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Lucas Luhr Has Big Emotions On Petit Weekend

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, October 16 2013

Lucas Luhr will arrive at and depart from the Petit Le Mans on Saturday as leader of the pack. (Photos courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Lucas Luhr knows his career numbers. In a still-strong German accent, he recites them effortlessly, methodically when they come up in conversation. And, obviously, he knows that those numbers could be even more impressive after this weekend’s Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

But during a telephone conversation with RacinToday.com this week, shiny numbers didn’t seem to be front and center on the sports car driver’s mind. Occupying that space was history and change. Specifically, the history of the soon-to-become-defunct American Le Mans Series and changes facing teams and competitors after the Petit ends late Saturday evening.

“I think this is a very big weekend,” Luhr said. “It’s the very, very last race, at least for the moment I think, for a long time with the LMP1 cars in America. And, it’s the final race of the season, which is always something special, and it’s the Petit Le Mans. It’s going to be a very big weekend. ”

On Saturday, the Petit will be celebrating its 15th birthday. It’s a day that also can be viewed as a bit of a wake for the ALMS, the series founded by Georgia businessman Don Panoz as an American showcase for fans of the kind of big-time sports car racing which took place at the Circuit de la Sarthe near Le Mans, France every summer.

Since its founding in 1999, the ALMS has attracted the top sports car teams, drivers and machinery in the world. Partnered with France’s Automobile Club de L’Ouest – organizers of the 24-hour Le Mans race – the ALMS has staged multi-class races at such historical North American road circuits as Sebring, Laguna Seca, Road America, Mosport, and Mid-Ohio. It has in the past held races at venues like Germany’s Nurbergring, Britain’s Donnington Park and Silverstone.

The Petit itself has become the season-ender for the series and this year, it will become the series-ender as

Lucas Luhr will attempt to win his 50th ALMS race on Saturday.

well because next year, the ALMS will disappear as a result of it merging with the Grand-Am Rolex Series to form the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

Luhr calls Road Atlanta one of his favorite places. And the Petit, he calls a challenge.

“I have always liked the Petit,” he said. “I have always liked the race track. I think it is one of the best race tracks in the country. But with it comes problems. The cars are more, therefore we have more traffic and it’s very difficult to manage the traffic. Especially with the very slow (GT) cars on the track. But it’s the same for everybody. It’s a very challenging and a very demanding race.”

At 10 hours or 1,000 miles – whichever comes first – the Petit would appear to be a rather traditional endurance event. But the Petit has become, many drivers will tell you, a sprint race. Pacing and using the first eight hours as a strategic prelude to two final hours of intense, all-out driving is no longer the plan for teams and drivers.

“Especially with us this year,” Luhr said. “We don’t have to worry about championship points. The only thing which counts is the win. So, therefore we go pedal to the metal from the green.”

Even though Lucas, co-driver Graf and their Pickett Racing team have dominated the top steps of podiums this season – a season in which they and the Dyson Racing Lola Mazdas have been the only P1 entries in many races – the 2013 Petit appears to be setting up as a good one.

The Dyson cars have been quick much of the season and this weekend will see the return of the Rebellion Racing’s Toyota-powered Lola. In testing on Monday, the Rebellion car – which will be driven by F1 alum Nick Heidfeld, Nicolas Prost and Neel Jani – had fastest laps in both the morning and afternoon sessions.

“We had two very good races with Rebellion in the beginning of the year,” Luhr said. “Unfortunately they didn’t come and do the whole season. But still, I mean their competition is very good. I enjoy competition a lot and hopefully we can have a good, close race.

“Usually, the Rebellion car is a little bit stronger from the engine side so they are a little bit quicker on the straights and we are sometimes a little bit quicker in the corners so it’s going to be a good, interesting race I am sure.”

When the ALMS ceases to exist after the Petit on Saturday, it will do so with Luhr as one of its all-time

Muscle men Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr.

greats. The 34-year-old native of Mülheim-Kärlich, Germany, has won 49 races in the ALMS. He and Muscle Milk-sponsored Pickett teammate Graf have won eight straight races this year and when they secured the 2013 LMP1 crown in Baltimore last month, they became three-time P1 champions.

Luhr has also won three ALMS GT championships and was the 2006 LMP2 champion.

He’s driven everything from Porsche 911 GTs to the iconic P2 Porsche RS Spyder to the exotic Audi R15 TDIs in the ALMS.

This weekend, he and Graf will be driving their HPD ARX 03c.

When talking to Luhr, one absolutely has to bring up the numbers and his place in the series’ statistical ledgers. And he does reflect.

“Yes, I am the most winning driver of the ALMS history,” he said. “Period.”

And, he adds, “It would be nice to have 50 wins. If not now, then maybe some day.”

But four days before the 2013 Petit, he says of his numbers, “Right now they don’t really mean much to me.”

What means a lot to him is the done-deal fate of  the ALMS and what he believes to be a hazy future for North American sports car racing.

The new TUDOR series, he said, looks like it will initially feature drab racing caused by the lack of a P1 class – even if it has high car counts and tight racing.

“First of all, I am not a fan of the Daytona Prototypes,” Luhr said. “I drove them in the past and they are just, you know, just big old cars. They are not highly technical, sophisticated, like the LMP1 cars. Therefore, I personally think people do not get attracted by the Daytona Prototypes as they do by LMP1 cars.

“Even though in the future, GT racing is very good racing and I enjoy watching the races myself, I don’t think we can get as many people as we’ve had in the past with just GT and Daytona Prototypes. I’m a very big believer that you need these LMP1 cars because that is what made the sport famous.”

With LMP1 going away in North American, Luhr is not certain where 2014 will find him.

“I have some opportunities and possibilities and stuff but nothing is confirmed yet and I obviously cannot talk about it,” he said.

A potential opportunity may come in the form of an IndyCar Series ride. Luhr got his first taste of American open wheel racing earlier this year when he drove an Indy car for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing at Sonoma. He finished 22nd.

“I loved it,” Luhr said. “It’s very good racing. The competition there is very, very tough. I just wanted to do a race to see if I could do it, if I liked it for myself and I think I did pretty good. I was quick in the race. Every time I was in the car, I improved and that’s basically the reason I wanted to do a race like that.

“We’ll see, maybe I will do a full IndyCar season next year. Why not? At first, it was a little strange to see your front tires again, but after a while, you get used to it. It’s not so much different than an LMP1 car but it is different because you have a different seating position, a different view, the Indy car has no power steering so it’s all factors you have to take into consideration.”

Any chance he would be in a DP car next year?

“I think the main problem is they haven’t really confirmed the regulations so none of the team bosses and none of the drivers can make up their minds,” Luhr said. “When the team bosses start making up their minds, the drivers can make up their minds.”

On the eve of what appears to be his farewell performance in LMP1 in North America, Luhr took a look back at the series.

Asked what his favorite cars and times have been, he said, “Handling-wise, I think it was the RS Spyder together with Porsche and Penske. And power-wise, it was the the big V12 diesel from Audi. I think those were the golden days of U.S. sports car racing because back in ‘06, ‘07, ‘08, you had Porsche, Audi, Acura, you know, you had a couple manufacturers in the LMP1 class plus all the privateers and that meant very good racing.”

On Saturday, Luhr will do his best to ensure that good racing will be what fans remember when they think of the final race of the American Le Mans Series.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, October 16 2013
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