energy that gets spent on this race is certainly higher for me then any other event,” said O’Connell, who along with teammate Jan Magnussen will be driving the No. 3 Corvette car in the GT1 Class. “When you’re competing in your hometown, with all your friends and neighbors cheering you on, it certainly makes it more special.”

What makes it even more special for O’Connell is the fact that his 11-year-old daughter Kelly, a student at C.W. Davis Middle School is scheduled to sing the National Anthem at Petit Le Mans for the second year in a row.

“Last year, I didn’t start the race so I could be with her,” O’Connell said. “This year I’m starting, and you can bet I’ll have a big smile on my face while I’m listening in the car.”

O’Connell said that hearing his daughter sing will energize him, and allow him to forget about his past woes at Road Atlanta.

In 2007, his streak of 58 consecutive starts came to an end, and after Magnussen crashed on Lap 15, he failed to even get behind the wheel.

“Historically this race hasn’t been good to us,” said O’Connell, who enters Saturday’s race having won seven of nine events this season. “But we’ve had a strong year so far, and I’m optimistic that this could be our year.”

While O’Connell hasn’t had much luck at his hometown course, Tafel is hoping to build on a second-place finish in his first appearance at Petit last year.

“We have very high expectations based on the testing we’ve done at Road Atlanta,” said Tafel, who not only races in the GT2 Class, but he is also the owner of his team, Tafel Racing. “We’ve had some disappointment in the last few races, but we have to go forward and keep fighting the battle.”

The battle for Tafel and O’Connell doesn’t include the big names of former Indianapolis 500 winners Dixon and Franchitti, but even if it did, O’Connell said it wouldn’t matter.

“They’re just other guys out there,” he said. “They might have won the Indy 500, but that doesn’t mean they are good sportscar racers.”

While not fazed by the big names, O’Connell won’t have to look far to find his main competition.

“Sadly at Corvette racing, we’ve pretty much scared everyone off,” he said. “It’s going to be corvette racing corvette for the most part.

“It’s certainly makes our job easier and harder,” he added. “Regardless of who you’re racing, the hardest car to beat is always your teammate.”

The same could be said for Tafel, who will be competing against his teammates Dirk Mueller and Allan Simonsen on Saturday, but according to the driver of the No. 73 Ferrari, his biggest competition will be the course itself.

“There’s some really great turns at Road Atlanta, so for me, I just have to hone in on my breaking points,” Tafel said.

Along with the sharp turns in the course, and competition from teammates, both drivers said that the key to a successful race will be managing the traffic that can be caused with the four different classifications of cars.

Knowing where the slower GT2 cars, and the faster prototype cars are at all times can prove to be a daunting task, but O’Connell has already had to face a more difficult challenge, providing tickets to all his friends.

“Everybody just thinks I have a ticket machine, and I can print up more if I need to,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way, and I can’t fill every order, sadly.”

Despite disappointing a few people, O’Connell knows he will still have plenty of support come Saturday.

“Regardless if they can get free tickets from me or not most are still going,” he said. “I think everybody’s really excited about this race. In all the years this race has taken place, this is by far the strongest field as far as driver talent.

“This has all the makings of one of the best races of the year.”

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