2012 24 Heures du Mans

The United States Grand Prix, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years – they’ve all come and gone…I figure it’s time to finish my Le Mans report.

Le Mans.

The word alone means so many things.  A town in the French countryside.  A challenge for man and machine.  A week-long celebration of racing.  An event that many consider the pinnacle of racing.  There are, without question, people who attend the race for just one of these reasons.  But for me, it is the combination of all these aspects and so much more.

Waking up Saturday morning the 16th, the first thing I notice through my open balcony doors: the sound of rain.  My heart sinks; this will be a wet race.  While it’s rained every day I’ve been in France, I’ve also enjoyed extended periods where it was sunny and dry.  Looking at the radar, there’s an ominous green blob hovering over central France.  Equipment-wise, I’m prepared for rainy weather.  My resolve, however, is less than prepared for a wet race.  The prospect of spending the next 40 hours wet and miserable is less than desirable – especially considering I have an exceptional (not to mention dry) hotel room waiting for me.  I get dressed and head downstairs for breakfast.

Loading up on eggs, bacon, croissants, and coffee, I join some of my fellow Grand Prix Tour patrons from dinner last night.  There are only a few of us having breakfast, most of our fellow tour participants are missing.  Trevor, most noticeably, is nowhere to be found.  He knows what he’s doing, so I’m not too worried.  The 6 or 7 of us are discussing the day’s events that lay ahead of us and what we’ll be seeing.  After wolfing down my second breakfast plate, it’s 7:45 and time for me to head back upstairs and grab my track pack.

Heading back to the elevators, I see Trevor coming out of the room where we had dinner last night. “Where have you been?” he asks.

Up front, getting breakfast, where have you been?

Trevor points into the room: “Eating breakfast with the rest of the tour group”.  Oh…that’s where we were supposed to have breakfast.  Trevor chuckles and I head upstairs.

Upon entering my room, I realize I left my balcony doors open and the sound of rain is ever present, if not increasing.  My first thought: sorry Ayse, I’m not staying the full 24.  I double check everything: camera equipment, clothes, snacks, and socks.  I’m all set.  Throwing on my new REI rain jacket, I head back downstairs.

The Grand Prix Tours group has gathered in the lobby waiting on the bus that pulls up shortly.  Taking my place at the front of the bus as I did last year, I settle in.  A short 15 minutes later, we’re all on board and heading out of town towards the A10 where we’ll pick up the A28 onto Le Mans.

Because of the bleak and dreary weather, I don’t take any pictures of the wet French countryside.  At the same time, I am having a wonderful conversation with a charming couple from the Northeast seated behind me.  She’s a speech therapist and he’s in the auto repair industry who enjoys racing his 70’s Porsche on open-track days.  We chuckled at the New England/Boston accent (where my name is pronounced “Rabbit”) and the Texas/Southern accent (something which I apparently don’t have except when I said I was “fixin” to do something).  The countryside rolls by and like that we’re exiting the A28.  Le Mans is close.  A few short minutes later, I recognize where I am on the D323 and just like that, we’re crossing Tertre Rouge and the Mulsanne Straight – I get chills.

Unlike last year, where Trevor took us from Plan A to B to C to D before we finally parked, Trevor takes us directly through Arnage and around towards Maison Blanche where we finally get to our parking lot.

Pulling in, it’s around 9:30.  It’s still raining and I’m in no hurry to get out into the elements and get wet, especially when I don’t have to be anywhere until noon to meet up with the 10ths crew, so I decide to stick around and chat it up with Trevor.  I’ve promised to show Gary – my fellow GPT’er from Detroit – what I know and where to go and have convinced him to hang out with me and Trevor.

The three of us chat it up about Trevor’s racing past and Gary continues to wow us with his car knowledge.  Gary is a global technical expert for dampers for GM; he covers the specifications (among other things) for all GM vehicles globally – and he knows his stuff.  Gary and Trevor are having a great conversation about XYZ car and how it’s the platform for ABC car sold in France and how it shares suspension parts with LMNO car in Germany.  Trust me, it is actually quite fascinating.  The three of us chat is up for an hour or so and the rain begins to let up a bit.  With that, I turn to Gary and ask if he’s ready to head up to the track.  He nods in agreement and after a quick 10 minute walk, we make our way through the Maison Blanche gate.

