Road Atlanta racetrack is the home of the American Le Mans Series' penultimate round, the Petit Le Mans. To the competitors, the race is of special importance, as a win in class here guarantees an invitation to the world's premier sports-car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Twenty-eight cars in four performance classes lined up to see who would carry home the honors this year. The series is picking up momentum, as evidenced by a record crowd of 90,000, a 26 percent increase over last season. Spectators piled into the race course on Saturday morning to see the 10-hour or 1,000-mile (whichever comes first) race, packing the 240-acre infield to capacity before noon and forcing authorities to prematurely close infield spectator access. Disappointed fans had to be diverted to alternate parking areas around the course. (To their credit, Road Atlanta officials have committed to major renovations to both the road course and the facility's infrastructure.)
The Petit Le Mans event is spread over a rolling, tree-lined landscape. The 2.54-mile track features major elevation changes and quick sections followed by tight corners-an ideal recipe for pushing a car's suspension and braking systems to their limits. Adding to the challenge for the Corvette Racing team, the dietitians at the ALMS had concocted a special weight-gain regimen to keep the C6.Rs' performance in line with that of their competition.
Prior to the race, the Corvettes were saddled with 110 pounds more than their closet rivals, the Aston Martin DBR9s. This was especially disadvantageous, as the Astons already enjoyed a significant performance edge in the engine compartment. Due to their success early in the season, the Corvettes were required to run air restrictors two sizes smaller than the ones used on the Astons.
These penalties had taken a toll on the Corvettes, effectively relegating them to Third and Fourth in class barring some terminal problem on the part of the Astons. This performance disparity left GM and Pratt & Miller little choice but to "go for it" everywhere on the track and hope the Vettes' brakes would hold up. At hilly Road Atlanta, that promised to be an especially daunting task.
Qualifying for the race was held on Friday. Georgia resident and Road Atlanta vet Johnny O'Connell eagerly jumped into the No. 3 car, while Oliver Gavin took up the reins in No. 4. For long-distance races like Petit, the team employs three drivers per car. No. 3-car regulars O'Connell and Ron Fellows share seat time with "Mad" Max Papis, while Gavin and Olivier Beretta are joined by Jan Magnussen in No. 4. These driver lineups for Petit, Sebring, and Le Mans have been together for three years now, and their synergy is apparent.
O'Connell threw down the gauntlet by notching a 1:18.210 time to take the GT1 pole. Gavin qualified second with a 1:18.460, with the Astons just behind in third and fourth. Is it possible the British invaders were playing a little cat and mouse with the field, waiting to reveal their full potential at race time?
To truly appreciate the effect of the weight and air-restrictor penalties on the C6.R, consider last year's qualifying record of 1:16.627, posted by Beretta. The Corvette was a full 1.6 seconds slower than last year's car at Road Atlanta, even though the teams had an extra season's worth of racing experience under their belts.
The race got off to an inauspicious start Saturday morning when the flag stand didn't like the rolling lineup and threw a yellow flag instead of the anticipated green. Better organized the next time around, the start tower finally cut the field loose to the din of revving engines and the screams of nearly 100,000 fans. Fellows quickly assumed the lead in GT1, with Gavin slotting in behind him in second. Fellows established a fast pace and led the class for most of the first hour.