When off-road racers won Le Mans

“It was almost too good to be true. I remember waking up Monday morning at a hotel in Paris and looking at the newspaper, and thinking, ‘Holy F-bomb, this did happen.’”

That was American sports car racing legend Patrick Long’s memory of his amazing win on debut at the 72nd edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with teammates Jorg Bergmeister and Sascha Maassen. A full 20 years on, the 2004 endurance racing classic produced a remarkable result as the Las Vegas-based Petersen White Lightning Racing off-road team triumphed at the legendary Le Mans race on its first attempt.

Formed and backed by driver Mike Petersen, whose family-owned casino supported the program’s budgetary needs, and racer Dale White, whose experience assembling and leading teams to race at the Baja 1000 and other off-road championships was peerless, the two took a hard turn away from focusing solely on dirt, sand, and rocks, and tried something wild with paved circuit racing.


And if you’re going to try something new, why not go all-in with sports car racing and Porsche, using a 911 GT3-RS, and a rookie Le Mans driver in California’s Long, a young rocket in Germany’s Bergmeister, and an established veteran in his countryman Maassen who’d won the GT class the year before in a Porsche run by Florida’s Alex Job Racing.

Petersen White Lightning wasn’t brand-new to endurance competition; it cut its teeth in the American Le Mans Series starting in 2003, but the ambitious trip to France was unlike anything White and his crew had attempted. Separate from the driver trio, the blending of salty off-road racers with a number of hardcore Porsche savants from the factory in Stuttgart is what made success possible for the team.

Image via Porsche

“It really was a melting pot of personalities and talent,” Long said in a podcast with Bergmeister about the 20th anniversary of the achievement. “When you think about the driver lineup of this car, none of us were regular drivers for Peterson, but Peterson had shown so much promise as a customer team in the U.S., and it really was a high intensity, high focus, high caliber organization, led on overwatch by Roland Kussmaul, who is one of the biggest names in all of Porsche motorsport history, as far as I’m concerned.

“And so when I walked in the first face that I met with (crew chief) Stefan Pfeiffer, and Stefan deserves his own show. Let’s just say they were all are all stars from different walks of life. If you look at Dale White, leading the organization from the desert racing side, Stefan Pfeiffer, coming from AMG’s ITC days. All the way down the line through every mechanic. Harry Haggard (race engineer) was a guy at that time, he would have been in his 70s, and he had worked and owned 904s; he became a lifelong friend of mine. I had known Sascha and Jorg for about a year, but I had never driven with them.

“So it quickly became apparent that it was lean, it was mean, it was work hard and play hard. It was a family organization where when the radios and the headsets went on, it was as organized and militant as any organization I had ever worked with. But when the session was over, we were friends, and if you didn’t last on the social side, you weren’t going to be there on the performance side. Because Dale really led from the top that this was a family, and there was respect.

“There was oftentimes tough conversations, but we always closed down Vanessa’s (paddock restaurant) when we won. We were literally dancing on tables. So it very much Stuttgart meets Vegas and everything in between.”

The road to victory was wild as well. Bergmeister arrived at Le Mans looking like he’d gotten into a fight with sandpaper, and he did, in essence, having crashed on his bicycle during pre-event training and shaved parts of his face into the road.

Sascha Maassen, Dale White, Patrick Long, Michael Petersen, and Jorg Bergmeister. Image via Porsche

Due to the extreme height difference between Bergmeister and Long, all of the padding was removed from the base of the car’s seat to keep the German’s head from hitting the roof. And while that was great for Bergmeister, it left Long’s backside in a painful state which led to a hilarious solution. A broken throttle cable, followed by a broken shock, plus a spin, and changing to Porsche’s first sequential racing gearbox the night before the race, only added to the suspense.

Listen below to a magical and often funny story woven by two great friends in Bergmeister and Long who not only earned Porsche’s 56th win at Le Mans along with Maassen in the No. 90 Westward Ho Casino/MMPIE/PAWS/ Michelin Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, but also went on to become one of the great driver pairings of the new millennium.

Story originally appeared on Racer