In a previous post I went through the logistics of attending the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With this photo dump I wanted to give you some of my impressions of the event. Others have done a much better job of summing up the race, the unfortunate accident that killed Allan Simonsen, and other events surrounding Le Mans than I can. What I want to do is give you a bit of a feeling of what it is like to be there.
Due to my own mistake of cutting thing close on our arrival, and the fact that the will call is way the hell from the tram stop, we got to the entrance to the track during the first caution for Allan’s crash about 4 laps in. My wife and I had traveled from Paris that morning with only a rough estimate of what to expect. There was the train, a tram and then a race track. I was thrilled to be going to the race as it was something I had followed since I was a kid. I was antsy because my wife was with me and I wanted to make sure she had a good time. Mostly, I just wanted to enjoy the experience.
When we got through the entrance we were greeted with a huge mass of people. Just people everywhere speaking most every European language there is. You could smell the race cars, grilled meats, BO, rain and the scents of the rural French country side. The wind was blowing strong and there was grit and paper debris in the air. The ground behind the stands is surprisingly uneven, transitioning from concrete, asphalt and hard backed gravel that you had to pay attention to where you stepped all the while dodging people going every direction.
This introduction was representative to how the rest of the weekend was going to go.
When we got to our seats it kind of felt like a typical trip to the races, except we were surrounded by people from all over. French to the right, Brits to the left and below and Germans behind. The race was still under caution and no one had any idea what had happened beyond the fact that an Aston had gone off and damaged the Armco. I had found Speed and Radio Le Mans on the scanner and the commentary was rolling as you would expect. Talk about strategy, Audi versus Toyota, Oak Racing and the GT class. Pretty normal stuff and not mutch different from what I have experienced at Petit Le Mans at my home track of Road Atlanta. We were at the pit exit and could see the famous Farris wheel at the start of the pit straight. The podium was down there as well. It started to sink in that we were really there. My wife and I were both pretty giddy.
I think it was a couple of hours into the race that I remember John Hindhaugh of Radio Le Mans mentioning that Allan was still in the medical facility and the tone was a bit somber. Accidents happen in all forms of racing and random injuries can necessitate a deeper look than can be afforded in a few minutes, so we didn’t think too much about it. A bit later John took a breath and read the statement from the ACO informing everyone that Allan had passed. The stands became a subdued at that point.
I had been in Las Vegas, standing next to the pit wall at the entrance with a pass I had won in a twitter competition, when Dan Wheldon had his fatal accident. The affect of that accident on the crowd was different than what I sensed at Le Mans. Maybe it was due to the size of the grid, the length of the race, or the history of tragic accidents at the track, but I never felt there was any question of the race being stopped. The car was removed, Allan was tended to, the fence was mended and the race continued. Everyone expected it to continue I think. Even the teams. That is the way Le Mans is I guess.
The racing action from that point is a bit of a blur for me. Keeping tabs on an endurance race from the track is tricky at best. Radio Le Mans is a huge help. The ALMS/ACO lighting system on the cars helps you keep tabs on the top 3 in each class. That’s all great. The fact remains that Le Mans is a long game. It is not about the daring pass into a specific turn to win the day. It is about what I do in hour 4 impacting hour 24, how pits stops go, what the weather will do and keeping out of trouble. Each team has its own plan and you just see what they intend to do piece by piece.
We moved down to the grand stands by the pits for a few hours and watched the stops happen. The sight lines into the famous garages are pretty good. You can see the teams run out and do their thing. You can see the photogs and TV crews running from pit to pit. You can hear the cars fire up and the air guns at work. The cars rush by the front straight making their distinctive notes. The beauty of this type of racing is you can tell a Nissan from an Audi and a Corvette and a from a Ferrari. You can close your eyes and almost know what is happening.
It had been spitting rain off and on the whole time we had been there and the wind never stopped. We listened to the weather report and they predicted it would be dry for a while so around 6:30PM we decided to try and take the shuttle down to Arnage and Mulsanne corner. To get down there you have to take a bus outside the track. It was this trip that gave me a real sense of the size of the place. The drive down to Arnage took about 20 minutes. Granted, we were going slow due to crowds, but it felt like driving to another village. What was amazing was there were people, cars and camping everywhere. Just huge numbers of people.
