Petit Le Mans winners. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Winners of 20th Petit Le Mans all hit notable milestones

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Saturday’s 20th Motul Petit Le Mans from Road Atlanta was a milestone event for the fall endurance classic, the brainchild of Dr. Don Panoz in tandem with the race organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest.

And for the race winners, it was a case where each race winner achieved something of note in their careers.

PROTOTYPE: DALZIEL, HARTLEY BREAK THROUGH WITH SHARP AT ESM

Hartley, Dalziel and Sharp. Photo courtesy of IMSA

While Extreme Speed Motorsports had won at Petit Le Mans before – in the GT class in 2012 with a special chrome livery for one-off sponsor Ultimat Vodka and a lineup of Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Toni Vilander in the team’s No. 01 Ferrari F458 Italia – it hadn’t won overall in the race.

Surprisingly, despite racing for the team for four years, Tequila Patron ESM veteran Ryan Dalziel hadn’t either. Some notable near-misses – mainly the 2014 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – stuck out as the Scot had managed to miss a win for the team by no fault of his own. Even when ESM went back-to-back at Daytona and Sebring in 2016, Dalziel was racing for the VISIT FLORIDA Racing team in IMSA, as he raced for ESM in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Either the No. 22 or 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi was the class of the field on Saturday at Petit Le Mans, and while the No. 2 car was lucky to inherit the win once the sister No. 22 car driven by Pipo Derani got assessed a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact, it didn’t dampen the spirits of the Patron team to ensure at least one of the two cars won.

The No. 2 car survived in spite of an alternator issue that nearly defeated them again, but in the end former Starworks Motorsport teammates Dalziel and Hartley got on the board for ESM.

“When we lost the lead in the pits from the alternator issue, I thought the race was over,” Dalziel said. “Sometimes things are meant to work for you, and today was one of those days. The No. 2 definitely car needed it. I’m bummed we didn’t get a 1-2 finish.”

GT LE MANS: AUBERLEN’S 400TH BMW RACE SENDS M6 GTLM OFF IN STYLE

Special signage for Auberlen’s 400th BMW race. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Bill Auberlen celebrated his 400th start in a BMW in grand style, winning the GT Le Mans race in the final start for the M6 GTLM with co-drivers Alexander Sims and Kuno Wittmer. This was Auberlen’s second (2001) and Sims and Wittmer’s first Petit Le Mans victories.

“Obviously I’m the most fortunate person in the world, its been a privilege driving for BMW for 21 years, and on my 400th race to win,” Auberlen reflected. “I’m amongst a lot of great guys here, a lot of great teammates. A lot of the smartest people in the world here working for BMW. I’m very thankful and so happy.”

There were no nerves with Sims finishing the race, as Auberlen hailed his co-driver. The only downside, he said, is that the M6 GTLM has reached its zenith at the time it ends its career before the new M8 GTE comes online next year.

A couple other tough races limited the pair in the No. 25 BMW Team RLL entry to second in points, namely a late-race mechanical at VIR that dropped them from a sure win to fourth. But Auberlen was still thankful to Sims for making their first year as co-drivers a good win.

GT DAYTONA: CDP BACK ON TOP IN U.S., AS LAND’S YOUNG TRIO BREAKS THROUGH

De Phillippi’s star shone brightly. Photo courtesy of IMSA

In a 17-car class, European regulars Montaplast by Land-Motorsport toppled the establishment with its No. 29 Audi R8 LMS in just its third U.S. start of the year. The team’s usual full-season pairing of Connor De Phillippi and Christopher Mies featured teenager Sheldon van der Linde as its third driver, who starred along with them. Track support and strategy from Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport operation helped aid Land’s charge to the top.

“We had an amazing car. I can’t believe how strong it was,” said De Phillippi, who won his first race in the U.S. since a Star Mazda race at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in 2012. “My teammates did a flawless job. We proved our young guys can do it. A lot of teams don’t give a guy like Sheldon a chance to do it.”

De Phillippi, who’s since become a GT star with Porsche and now Audi since moving to racing in Europe full-time – even as he would welcome racing more in America next year – also noted the significance of winning at Road Atlanta. It’s been a banner year for him and Land, having won the Nürburgring 24 Hours as well.

“It’s huge! My first major Star Mazda win was here in 2010. It was a special point in my career then. Now it’s seven years later with my first big GT win. It’s awesome.”

PROTOTYPE CHALLENGE: BAR1 ENDS CLASS’ TIME ON TOP

BAR1 won the final PC race, pictured here ahead of GTLM field. Photo courtesy of IMSA

BAR1 Motorsports foiled Performance Tech Motorsports’ perfect season with a 1-2 finish in the final race for the Prototype Challenge class, as Brian Alder’s team took its first win in four years and young Canadian driver Garett Grist emerged on the sports car scene in just his third start.

A Silver-rated driver who like De Phillippi was a regular race winner in Pro Mazda in the Mazda Road to Indy, Grist was entrusted as the lead pro in Brian Alder’s second Oreca FLM09 with PC class veterans John Falb and Tomy Drissi. That he was as quick as he was in a car down on outright pace compared to Performance Tech spoke volumes about his potential for the future, with driver coach Charles “CR” Crews helping aid his development.

“We tested a couple weeks back. We were fast then, but we didn’t have the same pace here,” Grist said. “We dug deep and improved as much as we could under the circumstances. I did a triple stint towards the end and then pulled out a big lead.”

Falb has been a regular winner this year in an LMP3 Ligier JS P3 car in the European Le Mans Series with United Autosports and Sean Rayhall, while Drissi has been a regular in PC off-and-on since the class inception in 2010. Falb closed the race out behind the wheel, while Drissi, whose primary business is in Hollywood and often has his movies he’s working on adorn the car, explained what it meant to close the class out on top.

“To be racing in IMSA and on the same track with Indy 500 winners and sports car stars is an honor,” Drissi said. “You do your dance out there, you work to get your tires up to temperature, and you work with the factory cars in a give-and-take. We’ve had podiums before here, but not the win; so in the last race of the PC cars, to win it is pretty darn cool.”

Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.