As we near the track, the Group C support race has ended and the roar of 28 various Aston Martin race cars coming to life fills the air.  In hindsight, I wish I’d taken Gary up to the track earlier so we could see the Group C cars in action and catch the start of various DBR9’s and Vantages.  We get to the Ferris Wheel and a few Astons make their way through the Ford Chicane.  Pointing off to the distance, there’s the Dunlop Chicane and the Dunlop Tribune where I sat last year.

Near the start/finish line, we walk past the various vendors, giggling at the Aston Martin branded thongs and half-shirts for women.  Here’s the ACO grandstand, here’s where I met Johnny Herbert last year and where I’ll be sitting this year.  There’s the main tunnel under the track towards the Village – take note, walk through on the right side – unlike what I did last year where I earned a few disapproving glares from my fellow race attendees for not going the right way.  Here’s the Dunlop Tribune, the Dunlop Chicane, and Dunlop Bridge: excellent photo opportunities here.  We start to head towards Tertre Rouge when I check my watch.  Crap, its 11:30 and the 10ths group is meeting in 30 minutes!  I tell Gary he needs to join me, he’s going to love meeting the 10ths guys.  Without hesitation, he agrees and we head towards the 10ths meeting tree where I have a treat in store for my friends.

Ten-Tenths.com is a website/discussion forum dedicated to racing: NASCAR, WRC, MOTOGP, autocross, F1, you name it.  If it goes fast or 2 or 4 wheels, it gets discussed on this website.  I’ve been a member for the past 5+ years.  We have a subsite dedicated to Le Mans, and it is without a doubt, the best and most intelligent group of fans I’ve ever had the pleasure of interacting with.  Every year, the guys get together for pre-race drinks, snacks, and catching up.

Exiting the tunnel and turning right: the Le Mans Village – in all its glory – is right in front of us.  Immediately in front of us is a Chevrolet booth that Gary absolutely must take a look at.  Given his employer, I can’t say that I blame him.  To our left is the  Grand Marnier crepe booth.  Across the way is the the Dodge booth with the new Viper on display.  And right next to the Dodge display is the Ten-Tenths group.

I know exactly where I’m going and I’m immediately surrounded by friends.  James and Andrew are the first I seek out.  With quick handshakes and pats on the shoulder, I move about the group seeking others out.  Surrounding me are Walter, Eric, Pascal, Bernard, Simon, Nobby, and Christopher – while yes, I saw these guys yesterday, seeing them at the race just has a different feel to it.  Yesterday was just us hanging out at the track checking out the Toyota team.  Today we’re here for something special: the race.

With Gary in tow and introducing him to as many as I can, there are a few faces I don’t recognize.  I introduce myself and the response: Hi, I’m Truckosaurus.  And like that, I immediately know who I’m talking to.  As I prepared for last year’s race, I shared this site with the Tenths guys, one of the first responses I received was from Truckosaurus.  I had concerns on getting to and from Tertre Rouge, concerns quickly squashed by Truckosaurus.  To finally meet him in person is a genuine pleasure.

Truckosaurus

Truckosaurus

After another cup of wine or two, I find Gary.  He’s chatting with two other members I don’t know yet.  “Hi, I’m rblanshard from Texas”.  “Hi, I’m Isynge and this is GTFour”.  Again, I immediately know these guys.  We’ve carried on conversations online and now we’ve finally met in person.

Gary, Isynge, and GTFour

Gary, Isynge, and GTFour

Walking about, I see another forum member and I think I know who he is from previous meeting pictures.  I want to meet him and I want to hear his experiences.  Eos.   Again, we’ve never met, but I know him.  And I know his story.

Eos

Eos

Competing in an online competition, Eos won the opportunity to attend rally racing school and participate in a rally race.  We chat about the various games we have at home and how the raw skill to go fast online translates directly to going fast in real life.  Sure, there are minor tweaks to be made and other skills to learn, but the games and simulations are so good, you can make the jump from the PC/console racing to real racing action.  Good to know.  Now I have an excuse to keep up with GT5 and iRacing just in case Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich decides to give me a call.

I rattle off a few more shots of the group.

Pascal and Ayse

Pascal and Ayse

Bentley and the guys

Bentley and the guys

Kpy

Kpy

The Guys

The Guys

I wish I’d taken more candid shots, but grabbing my camera reminded me I forgot something else: my American treat for the boys.

