By Dean Richardson, longtime Petit Le Mans spectator
Well, it all comes down to this… Race day. Practices are over, the starting grid has been set, and at 11:30 AM on October 20, 2012 the 43 cars (give or take) that will compete in the 15th running of the Petit Le Mans will crest the hill above turn 12 to start the race that will last 10 hours or 1000 miles, whichever comes first.
Race day at Road Atlanta is an extremely busy time. If you are camping at the track it is a little less hectic but if you are coming in for the day you need to plan on getting in early. Cars start arriving early and parking is at a premium the closer you get to race start. Road Atlanta added several parking lots in the infield last year, but they too fill up. I have not tried to drive into the track on race day for many years so I can’t really tell you exactly what time to get there to avoid hassles but planning for 8:00-9:00 AM, or even earlier, probably isn’t a bad idea. There is plenty to keep you entertained.
One insider tip – If you are camping at the track and happen to be up early one thing that I have done is walked to the hill overlooking the paddock before the sun comes up. Teams get to the track very early to begin preparations for the race. Standing on the hill with a fresh cup of coffee in the pre-dawn darkness with the team transporters’ awnings lit up, the occasional sound of an air wrench rattling in the distance or a race engine being started and idled for an early morning systems check while the rest of the track sleeps is surprisingly serene experiencea.
After breakfast is done I recommend heading down to the paddock for the pre-race activities. This is the busiest time in the paddock area so make sure if you are down there, pay attention. Race cars will be heading out onto the starting grid, teams will be moving equipment and spares into the pit area, and there will be more fans in the paddock than any other time during the event. It is a great carnival like atmosphere, but with cars and equipment being moved at a furious pace you need to always make sure that you are aware of what is happening. Nothing would be more embarrassing - or potentially painful -than being knocked over by race car or team cart in front of several thousand people.
Around an hour or so prior to the start (check schedule at the track to verify) the American Le Mans Series gives fans unprecedented access to the cars and teams during the “Grid Walk”. The Grid Walk is an opportunity for fans to walk out onto the Start/Finish straightaway where all of the cars and teams are gridded for the start. In all other forms of racing this type access is simply unheard of. You have an opportunity to take a much closer look at all the cars with the Grid Walk. Additionally, the drivers and teams are around and are often willing to answer questions and pose for photos.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Grid Walk is an extremely popular activity so expect it to be crowded. Each year there seems to be more and more people that participate. As a result, it is typically very difficult to get unobstructed pictures of the cars. It can be done, you just have to be patient. Finally be listening for the PA to announce it is time to “clear the grid”. When announced, make sure to head for the gates promptly. There are tens of thousands of people that are ready for the race to begin and aren’t interested in waiting for you to get one more picture.
Once the race is ready to begin find a spot along the fence or on a hillside and settle in to watch the start. If you took part in the Grid Walk you may want to take advantage of being in the area and head to the support paddock and view the start near turn one. Another good place is near the media tower where you can see the cars coming down the hill and through turn twelve.
After the start, I spend the better part of the day heading out to the excellent viewing areas all over Road Atlanta. I would recommend pacing yourself. Most likely you will be doing a lot of walking and because of the race length you have plenty of time. Here is my list of favorite spots to catch the action. Refer to the track map if needed - http://roadatlanta.com/trackmap.lasso
Top of the Esses – Turns 2, 3 and 4 – This area provides an up-close look as the cars head through a series of quick left and right turns as they head down the hill on the way to the tight uphill turn 5. This area will often provide some very close racing as the faster prototype cars mix it up with slower GT cars. I have seen some pretty gutsy moves here by drivers not wanting to lose momentum through this section.
Ridge overlooking turn 5 (opposite Spectator Hill) – Personally this is probably my favorite area to visit. This area does not allow you to see much of the track, just the bottom of the Esses, and the uphill turn 5, but the view is great. Standing on the ridge (and terrace) gives you nearly a bird’s eye view of the cars passing underneath. There really is no other view like it around the circuit. As the cars pass below you can see the drivers working the wheel as they maneuver through the turns. This is especially true of the open cockpit prototypes. It also provides you a unique view as the cars head up the hill exiting turn 5. Listen carefully and you will clearly hear the cars running over the “rumble strips” as they push a little wide exiting 5. Stay there long enough and you will undoubtedly see a driver get it wrong and end up stuck in the gravel.
Turn 5 – Spectator Hill – Just opposite the ridge is Spectator Hill. This popular area of viewing provides an almost completely unobstructed view of the cars heading down the Esses. With the extended sight line there is always plenty of action to see. Additionally, Spectator Hill is where one of the two Jumbotron screens is located. The Jumbotron screens show the television feed and provide a convenient way to keep track of the action happen all around the circuit. This is also a great area to watch from once the sun goes down and all you can see is the headlights snaking their way down the hill.
Back straight (Around Mazda Bridge) – Typically straight-aways don’t provide the most compelling viewing, but it is still worth spending a little time here. Nowhere else is the sense of speed better demonstrated? From the vantage point near the Mazda bridge you can watch as the cars accelerate out of the relatively slow turn 7. It also provides an excellent opportunity to see the difference in speed between cars in different classes.
Turns 10a/10b –Stadium – This popular area at the end of the back straightaway is where you will witness the most overtaking. Cars crest the hill at top speed before braking hard into turn 10a. Late braking for position is the name of the game here. The area provides plenty of terraced seating for excellent viewing. Additionally, this is the location of the second Jumbotron screen carrying the television feed. Most of the time this is where I am set up for the race finish.
Audi Bridge – Overlooking turn 12 – Just across the road from the 10a/b complex, behind the ALMS souvenir trailer is a small viewing area where you can watch cars come out from under the bridge and plunge down into turn 12. Often crowded, but if you wait until you get a spot along the fence it provides another spectacular view point. Watch closely as the GT cars crest the hill and often times their front wheels will be off the ground as the track drops away. Awesome stuff.
The Finish – If you have any energy left at the end of the race I recommend heading back down to the paddock for the end of the race and the podium ceremony. You can get pretty close to the podium as the drivers and teams receive their trophies and pose for official photographs. If you have not witnessed it before, it may be worth the walk down the hill one more time.
With that I will wrap up this blog. I hope that this installment and the other three before it have provided you with some information you can use while attending Petit. I am sure I have missed some things, but hopefully nothing to major.
I will be providing some “fan insight” during the race on the Road Atlanta Facebook page and shortly after the race I will provide a recap of my experiences at this year’s event. Until then, I hope everyone has a fun and safe Petit Le Mans. See you at the track.
By Dean Richardson, longtime Petit Le Mans spectator