As the 100th American Le Mans Series race approaches with Saturday’s 57th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida, Johnny O’Connell reflects on racing at Sebring and the evolution of America’s greatest sports car race.
“I go back at Sebring long before the American Le Mans Series, and I have always had really good success there,” said O’Connell, the all-time leader in victories at Sebring with seven class wins. He also ranks among the “I love every aspect of it, and that it’s an endurance race run with a sprint race mentality. If there is one race a sports car driver wants on his resume as a win, to me it’s always been Sebring, more than Daytona, more than anything; it’s our most special race.”
Sebring ranks as O’Connell’s favorite event. He remembers a time when sports car racing in the U.S. lacked leadership and direction. When Dr. Don Panoz formed the American Le Mans Series a decade ago, it marked a true renaissance for the sport. Since the first Series race on March 20, 1999 at Sebring, the aura of the event has grown annually. So has the competitive level of the drivers and teams, along with the technology that is the hallmark of the Series’ platform.
To O’Connell, Michelin has been the most influential. “The difference in tires we are running now compared to what we were running back then is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s funny because each year the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the governing body for Le Mans) tries to slow us down and yet we go faster and faster. I think a lot of that would lie at the hands of what Michelin has achieved.”
Still, there are some things that remain the same from 1999. One of those is O’Connell’s teammate, Jan Magnussen. The pairing were part of Panoz Motor Sports’ factory prototype effort at the 12 Hours in 1999. They enter this weekend as the defending GT1 Series champions and race winners.
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