Last year, Eric and Pascal brought wine that was locally grown and bottled as well as some fioe gras.  It was a great way to kick off my first Le Mans.  In the months leading up to this year’s race, as we made plans to meet up again, I promised I’d bring something local for the group.  Almost instantly, the guys began making jokes about brewing moonshine and having it delivered in the General Lee.  I promised them something better, and I can guarantee I didn’t disappoint.

Shouldering my camera, I reach into my bag and retrieve my bottle of moonshine: Woodford Reserve.  Almost immediately, the guys ask what I’ve brought and when I tell them it’s American whiskey.  They almost all cringe.  There is an American whiskey that is easily available in Europe, and quite frankly it’s a little harsh.  I can’t blame them for their hesitation, but I promise them they won’t be disappointed.

With an air of apprehension, one by one they extend their empty cups.  First the smell test: passed.  Next the sip test: passed.  Finally, the empty cup and refill test: passed.  One of the members partaking in my treat is Mathias.  We haven’t previously met, but again, we know each other online and begin talking.  He’s from Denmark and is really enjoying the Woodford Reserve.  Nobby walks up and he too is pleasantly surprised.  We chat for a while about the flavor and how it’s different from what they’ve previously experienced.  Several others have all come up and said how much the enjoyed the whiskey.

*Post-race whiskey update.  Several weeks after returning home, I received notes from Nobby and Mathias that they were successful in tracking down bottles of Woodford Reserve from their local shops and have added it to their rotation.

A few sips here, a few refills there, and like that the bottle is empty.  It’s about 2:00, the race is an hour away, and it’s time to make our way to the ACO Tribune.

But before we head to our seats, it’s time for a group photo:

The Tenths Guys

The Tenths Guys

The get well message to AllonFS is directed at a fellow Tenths member.  AllonFS is a frequent Le Mans visitor and a respected member of the forum.  Earlier this year, Allon announced he would not be attending the 2012 race.  He had recently been re-diagnosed with leukemia.  Having won his first battle 5 years ago, he’s once again undergoing treatment.  Just as the message says: get well AllonFS.  We’ve never met, and although you weren’t here in person, you were still a part of my trip this year.  Take care and get well.

It’s only now I notice someone is missing.  Nirav.

Several months ago, I received a notice that someone had posted a comment on this site that needed my approval.  It was some random reader who found my site through Google or some other search engine.  He liked my site, had a few questions and asked if I would send him a note.  It was too personal for it to be generated from some spam-bot, so I responded.  I dropped Nirav an e-mail and addressed some of his concerns.  Much to my surprise, he responded quite quickly.  This was going to be his first trip to Le Mans and he received most of his advice from Beer Mountain – another Le Mans fan website.

He was – at the time – in med school in the University of Florida program.  I told him I was a Razorback and there were several friendly SEC shots across the bow in our communication.  I told him where we’d be and what time we were meeting.  I would, again, have my Razorback hat on and it would be easy to find me.  Alas, he didn’t join us.  Next time, Nirav.

Slowly, the group starts to break up as it’s time for us to find our seats.  It was another successful meeting of the Ten-Tenths Le Mans crew.  It was great to see my friends again and equally great to meet new guys.  Guy, Ian, Remko, and Mathias, it was great to finally put names to faces.

James, Andrew, Tony, and I gather up our stuff and make our way to the rather impressive ACO Tribune.  Late last year/earlier this year, after deciding to return to Le Mans, James reached out to me and invited me to join him and Andrew and Tony in their seats.  After joining the ACO, having to upgrade my membership, buy tickets, reach out to the ACO to exchange tickets, and finally get in touch with Caroline with the ACO ticket office, I finally got my tickets with the boys.

With the Audi pits directly in front of us and the JMW Motorsport pits just to the left, the start/finish line and the main race control building is off to our right and the Dunlop Bridge and Chicane is around the bend to our left.

The cars are lined up as the engineers make their final adjustments.  Just a few hours ago, it was raining and the track was drenched.  The track is still slightly wet, but sun is peaking in and out from behind the clouds.   It’s been rain-free for the last 3+ hours, looks like could have a dry race.  My thought of returning to Tours for the night is quickly fading.