Arnage gave us our first view of the cars in a slow speed environment. There isn’t much at corner but a low fence, a berm to stand on and more camping. The area was packed with people though. Many watching and taking pictures. Some snoozing I their chairs next to a pile of beer cans, others on ladders trying to see over everyone. People were polite and seemed to be having a good time. We stood for a bit behind an elderly British gentleman watching the race while wearing a full suit and polished loafers. He calmly watched while a kid next to him with a huge telephoto lens took pictures.
Dodging mud puddles we went back to the bus stop and hit Mulsanne. It took even longer to get there from Arnage than it did to get down to Arnage. We drove past farms, houses, schools and all the everyday stuff you would expect in a small community. Back behind the community ball fields and tennis courts though was a line of trees. When the bus dropped us off you could hear the cars screaming down the straigh that leads away from Mulsanne corner, But you couldn’t see anything. Another mud dodging walk lead to another berm. It was maybe half a mile long. At the end was the final right turn off the Mulsanne straight. This area was a bit disappointing if I must be honest. While the sounds were great, you could see nothing of the straight itself. You caught a quick glimpse of the cars just before they hit the turn and then they were gone. We lingered for a bit because, well, we were at Mulsanne and who knows if/when we will get back there.
Night started falling around 10 PM and we knew it was time to get back to the front part of the track. It was the day after the solstice so the dark was going to be short, but we wanted to get back before it got too late. Upon our return we decided to check out the vendors a bit and walk down by the area where the rides were near the Ford Chicane. There was pretty much a small town fair going on down in that corner. All kimds of food and drinks were available. People were drinking, drunk and having a good time. As we came upon the famous Ferris wheel we checked out the line and cost and decided to go for it.
As there were only two of us we got paired up with three British buddies to fill up a car. We were packed in, but all laughing and enjoying the fact that were riding the famous wheel at Le Mans. We got some great pictures too. One lasting memory though is being frozen by the wind. It was just howling at the top of that thing.
After the fun of the Ferris wheel we walked down the track a bit more and then headed under the track to walk up the fan area in the infield with all the car maker tents. By the time we got up there it was pushing 2AM and most were closed up. When we realized the time we figured it was time to find a place in the stands to catch some sleep. As you can imagine sleeping next to the track, in the stands of Le Mans, is an experience. There is no place to go to get warm. Regardless of where you go there is wind and there is no escaping the noise of the cars and the very loud PA. The seats failed to provide any kind of comfort laying down and are barely passible for sitting on. We arranged our gear as best we could and hunkered down for the next three and a half hours. Neither of us slept much, but we stayed as warm as we coipd and toughed it out. When I couldn’t sleep I would listen to Radio Le Mans, take pictures or ponder the virtues of laying on the ground in front of the seats, sitting up on the seats or laying across the seats. I tried all three.
About 5:30AM the tint of the sky started to change. Both of us were awake and we checked the weather again. It was forcast to be clear until 9:30 or so. It was then that we decided to head for the Porsche Curves. We wanted to see these high speed bends for ourselves. After an hour wait for the bus, we made our way down there and then hiked another 20 minutes through a farm and a couple camp sites to find another berm. This one was largely empty and riddled with beer cans, plastic trash and with a few people sleeping on its banks. The cars came to this set of curves at a very high rate of speed. It was impressive to see them get on the brakes for the slower bits and then to power out of them again. You could smell wet farm and race car here and it was another reminder that we weren’t at the typical race track.
After an hour or so we started feeling spots of rain and we knew our luck on staying mostly dry was wearing thin. We walked back to the bus stop just as most of the camp sites were waking up. People were brushing teeth, firing up grills and rubbing aching foreheads. Upon getting on the bus I think both my wife and I passed out. I have no idea how long we were asleep, but it was warm on the bus and there was no wind. It was very welcome. We both woke with a start at the last stop when we realized it was time to get off.
