Road Atlanta, located in Braselton, Georgia, is home to the famed Petit Le Mans, a 10-hour, 1,000-mile event that has annually drawn the biggest names and cars in sportscar racing. That such an event should find a home deep in stock car racing's heartland is perhaps a surprise, but Road Atlanta has established a rich road racing heritage, right from its earliest days.
The plunging and sweeping nature of Road Atlanta's turns has meant this has always been a favourite circuit among many racers, with the facility used for a wide variety of events. These include professional and amateur sports car and motorcycle races, racing and driving schools, corporate programs and testing for motorsports teams.
The circuit has been known as Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta for sponsorship reasons since 2018.
The 12-turn track was the brainchild of David Sloyer, Earl Walker and Arthur Montgomery, who conceived the sprawling facility on a 750-acre tract of land in Hall County. Work began in 1969 and continued into the following year. As work progressed on the $1.3million facility, Road Atlanta got its first big break, when the Can-Am Championship announced that the new facility would replace flood damaged Bridgehampton in September.
The rush was on to complete the circuit in time but, remarkably, the track emerged from the red Georgia clay in just six months. When the excavation, grading and surfacing was complete, a fast and challenging road racing circuit lay in wait for the Can-Am stars – possibly one of the best in North Amercia.
From the start, the lap climbed uphill through the sweeping first turn to a series of esses which guided the cars along a snake-like course to the foot of the hill, before a further climb took drivers through a series of turns onto the long back straight. This plunged downhill through a compression before swinging to the left and uphill, turning right through a cutting and under a bridge in dramatic style, before then careening back downhill through a high speed right-hander and back to the start.
The first race was held on September 13, 1970. Vic Elford, in a Chaparral 2J, won pole and Tony Dean, in a Porsche 908/02, won the 300 km Can-Am event, with Stirling Moss as the Grand Marshal. A huge crowd gathered to watch the most sophisticated cars of the day turn 75 laps on the brand new circuit.
Through the 1970s, the circuit continued to thrive, with Can-Am returning and visits from Formula 5000, IMSA Camel GT and Trans Am, as well as several SCCA events - including the annual Valvoline Runoffs - all helping to bolster the racing calendar. Even NASCAR paid a visit, with the Camaros, Mustangs and Firebirds, of the Grand American division taking part in the Lanier 250 in May of 1973. Among the drivers that day was the moustachioed Amercian comedian Dick Smothers, co-driving in John Greenwood's Chevrolet.
Multiple owners see track's fortunes wane
Road Atlanta was sold in 1978 and went through a number of owners in a short period of time, creating a downward spiral of the track's fortunes. Racing continued much as it always had, but it was clear that money was lacking for any significant improvements. Safety, in particular through the dip at the end of the back straight, was becoming marginal as speeds grew ever higher.
The only significant change through the 1980s was the insertion of a chicane along the back straight, though it only seems to have seen serious competition use for the during the 1992 Valvoline National Championship Runoffs, though it may have been in use for karts or motorcycles at the time. In any case, it did not find favour and was itself eventually removed.
By 1993 things had come to a head under the ownership of the Whittington brothers and the track entered into bankruptcy. A partnership between business executives Frank Drendel, Jim Kanely, Eddie Edwards and Bill Waddell was formed to purchase the track. The next three years saw gradual improvements made, including building renovations, a track widening and resurfacing project and landscaping of the ground. But the owners lacked the kind of capital that could return Road Atlanta to its glory days and overcome the previous decade's lack of investment.
Don Panoz to the rescue
Enter Dr. Don Panoz. The developer of the nicotine patch and founder of neighbouring Chateau Elan Winery and Resort, Panoz got into the automotive field when his son Danny began producing the Panoz Roadster. The elder Panoz realised what great potential Road Atlanta possessed and bought the facility in November 1996.
He hired Bob Barnard, who had cut his teeth designing the Adelaide Grand Prix circuit among other ventures, and tasked him with redesigning the course and facilities. At the end of 1997, construction began on a new left-right chicane section at the end of the back straight, designed to eliminate the infamous dip and slow speeds under the bridge. At the same time, new short and club courses were constructed and miles of concrete barriers and runoff areas installed. A 100 foot tunnel also improved infield access, while renovated garages graced the pit lane.
More ambitious plans to build a complete new pit and paddock area on the opposite side of the track formed phase two of the $6million renovations. The new pit lane was incomplete by the start of the racing season and would be finished part way through 1998.
The track's signature event was born when Panoz announced he had agreement to host Le Mans style racing under IMSA auspices that October. The 10 hour or 1,000 mile race was dubbed the Petit Le Mans and attracted the crème of sportscar racing for a season finale. That first race was memorable for many reasons, not least the spectacular backflip made by the pole winning Porsche as it passed behind a lapped car over the hump on the backstretch. The car was destroyed, but driver Yannick Dalmas emerged unscathed. The race was won by Wayne Taylor, Eric Van de Poele and Emmanuel Collard in a Ferrari 333SP in the GT1 class, and the event became an instant classic.
The next year, Panoz became one of the founders of the American Le Mans Series, and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta became one of the highlights of the series calendar, always attracting additional overseas visitors for the season finale.
Circuit improvements continue
Changes continued apace and in 2003 a new complex featuring a flip-flop chicane was inserted at Turn 3 for the exclusive use of motorcycle racing. It drew a mixed response from riders.
Prior to the 2007 Petit Le Mans, the entire track surface was repaved. The works also included moving the walls in the Esses away from the track, with the intention of improved driver safety and better sight lines for spectators.
More extensive alterations came in 2008, aimed at further improving safety for motorcycle racers. An auxiliary Turn 12, offering a safer and slower transition to the start-finish line straight was created, requiring considerable excavation and a realignment of the original pit lane entry. Elsewhere, a second chicane was inserted at Turn 4 ahead of the Esses, resulting in a different racing line and additional runoff room.
The riders greeted the new Turn 12 with some enthusiasm but the same could not be said for the Turn 4 chicane. While many thought it was a fun challenge to ride over a single lap, all felt it would be unsuitable for racing and could actually cause more problems that it solved. In the end, it has never been used in anger.
In September 2012, the track was purchased by NASCAR as part of its acquisition of Panoz Motorsports group. The Petit Le Mans has continued on under NASCAR's ownership, this time as the showpiece event of the unified United SportsCar Championship. Stock car racing has also made its return, with Road Atlanta added to the NASCAR K&N East development series from 2013 onwards.
The little-used and troublesome Turn 4 chicane was eliminated and grassed over as part of general circuit improvements for the 2017 season, returning the track to its 2003 layout variations.