Motul Petit Le Mans: 25 years of action and memories, part 1

Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta archive

Motul Petit Le Mans: 25 years of action and memories, part 1

As Motul Petit Le Mans gets ready for its 25th running, Sept. 28-Oct. 1, we’re taking a look back on a few memorable races and moments from a quarter century of Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta’s season-closing classic.

It’s not just the stars behind the wheel who make Motul Petit Le Mans such a special race. Behind the scenes and at trackside, a huge number of people are involved in putting on one of sports car racing’s biggest, yet most fan-friendly events. Many of them have been putting in the hours, and loving every minute, since the inaugural race in 1998, and some share their memories here, too.

WAYNE TAYLOR

Inaugural Motul Petit Le Mans winner and three-time winning team owner

Sharing the Doyle-Risi Racing Ferrari 333 SP with Emmanuel Collard and Eric van de Poele, Wayne Taylor finished 1m12.52s ahead of the factory Porsche LMP1-98 of Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Jorg Muller to win the inaugural Motul Petit Le Mans in 1998. But it was a change of role, to that of team owner, that delivered his most memorable win in the season-closing endurance classic.

“Winning the inaugural Petit Le Mans as a driver in a Ferrari was special given that the race has gone on to become such a global and prestigious event,” says Taylor. “But winning it as a team owner with my kids, Ricky and Jordan, in 2014 (pictured, top) was probably more satisfying to me. That was the first season that they came together to drive for me, and that race was their first win in one of the big enduros together.

“That victory proved to the world that they really deserved being in the position they were in, and they weren’t just there because of their dad. It was a stamp of approval and showed they were serious.

“From a family perspective it was a big deal, and [co-driver] Max [Angelelli] really was part of the family, too. He had a lot of input into developing them as drivers, as I did, but I think they listened to him more because I was just their dad.

“Petit that year was a tough one — and a close one with the battle with the Action Express car. We went a lap down at one point, but we knew we had a good car, a good team and good drivers to get the job done.”

Pictured here following a Porsche, the Ferrari of Taylor/Collard/van de Poele took victory in the inaugural Motul Petit Le Mans. Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta archive

KEN GROGAN

Chief of Security at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta

Ken Grogan has been running security at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta going back to the late 1980s. He started by picking up off-duty hours while he was still an active member of local law enforcement, before taking on the role full time. One Friday afternoon in May 1996, he was called into an unexpected meeting by the track’s owner, Dr. Don Panoz…

“I’d no idea what this meeting was about, but when I walked into the room, Dr. Panoz was there with [VP, race ops] Doug Robinson, [clerk of course] Bob Barnard, [chief steward] Michael Gue, [chief scrutineer] Charlie Cook and [event ops manager] Tres Stephenson,” recalls Grogan. “He explained to us that he had this idea to bring Le Mans to America and we were to go there, Le Mans, for the test weekend and then back for the race to learn all we could about it.

“By the end of the meeting, we all had plane tickets to Paris. I’d mentioned beforehand to my wife that I was called into the meeting and when I called her after she asked me what it was all about. I told her I was leaving for Paris on Sunday.

“Once we got to Le Mans, the people at ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) couldn’t have been more helpful, allowing us to really see how it worked. One of the things that struck us most was how scrutineering took place in the city center of Le Mans. That was one of the ideas we implemented into the first one when we conducted our scrutineering at Lenox Square right in downtown Atlanta.”

DINDO CAPELLO

Five-time overall Motul Petit Le Mans winner

Long-time Audi factory driver Dindo Capello is no stranger to long-distance success, winning three times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and six times at the Twelve Hours of Sebring. From 2000 to 2011, the Italian was a force of nature at Motul Petit Le Mans, too, taking a record-setting five victories in 2000, ’02, ’06, ’07 and ’08.

