Photo courtesy of IMSA

American team presence again represented at Le Mans

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It’s a nearly identical presence for this year’s American teams racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans compared to 2016 within the entries revealed for the 2017 race. A total of seven teams and 12 cars entered under the U.S. flag comprise a full 20 percent of the 60-car field.

Teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship racing are in the GTE classes. Ford Chip Ganassi Racing (four cars), Corvette Racing (two) and Risi Competizione (one) make up seven of the 13 cars entered in GTE-Pro, while Scuderia Corsa adds two cars in GTE-Am.

Ganassi’s four cars come from the two Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK, one as an auto-invite for winning with one of the Team USA entries last year (the Joey Hand/Dirk Mueller/Sebastien Bourdais No. 68 car), and a fourth as a full-time IMSA entrant.

“When we came to Le Mans last year there was a lot of pressure on the team to deliver a win to commemorate the Ford GT40 1-2-3 finish in 1966,” said Raj Nair, executive vice president of Global Product Development and chief technical officer, Ford Motor Company. “It was fantastic to win but we will not rest on our laurels. We return to Le Mans in June with another year of experience racing the Ford GT behind us, seven wins including the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours and the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona, and we can’t wait to compete again at this incredible event.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

Corvette and Risi, as full-time IMSA entrants, also gained spots in the field.

Corvette, a regular Le Mans contender and race winner, won last in 2015. Last year, Risi provided the only realistic threat to Ford in GTE-Pro as a single-car entry, up against the phalanx of Fords.

Scuderia Corsa gains two entries, one as an automatic entry for winning GTE-Am last year and a second as an at-large invite from IMSA. This gives them two Ferrari 488 GTEs in the 16-car class.

The LMP2 class sees three U.S. teams present among the 25 cars.

DragonSpeed. Photo courtesy of IMSA
DragonSpeed. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed team will make its Le Mans debut; the European Le Mans Series full-time entrants have run in two marquee U.S. races at Sebring (fourth overall in 2016) and Daytona last weekend but not yet at Circuit de la Sarthe.

Henrik Hedman’s journey from Ferrari Challenge to Pirelli World Challenge and now to the ELMS, sees the Florida-based Swede the nominated driver of the team’s No. 21 DragonSpeed 10 Star Oreca 07 Gibson.

Ben Keating now will race at Le Mans under his own banner of Keating Motorsports, as the second of IMSA’s at-large invites. Keating raced under the TI Automotive/Riley Motorsports flag in 2015 in the final competitive outing of the Dodge Viper GTS-R in GTE-Am, and a year ago made his first LMP2 start at the race in the open top Oreca 03R with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Marc Goossens for Murphy Prototypes. Now, the Texan will be in his No. 43 Riley Mk. 30 Gibson.

Lastly, Zak Brown’s United Autosports team is entered under the U.S. banner. Brown and business partner Richard Dean have long desired and dreamed of racing at Le Mans and will do so with its No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson. Mazda Road to Indy veteran and TCU student Will Owen is the team’s nominated driver with Swiss teenager Hugo de Sadeleer the second driver, those two having been confirmed at Autosport International last month.

Usual U.S. teams Extreme Speed Motorsports and Krohn Racing are among the notable absences this year, with ESM focusing instead on its Nissan Onroak DPi program in the States and Krohn Racing off a Le Mans entry list for the first time since 2005.

Michael Shank Racing, which made its Le Mans debut last year, now has its Acura NSX GT3 program it’s focusing on.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).