Toyota and Audi

Toyota and Audi

The Field

The Field

Le Mans Ferris Wheel

Le Mans Ferris Wheel

Slowly, the cars begin heading out for their reconnaissance laps.

Heading out

Heading out

There’s a buzz in the air as we’re getting close to the waiving of the drapeau tricolore.  The Patrouille Acrobatique de France has flown over the front stretch with their blue, white, and red smoke trailing behind.  Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, made famous from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, plays over the loud speakers.  The cars exit the Ford Chicane, it’s 3:00 and time to start:

It’s a glorious sound, the roar of 56 cars moving past you.  James, Andrew, Tony, and I enjoy the show playing out just a few yards in front of us.

Nissan DeltaWing

Nissan DeltaWing

Flying Lizard

Flying Lizard

LMP2 and LMP1

LMP2 and LMP1

Papparazzi

Papparazzi

I head inside and grab the four of us a beer.  We sit there, listening to Radio Le Mans as the cars roars past us and hang out for a few hours.

Around 6:00, James and Andrew suggest we go for a walk.  With James and Andrew in the lead, Tony and I take up the rear and begin our trek towards Tertre Rouge.  As we near the Dunlop Chicane and the ACO Museum, Tony and I notice James and Andrew are nowhere to be found.  We search for a bit, shrug our shoulders and keep moving on.  Tony doesn’t post much on Ten-Tenths and I don’t know him very well.  We met last year when he brought his son Tim to the Tenths meeting so this gives us a chance to chat and get to know each other.  We settle in just below the Dunlop Bridge around 7:30.

Under the Bridge

Under the Bridge

GT Action

GT Action

Leading Audi

Leading Audi

We move into the Esses.  We’re standing right next to this 6 to 7 foot tall old cement wall.  I attach my camera to my tripod, angle down the LCD screen and rattle off a few of these shots as well as this video.

LMP2

LMP2

Murphy Prototypes and AF Corse

Murphy Prototypes and AF Corse

Around 8:00, there’s a loud gasp from the crowd and the French announcer is screaming over the loud speakers.  Tony and I look at each other wondering what happened.  Just off to our left is a jumbotron tv.  Many spectators have jumped the waist high chain link fence to see the replay.

Checking out the jumbotron

Checking out the jumbotron

I plug in my radio and tune into Radio Le Mans – Anthony Davidson driving the # 8 Toyota TS030 was clipped by the slower GTE AM driver Piergiuseppe Perazzini in the AF Corse Ferrari 458 heading into the Mulsanne Corner.  But words don’t do it justice describing what happened to Toyota and Anthony Davidson.

Having gone back and watched the replay several times, while I know it’s the faster drivers’ responsibility to pass in a responsible manner, this is totally Perazzini’s fault and another example of the flawed thinking by the ACO to have “amateur” drivers at this event.  While Perazzini was able to walk away from his overturned Ferrari, Davidson suffered two broken vertebrae.  Due to the damage of the safety barrier, we’re under an hour-long safety car period.

Tony and I cross under Tertre Rouge and make our way to the hill overlooking the inside of the corner as the cars file past us down the Mulsanne Straight.  Tony taps me on the shoulder and points off to my right.  Standing there, about five feet from us are James and Andrew.  It’s easy to lose two guys in a crowd of 250,000+, but to accidentally stumble upon two friends is entirely random.  Granted it wasn’t hard to miss Andrew in his bright yellow coat, but still.

It’s around 9:30 and the cars are back racing.  It’s still fairly bright outside.  The combination of the ambient light, the speed of the cars, and the right settings on the Nikon, I get my favorite shots of the race.

Rebellion Racing

Rebellion Racing

Flying Lizard Porsche

Flying Lizard Porsche

Audi #1 e-tron quattrp

Audi #1 R18 e-tron quattro

Murphy Prototypes

Murphy Prototypes

JMW Motorsports

JMW Motorsports

Just as we go back to racing, not far from us, in the Corvette Corner, the 2nd Toyota TS030 is in a gaggle of other cars, including the Nissan DeltaWing.  As Toyota driver Kaz Nakajima tries an inside move on the lead Audi, he clipped the radical racer.  My Tenths buddy Nobby caught these great photos.

