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In the motorsports world, endurance road racing is arguably the most challenging and impressive from both a driving and an engineering perspective. Man and machine are not only pitted against other competitors but also against the race itself in events that can last up to 24 hours and cover 3,000 miles! For most, the challenge is not to win, but merely to survive until the checkered flag. Of the field of 50 or so cars that start the race, attrition frequently claims half.

One of the most fascinating elements of endurance racing is the vehicle diversity: dozens of makes and models in multiple classes of various speeds all converge to compete on the same track at the same time. Full-blown, high-speed prototypes run right beside (and between and around!) production-based street cars. Cars compete for class wins as well as the overall victory, all while negotiating their way through traffic capable of wildly differing speeds. Without the careful planning and keen attention of some of the most talented and versatile drivers in the world, the result would be carnage as 200mph prototypes close on GT cars often going 50 or 60mph slower.

24 HOURS OF LE MANS The mecca of all endurance racers is the Circuit de la Sarthe near Le Mans, France, where the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans takes place. It is organized by the Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO). The inaugural race was in May of 1923, and it has been every year since, except for 1936 because of the Great Depression, and from 1940 to 1948 because of World War II. The list of competing manufacturers and drivers reads like a who’s who of motorsports. Le Mans is steeped in tradition, and a victory confers the ultimate bragging rights for manufacturers and drivers.

AMERICAN LE MANS SERIES Racing mogul Don Panoz wanted to bring the pageantry and uniqueness of the 24 Hours of Le Mans to the United States. In 1999, the ACO granted Panoz the rights to use the Le Mans name and rule books to start the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). This is neither a half-baked spin-off nor designed to compete against the European series; it actually complements it. The ALMS follows the rules and racing format created by the ACO, and its racing schedule is even built around the running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This allows many of the cars and teams that race at Le Mans to also compete in the ALMS and vice versa; in fact, special consideration is given to the teams that compete in the ALMS in the selection process to make up the field at Le Mans, and the ALMS class champions are granted pre-qualifying exemptions.

This year marks the ALMS’s seventh season, and the series now has 10 races on the schedule. The majority are sprint races that last about 2 hours 45 minutes. There is also a 4-hour race at Laguna Seca and a 1,000-mile race called “Petit Le Mans” at Road Atlanta, and the longest race of the series is the 12 Hours of Sebring—the oldest sports car race in America. The competitors range from full factory-backed teams such as General Motors’ highly successful Corvette Racing team to privateer efforts such as Champion Racing, which made history by winning this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with its Audi R8.


  FAST FACTS
CORVETTE’S 1-2 FINISH AT THE 2005 24 HOURS OF LE MANS

TOTAL LAPS: 696—349 by car no. 64, 347 by car no. 63

TOTAL MILES: 5,902—2,959 by car no. 64, 2,942 by car no. 63

PIT STOPS: 57—27 by no. 64, 26 by no. 63

GEAR CHANGES: 31,320—average 45 per lap

GASOLINE: 1,240 gal.—621 by no. 63, 619 by no. 64

TIRES: 164—76 by no. 63, 88 by no. 64

OIL: 6 quarts—3 each by no. 63 and 64

WATER: 1 quart per car

In every race, there are at least two drivers per car, and for the longer races such as the 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring, three drivers take the wheel. Four classes compete: two prototype classes (P1 and P2) and two production-based classes (GT1 and GT2). The P1 cars are ultra-exotic, purpose-built, high-tech prototypes, and they’re the fastest—capable of reaching speeds in excess of 200mph using engines that produce 600 to 650hp. P2 is a smaller, less powerful version of P1 with top speeds of 180 to 200mph; engines produce horsepower in the 500 to 550
range, but they are lighter than in P1, so they have a chance to take the overall win. GT1 features massively modified production-based cars. Derived from street-going vehicles, they are the most recognizable: Corvette C6-R, Ferrari 550/575 Maranello, Aston Martin DBR9, Maserati MC12, Dodge Viper and Saleen S7R. The engines produce 600 to 650hp and yield top speeds that roughly match the P1 cars’, but GT1 cars are heavier, so they trail in braking performance and cornering ability. Last is GT2; less modified than GT1, these cars are the most similar to production cars. Most produce between 450 and 500hp and top out around 180mph. Porsche 911s are the most popular; they dominate the GT2 class and often make up a large portion of the field as a whole.

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Updated: June 30, 2011 — 11:23 AM

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