ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) — Sebastien Bourdais speaks reverently about the Le Mans 24-hour race in his native France, as if some mythical force has a hand in the competition.
“I don’t know what’s the criteria ... All I can tell you is Le Mans picks its winner,” Bourdais said.
If that’s the case, this year, the race finally picked him.
After a memorable trip back to France, Bourdais is back this weekend with the IndyCar series, which is returning to Road America for the first time since 2007. His class victory at Le Mans last week was his first win in 11 tries on his home track.
“For me, it’s been a long time coming, trying to chase this one for quite some time,” Bourdais said Friday in between Road America practice sessions.
He teamed with Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller to drive the No. 68 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT on a day memorable for another reason for the team coming 50 years after Ford’s podium sweep at Le Mans in 1966.
“It’s kind of the European version of the Indy 500,” said Scott Dixon, part of a team that drove the No. 69 Ford GT to a third-place class finish. “Just really happy for Sebastien. He’s run there many years and come close many times to get that victory.”
Bourdais chose to deflect the attention toward Ford’s milestone.
“As a driver, especially for me, I’m the helper on the team. I’m the third driver, I come for the long races,” Bourdais said. “It’s not your program, so you’re just trying to bring your experience ... and be a benefactor.”
But it’s that experience that made him such a valuable commodity, so much so that he spent his weekend off from the IndyCar circuit and his KVSH Racing No. 11 Chevy to return to Le Mans.
“It was important for them to have him on that team because of his experience at Le Mans,” KVSH co-owner Jimmy Vasser said. “He brought a lot to that organization because he’s been there before.”
Just like at Road America, the 4-plus mile road course in Elkhart Lake some 60 miles north of Milwaukee. IndyCar is back at the sprawling, woodsy venue for the first time since Bourdais was the winner here.
He qualified in the front row in each of his four previous starts at Road America in the CART series, including poles in 2004 and 2007. Bourdais has finished on the podium each time, including his first-place finish nine years ago. He’s the only current IndyCar driver to have won at the course.
“For me, it’s the best track in the (United States). I really cherish this place,” Bourdais said. “It’s kept its identity over the years.”
He’s coming to Elkhart Lake with momentum. Before Le Mans, Bourdais picked up his first IndyCar victory of the year June 4 at Belle Isle.
There was a slight hiccup, though, after the early practice on Friday. The tires on the No. 11 car were getting beat up, he said, though it wasn’t necessarily a tire issue.
“We were definitely struggling a little bit,” Bourdais said. “We’ve got some work to do. We’ll see how we can bounce back.”
Bourdais wasn’t alone.
Graham Rahal recorded the fastest speed of the day at 140.265 mph, in the second of two practice sessions. Will Power was next at 140.076. Both spoke about getting used to the traction and the wear on tires on a course with abrasive curbs that requires hard braking around some corners.
Simon Pagenaud, who leads the IndyCar standings, had the fastest time in the early practice round at 139.644 mph. Bourdais, who is 14th in the standings, was 15th in the first practice at 138.025.
At Le Mans, Pagenaud was rooting for fellow Frenchman Bourdais. They were teammates at Le Mans in car that finished second in 2011.
“It’s pretty cool to see him do it, as a Frenchman in Le Mans,” Pagenaud said. “I know how much (Le Mans) is important to his heart.”
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