DeltaWing

DeltaWing

DeltaWing

DeltaWing

Satoshi Motoyama

Satoshi Motoyama

Satoshi Motoyama working on the DeltaWing

Satoshi Motoyama working on the DeltaWing

Each car carries a basic set of tools.  If something happens on-track, the driver is allowed to use those tools to try to repair any damage.  If the driver exits his car, he has to stay within 10 meters of the vehicle otherwise it’s considered abandoned and you’ve retired from the race.  You can see Motoyama doing his best to get the DeltaWing back up and running again.  He’s about a half mile from the pit entry and members of his pit crew are just outside the fence, telling him what to try to fix.  They can’t give him any tools or assist him, but they can tell him what to try next.

I love the applause the fans give him for his valiant efforts to restart the DeltaWing.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.  Thank you Nobby for letting me use your photos.

Back where we are at Tertre Rouge, it’s getting dark and I’m having very strong memories of being here last year.  In 2011, I was here about this same time, but I was alone.  My fellow Grand Prix Tourers were boarding the bus and heading back to Tours for the night.  I was very cold, alone, and quite frankly, a little worried.  This year, it’s a completely different feeling.  Checking my watch, the GPT group should be heading back to Tours.  The funny thing is, it isn’t until now did I think about heading back to Tours.  There isn’t a hint of apprehension, regret, or fear.  I’m staying the full 24.  I’m with excellent friends sharing an incredible experience.

Aston Martin LM GTE Pro

Aston Martin LM GTE Pro

Le Tertre Rouge Restaurant

Le Tertre Rouge Restaurant

Turning around to see the cars scream off into the French countryside is amazing to see and even more amazing to hear as the engine noise is reverberated off the trees.

You can see how the faster prototype cars will flash their high beams at the slower GT cars telling them “I’M FASTER THAN YOU – PLEASE DON’T DO ANYTHING STUPID.”

We stay at Tertre Rouge till around 11:30.  It’s finally dark and we decide to head back to our seats in the ACO grandstand.  We gather up and make our way down the hill and around the outside of the Esses when we come to a food tent.  It’s the same tent I visited last year when I was exposed to the pomme frites covered in mayonnaise.  My memory is a little foggy, but I think Andrew stepped up and offered to buy us dinner.  I see something on the menu board that catches my attention: American Steack.  American Steack?  Ok, I’ll give that a shot.  What I receive is both an unusual site and oddly familiar.  Two hamburger patties, cut in half, laid out in a line on a baguette, covered in french fries and ketchup.  Add in a Kronenbourg and it’s an all-in-one French Happy Meal.  We grab a seat on a picnic table and wolf down our dinners.  After some conversation and a brief break, we begin out trek back uphill.

Nearing the Village, our ACO memberships grant us entry into the ACO Club.  It’s a fenced in, private club with snacks and drinks available as well as chairs, couches, and TVs.  We sit down to warm up a bit and enjoy a cup of coffee.  Just outside,  you can hear the thumping of dance music coming from the Village.  Here’s a poor photo merge of some pics taken with my iPhone.

ACO Club

ACO Club

Heading back through the Village, it’s just like last year – a massive party.  The Nissan display has two Juke hatchbacks with rear gates open and deafening dubstep music blaring with several dozen ravers bouncing up and down.  Quite a sight.

Soon enough, we’re back in our seats.

Our ACO Grandstand is a wonderful spot.  Directly behind our seats is a one-stop shop where you can get a beer and a sandwich.  There’s also a lounge with dozens of tables and several TVs showing the international feed and live timing and scoring.  We return to our seats around 1:00 and watch the nighttime racing for an hour or so.

Around 2AM, James motions for us to get up, we’re once again on the move.  Down the stairs, across the street, out the gate and onto the grass parking lot, our chariot awaits.  James, Andrew, and Tony drove to the track from their hotel and their reserved parking space is almost right outside the gate.  We dump our equipment in the boot, pile in, and we’re off to Arnage.  The roads are lined with people coming and going to and from various parts of the track.  Some are walking, others are biking.  It’s quite dark and the road feels quite narrow – even more than usual when you mix in people walking/riding on the side of the road.  We take our time and get to Arnage around 2:45 or so.  There’s a great crowd on the hill overlooking the track.  Some have makeshift scaffolding to help them get a better view over the catch fencing.  One of the best spots for photography is a tree to the far left, close to Arnage.  There’s an orderly line of fans moving to and from the tree.  I get there and get the best I can.  My lens aperture just doesn’t open up enough to get good shots at night, but here’s some of what I took.

