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IndyCar notables come out in force for IMSA’s Motul Petit Le Mans

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Since the merger of the NASCAR Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series created the Weathertech Sports Car Championship in 2014, the Motul Petit Le Mans has closed out the year. As the combined series heads into its fifth season, it will once again wind down at the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta.

There are a few races that always attract drivers from a wide array of disciplines. The Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta is one of these. The green flag will wave over the 10-hour race shortly after 11 am ET this Saturday with several IndyCar and other notable drivers behind the wheel.

Here is a look at how they have performed in previous editions:

• Sebastien Bourdais is the only notable with a victory during the past four Petit Le Mans races. Driving a Daytona Prototype in 2015, he was part of the winning combination in class. The overall victory that year was scored by a GTLM fielded by Porsche North America. Second overall went to the GTLM BMW Team, with Bourdais and his team finishing third overall. Last year, he finished seventh in the GTLM class, which is where he will compete again in 2018.

• Scott Dixon finished second in class in 2015 in Chip Ganassi’s No. 01 Prototype, giving him a fourth-place finish overall. In 2014, the same team finished third overall and in class. In 2018, Dixon will be racing in the GTLM class where he finished with a best of eighth (14th overall) last year.

• Simon Pagenaud has made appearances in the last two Petit Le Mans, scoring a pair of top-fives in the process. He finished fourth in a Prototype in 2016 and improved to third last year. In 2018, he will once again climb behind the wheel of a Prototype.

“I really enjoy being part of this race,” Pagenaud told IndyCar.com. “The long races is a great way to keep my eyes open and keep an open mind as well on driving style and other ways to race. I enjoy it. It great to be here and race with some old friends.

“The goal at Team Penske is always to win races, but personally my goal is a little different. It’s just about making no mistakes, being fast and being consistent. I don’t need to set the world on fire because it’s a long race. The goal is more to look long term than short-run speed.”

• Gabby Chaves has made only one previous start at Road Atlanta in the Weathertech Series. He finished fourth in 2014 in a Prototype, which he will wheel again in 2018.

• Ryan Hunter-Reay is set to make his third appearance in a Prototype this year and hopes that it will go better than his two previous attempts. In 2016 and 2017, he was part of a team that failed to finish either time. His best overall performance in this class was only 35th in 2016. His best overall appearance in any class came in 2014 with a third-place GTLM result that was good enough for 11th overall.

• NBC analyst Townsend Bell will get some seat time this week in the GTD class. He has run that class three times previously with a best of fourth in class and 20th overall in 2015.

• Spencer Pigot will make his second appearance in a Prototype this week. His previous effort ended early with a 37th-place overall finish in 2016 out of 38 cars entered.

• Graham Rahal will make his first appearance in a Weathertech Petit Le Mans this week, but he has two fourth-place finishes in the Rolex 24 Hours since it went under the combined sanction umbrella in 2014.

“I have only done Petit maybe once before, but it’s always been a race I’ve wanted to compete in,” said Rahal, who rejoins Castroneves and Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura Team Penske for the first time since the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, told IndyCar.com. “To do these three races with Acura Team Penske this year has been awesome and I’m excited for the weekend. For it to be the last race of the year for not only me but everybody makes it an important one. Hopefully, we can go out and get a win. This is definitely a long race. It’s a test of endurance and man and machine. A lot of things can happen here, so we’ll go out and battle hard.”

For the 2019 season, the Weathertech Sports Car Championship will move to the NBC family of networks.

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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).