“Road Atlanta and Petit Le Mans were always special for me,” recalls Capello. “Not only do I have the record for the most wins, but I also won three years in a row in 2006-’08. I had many great moments there, but the victory in 2007 was probably the most spectacular for everyone watching. I crossed the line just nine tenths [0.923s] ahead of Romain Dumas in the Penske Porsche.

“It was very close the whole way. It was a 50/50 race, because with the power of the Audi R10 turbodiesel we were faster over half the track, but the agility of the RS Spyder made them quicker over the other half.

“It was all about the traffic and trying to catch the slower cars at the right moment so as not to lose too much time. I had got in front of [Romain] Dumas in traffic after the final safety car in traffic and it needed a lot of focus and concentration — and a little bit of luck, too — to stay ahead to the checkered flag.

“I really like Road Atlanta. It wasn’t one of those places where I could do something special on one lap in qualifying, but I always knew I could be really fast and consistent in the race.”

Capello added to his Motul Petit Le Mans legend with Audi in 2007, Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta archive

JOHN DOONAN

IMSA president

John Doonan has experienced Motul Petit Le Mans from a wide a range of perspectives. For the first edition in 1998, he came as a fan. From watching from the side of the track, he soon found himself in the thick of competition on the pit wall as the director of motorsports for Mazda. Petit Le Mans remains the jewel at the end of each sports car-racing season, and now president of IMSA, Doonan often hands over the winners’ trophy.

“We can’t talk about Petit Le Mans without acknowledging the vision that Dr. Don Panoz had to bring the spirit of the greatest sports car race in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to North America,” says Doonan. “It’s a showcase for the best manufacturers, teams and drivers in front of an incredibly enthusiastic fan base, many of whom have come for all or most of the 25 years. Even today, I still have the same excitement and goosebumps at the start of the race as I did when I came that first year as a fan.

“My favorite memory was winning the race in our class [LMP2] in 2009,” he recalls. “It was a rain-shortened event, and the fact that I was even there in the first place was big. No one likes to win a shortened race, but we [Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda] happened to be leading when the race was called. The chance to stand on that podium was something I’ll never forget.”

JOYCE SMITH

Registrar at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta

Another one of the long-time Road Atlanta staff members whose tenure extends back to before Don Panoz took over the track, Joyce Smith has credentialed just about everyone who’s been involved with every edition of Motul Petit Le Mans so far.

“Dr. Panoz came up with the slogan, ‘For the fans,’ and I think that’s something that we’ve always aspired to live up to with every Petit Le Mans,” she says. “I recall how exciting it was to bring the race to downtown Atlanta for the scrutineering at Lenox Square. And ever since then, we’ve all tried every year to add more elements and to keep things fresh for the fans while they’re watching the race or just enjoying the atmosphere.”

Don Panoz (left) with Dr .Wolfgang Ullrich, who directed Audi Sport to nine consecutive wins at Motul Petit Le Mans between 2000 and 2008. Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta archive

Don’t miss the 25th Anniversary Motul Petit Le Mans

The 25th running of Motul Petit Le Mans, Sept. 28-Oct. 1, is set to deliver four days of incredible on-track activity, including the dazzling spectacle of Thursday night practice, where fans are guaranteed to see every car and driver in the field turn at least a few laps.

Take advantage of ample opportunities to park an RV or pitch a tent and become part of the festival atmosphere at one of racing’s most fan-friendly events. As always, there are car corrals, a kids’ zone, mouth-watering manufacturer displays, and an open paddock to check out the race cars between track sessions.

In addition to the headlining 10-hour IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale, the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Series FOX Factory 120 on Friday afternoon showcases an array of the best production sports cars on the planet. If that’s not enough racing, IMSA Prototype Challenge, Porsche Carrera Cup North America and the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich ensure that there’s almost always great on-track action to enjoy.

Tickets start at just $75, with several great options to choose from, and kids under 12 are free. To purchase yours and get more information on one of racing’s must-see events, head to roadatlanta.com.

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