Murphy Prototypes

Murphy Prototypes

Action at Arnage

Action at Arnage

The stretch of track from the Indianapolis to the Arnage corners isn’t very long.  Andrew’s told me this is his favorite spot, and he’s grinning from chubby cheek to chubby cheek.  We’re just 15 – 20 feet away from the cars and the track.  You can feel the cars rumble and scream in your chest.  The ACO re-profiled the exit of the Arnage corner.  Last year, there was a row of trees in someone’s backyard and the runoff was maybe 6 – 8 feet deep.  This year, they tore down those trees and took a chunk out of that person’s backyard to give the cars a little more runoff room.  You can see one car taking advantage of the new corner in my video.  This is the public road section of the track, and for the ACO or the FIA to change the corner is just a little disappointing.  I’m all for driver and spectator safety, but you need to retain some connection to the races of the past.

It’s now around 4AM, and the activities of the day are starting to catch up with me.  My knees are suddenly quite sore and my back is killing me.  Getting old sucks.  There is a concession stand behind me with picnic tables, but most are filled.  Although it hasn’t rained in over 17 hours, the ground is still wet.  The four of us have spread out, and while there are still quite a number of people here, I go looking for and find James.  I ask if I can have his car keys, I just need to take a breather and get off my feet.  He hands me his keys and I head out to his car.  I dump my equipment in the boot and plop down in his back seat.  The next thing I know, there’s a tapping on the window and Tony, James, and Andrew are standing outside the car, chuckling at me.

The boys informed me I missed this while I was catching up on my beauty sleep:

Allon had this to say on the Tenths forum on September 23rd:

I had my stem cell transplant on Friday 21st Sept, now in an isolation room in hospital for the next 3-4 weeks. I’m lucky it is a new room and very nice as hospital rooms go; I’m also allowed 4 named visitors so can see my family (but not my kids who aren’t allowed – boo).

Today is my 40th b’day, I know some people try and avoid ‘big 0s’, but I think I might have found the most extreme way yet! I was pretty rough yesterday, but better today which is good. However I know the next few weeks will be pretty ugly at times, so I thought I would say hi now while I feel up to it. As you can tell I’ve got a laptop here and in my slide show screensaver (Porsche racing posters 1960s-1990s!) I also have the photo you guys did at Le Mans this year and it is a real morale booster – so thanks again.

In addition to wishing a speedy recovery to Allon, the Radio Le Mans boys reference Gavin Ireland’s book Le Mans Panoramic (get it here, it’s an absolutely incredible book with stunning photos.  Well done Gavin) and the panoramic photo where you can see yours truly in the middle – slightly under dressed for the coolish weather last year, but sporting the same Razorback hat.

2011 10ths Meeting

2011 10ths Meeting

After a few good natured jabs at my expense, we make our way towards the Mulsanne Corner.  It’s around 5:00 or so and it’s getting brighter outside.  We drive though several neighborhoods before coming upon another parking lot carved out of the trees just to the north of the town of Mulsanne.  Just through the trees, you can hear the cars screaming out of the Mulsanne Corner as they head off towards Maison Blanche.

Aston Martin

Aston Martin

Through the trees

Through the trees

The Sun

The Sun

As I notice the wonderful glow of the sunrise coming through the trees, it hits me: another Le Mans night has come and gone.  Just like last year, a tear comes to my eye.  I can’t explain it, but there’s something emotional about being at Le Mans.  Remembering the feeling of “surviving” last year’s Le Mans and embracing the emotion of what’s happening right now, this is truly an amazing place.  As special as 2011 was, this year is substantially better.  I’ve spend the last 16+ hours with good friends, sharing experiences with three incredible gentlemen that would not have been possible without something as special as Le Mans.  Thank you Andrew, James, and Tony.  Our time together will not soon be forgotten.

I dry my eyes and get back to the racing action at hand.  We settle in just past the parking lot where the cars are nearing full speed.

There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of the sounds.  The birds chirping in the trees, the roar of the Corvette, the scream of the Ferrari, and the whoosh of the Audi.  We hang out for a little bit and just randomly, I turn around in time to see Pascal walking up the path with his son and daughter.  Flagging him down, he joins us and we move to the spectator hill overlooking the Mulsanne corner.

