Being There: continued

Sundown comes fairly late at LeMans in mid-June; already lit headlights now make their high-intensity presence known. I had never experienced a night endurance race before; countless FIA World Championship, IMSA and ALMS races have been daytime affairs, no matter how long the distance. It gets hard to pick out the shapes of the cars as darkness falls. You identify competitors by their illuminated race numbers, their colored i.d. lights, the barely discernable shape of the cars, the sound of the exhaust. UB40’s Jamaican-tinged music plays behind our grandstand in a live night concert for race/party goers. Four of us decided to stay the night and witness the cars in the dark and into morning. Bob was adamant about seeing the cars as the sun rose at dawn on Mulsanne.

Frank and I got down to the spectator area across from the pits during the night. Clear plastic shields above the catch fences allow you to see through to the pit action; they also form an aural canyon for the cars, their screaming, accelerating engines blasting glorious sound off these walls and deep into your senses. The rumbling V8 engines of the Corvettes cause the ground to shake every time they go by, the Astons causing sweet pain with their high-pitched shriek. The night finds us walking about to various corners, the spectator numbers thinning out dramatically into the wee hours, some spectators sleeping where they drop, others back to thousands of campsites around the circuit and hotels offsite. Impressive numbers of beer, wine and alcohol bottles are strewn about; some in huge, messy piles and others arranged artfully in pyramids or circles. Vendors close down slowly but steadily through the night, even the huge, party-hardy beer halls. Catching espressos and dessert at 3AM in the huge, largely deserted infield “restaurant”, the air was chilly and surprisingly quiet for a place having a 24 hour race.

We made our way to the Dunlop Curves and on to the outside and then inside of the corners at Tertre Rouge, where the cars come at you hard, ever-accelerating onto the long straight. The previous passage into and through the Tertre Rouge Esses would show massive commitment for some, late, very hard, brief braking for some (one of the P1 Astons showing no signs of hitting the brakes at all), early braking for others. Flames shoot out on downshifts, over-run from spent gases lighting the winged tails of cars along with the short burn of bright brake lights. The factory Audis, to a one, sound like they are gliding, engines shut off, coasting at 100+ through the esses, but no, they are massively on the power, chasing down the Peugeots through the night. Their unique tail lights, running up the supports for the rear wing, allow us to follow their progress lap after lap, as does the distinctive bellow of the Vettes and the scream of the Aston V12 engines. We are all in agreement that the Aston Martin V12 is the sweetest engine we have ever heard.

Morning approaches, the sun just coming up over the Porsche Curves, the crowds start to return, the race grinds on. With a finish time of 3PM, the race has lots to go. Coffee smells begin to waft through the air. We finally duck into our tour bus for an hour or two of sleep, and then begin the job of finding a multi-espresso breakfast. At this point, we are all quite tired. The endurance race has become a contest of endurance for us as well. Controlled staring sets in as we sit in our grandstand seats trying to concentrate on the long hours of racing yet to go. There is plenty of time to wander about, seeing sights yet unseen, or for a second time (the place is very, very big!). A trip to the LeMans Museum, just redone and opened for this year’s race, is terrific. It contains not just race cars of note from races past, but weird and wonderful car and truck machinery, artworks, and many model pit dioramas showing the progression of the cars and the evolution of the massive pit complex over the years.

We had come to LeMans to cheer on our home teams and drivers with U.S. connections. Highcroft Racing, with their Acura/Honda/HPD was of note to Acura-crazed Frank (the team would run solidly much of the race until a water leak finally sidelined it). Bob was Corvette-centric, the factory cars fighting with the semi-factory Risi Ferrari in a titanic battle. The American Vettes would both go out with engine failure after star-crossed races. Sadly, Autocon’s Lola P1 challenge went bye-bye on lap one. The U.S.-built and entered Gentilozzi Jag continued their battle to sort the car’s electrics and went out after just 4 laps. Former ChampCar champ, LeMans-born Sebastien Bourdais would never get in his factory Peugeot as his co-driver blew a tire and rubbed the bottom off the chassis getting back to the pits early on. Marco Andretti’s Rebellion went out with gearbox issues (its sister car crashed out, and then was motorcycle-gendarme escorted at a considerable rate of speed right past us through the infield spectator tunnel, on a flatbed).

So what of the leaders? As I said, bereft of the speed essential to win on its own merits, Audi played strategy and went quick enough to be there if and when the Peugeots broke. And one by one they did, Bourdais on lap 38, another went out with engine failure in the night. The Oreca-entered car, one of last year’s cars, went very well but was also felled with engine failure in the night. Finally, as the three factory Audis now commanded places 2-4, the remaining, lead Peugeot blew up its engine in a massive cloud of flame and engine parts, with just two hours to go. Peugeot had gone from being places 1-4 to nothing, and Audi from locked out of the podium to 1-2-3 sweep winners. Brilliant.

The breaking of the Peugeot was also the breaking of our five man crew. With the race a lock for the Audis and just the walking wounded of the other classes circulating to the finish, we walked (slowly) back to our tour bus across the road from the track, next to the huge Audi hall. We, desperate for an American-style coffee, sat almost motionless and braindead, waiting for the race to end. Our exhaustion was somewhat tempered by the close-by view of a McLaren F1 street car and Ferrari F40, just parked there, nose to tail, as the well-heeled owners took in the race. Interestingly, the orange McLaren got most of the attention.

We could clearly hear the cars and crowd as the race drew to a close, and the masses, somewhere close to 300,000 strong, filed out of the track. We somehow barely took notice; we were really, really tired, but really, really satisfied, in a way that only those that have gone to the Holy Land can know.

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