It was pushing 9AM by then and we went back to the infield vendor village and visited several of the booths. We checked out the Nissan coupe DeltaWing mockup again, the Le Mans heritage tent where we saw several very notable Le Mans winners including the epic Rothmans 962 and the 1949 Ferrari. We smelled the smells and saw the sights, but we had been away from the race for a while and I wanted to get back to it.
In our seats again for the last four or five hours we started following things closely. Audi was leading, but not by much. There were additional cautions, Dempsy’s team was being daring trying to win GT-AM, Corvette was pissed that they were getting beat like they were and the Vipers were hanging in. The hours and laps ticked by.
With an hour to go the grand stand started filling up. The Brits were back to our left and below. The Germans were behind us. There was another long caution and the rain was on and off in roughly 15 minute intervals. When it rained inevitably we would see someone go off on their way up to the Dunlop Bridge. They would hit the gravel and power through or spin and try and keep it on the track. It happened several times with out being shown on the giant screen in front of us or without any mention on the PA.
With the last couple of minutes counting down people started standing up. Many leaned forward urging the favorites on. We all knew it was almost over. Not just for the teams but us. We could see the cars entering their finishing formation. First the two Audis were together on the track, then the trailing Audi, a number of laps behind the #2 placed Toyota, eased off and let the Toyota into position behind the lead Audi. The cars were separated by a lap or more, but they would cross the line as they would be scored. Audi, Toyota, Audi. After crossing the finish line the cars made a sharp right turn directly in front of us to go into pit road from the exit end. No victory lap at Le Mans.
My wife and I had one further thing to do. We were going to get on the track. We had seen it on TV, the mobs of people below the podium mingling with the teams. We wanted to do that. We had to find the way out there. We looked up and down the track and started seeing people trickling onto the front straight. We broke away for our seats and made our way down there as fast was we could. We spotted the chunk of fence people were hopping and made our way to it. I told my wife to keep close and be careful as there was a lot of people pushing for that hole. Being 6 ft tall, wide shouldered, and packing some “success ballast” has its advantages at times And we got through the crowd quickly. We made it to the 4 ft high metal fence and hopped over, then climbed the slightly taller concert fence to find us in a ditch between that wall and the track wall. This ditch was a bit wider than one person is wide and was filled with broken beer bottles. It did lead to a small stairway and a metal door. Behind the door was the racetrack. There was already a good crowd below the podium, but we dodged and weaved and got the newr the podium area just as the Audi team was taking the top step.
It was an amazing place to be. It was jubilant, but subdued due to Allan’s accident. The crowd was joyous and I think they were as happy as the teams to make it 24 hours. I know we were. The sun even started to come out. Finally.
And finally, it was time to go. We decided to walk up the track to the Dunlop Bridge and hope there was a way out near the tram stop at Tertre Rouge. We stopped in one of the gravel traps and continued our long tradition of bringing rocks home form the countries we visit. There were many people doing the same. Lots of pictures were being taken, kids were riding bikes on the track and people were taking a minute to appreciate the sunshine and what had just happened.
When we made it back to the city of Le Mans we had some time before our trip back to Paris. We hit a local cafe for dinner and a much needed beer. My wife and I talked about the race and the experience. We agreed that going to Le Mans as a fan isn’t about following the race closely. It is very difficult to do that unless you park yourself in front of a jumbortron. If you are going to do that you might as well as stay home. It was about seeing the sights, smelling the smells and getting the lay of the land. Getting through the race as a fan, doing it the way we did it, was just as much about getting through it while having as much fun as possible. I think we did that.
If you are reading Jalopnik I would say you need to go to Le Mans. It is an experience. I’ve been to Formula 1, the Indy 500, NHRA, a bunch of ALMS races, Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona and nothing really compares to Le Mans. There is the thrills and difficulties that go with being in France, there is the immensity of the track, there is the fact that this race is really EVERYTHING for most of the teams running that just makes it different. If you have thought about going the you should go. Make it something you have to do. You may get rained on, you may get muddy, you may get lost, but it is totally worth it. Go.
The Photo Dump:
Ferris Wheel - Ford Chicane
Tertre Rouge - Post Race
Around The Track