Pascal

Pascal

The sunrise is cresting the trees and there’s a glorious warmth to another Le Mans sunrise.

Mulsanne Sunrise

Mulsanne Sunrise

The cars break hard into the corner, just clipping the apex, gently get on the throttle as they exit the corner, before they floor it and make off down through the trees.

Into Mulsanne

Into Mulsanne

Audi at Mulsanne

Audi at Mulsanne

Audi in 3rd

Audi in 3rd

Just at the bottom of the spectator hill is a food tent where they must have breakfast.

Breakfast Awaits

Breakfast Awaits

Our overnight crew, which now includes Pascal and his children in tow, head down for croissants and coffee.  It’s hard to beat a French sunrise with good friends, warm coffee, fresh pastries, and good conversation.  Looking back on it, I can’t help but smile thinking that morning.

Pascal and Ayse

Pascal and Ayse

Back to the spectator hill and we enjoy the racing for a bit more.  I’m not sure how much longer we stayed, but at some point James and Andrew gather us all up and we start making our way back to the track.  With James behind the wheel, we make our way through the back roads outside of Mulsanne and Arnage.  Andrew explains that they are dropping me off at the track and the three of them were going back to their hotel to freshen up and would catch up with me shortly.  Perfect.  Just outside the main gate, I jump out as the boys head off.  Back through the main gate, down the walk and up to the ACO Tribune.  Again, just behind our seats is an indoor bar/restaurant.  Some of my fellow spectators have found several surge protectors and most AC slots are filled with camera battery chargers, iPhone chargers, and other electronic devices getting a second lease on life for the day.  I find an open seat at a table and I set up shop.

Changing socks and removing various layers of cold/night-time weather clothing there’s a slight sense of relief – we’re nearing the finish line.  While it’s still loud in here, it’s quieter than being outside.  I plug in my headphones that provide considerably good noise protection and I settle in to watch the live feed.  Getting as comfortable as I can, I nod off for a bit.  I’m not sure how long I was out, but I snap myself awake and catch one of my fellow spectators grinning at me.  He gives me a knowing nod.  I smile and return the nod.  I get up and get myself a Coke.  Turning around, I see Andrew, James, and Tony walking up the stairs and head to our seats.  Perfect timing.  I gather up my stuff and meet them outside.

We settle back in our seats for the stretch run.  It’s about 10:00 and only now that I realize one of our pit visit hosts – JMW Motorsport with their yellow and black Ferrari 458 – are missing.  Turns out while were down at Mulsanne having breakfast, their newly installed carbon fibre drive shaft snapped down the Mulsanne Straight.  What should have lasted 48 hours barely made it 18.  Unfortunate, better luck next year Roger.

The next two hours fly by, about the only excitement we get is when Allan McNish in second place, closes the gap to within a few seconds on Benoit Treluyer.  But considering they’re on different pit schedules, I’m sure Dr. Ullrich told Allan to back off.  Suddenly, the French voice on the track-side loud speakers is screaming at something.  The big screen shows the #3 Audi with Marc Gene at the wheel taking the first Mulsanne chicane a bit too hot as he noses the R18 into the outside tire barriers.  The orange clad marshals jump the wall and, with a few tugs, remove the damaged nose.  It didn’t look like a particularly hard hit, but the front right suspension is damaged.  Gene has the car back on the road, but it’s crabbing down the Mulsanne Straight.  Normally, they’re nearing 200 MPH on this stretch of road, but he’s lucky if he’s doing 20.

We’ve barely had time to catch up from Gene’s shunt, when we catch footage of a white Audi R18 clubbing the wall near the Porsche Curves.  I’m gasping!  Is it the leading #1 or #2?  It’s #2 with McNish behind the wheel.  Just like Gene, he took a little too much speed in the already high-speed Porsche Curves and dropped a wheel off into the grass and then into the Armco barrier strewing debris all over the track.  Luckily, where he is on-track, it’s not too far to get back to the pits.  And when they come in for repairs, it’ll be right in front of us!  And just like that, here they come.

Audi #2

Audi #2

Shortly thereafter, here comes Gene

Audi #3

Audi #3

The safety car has been deployed, and knowing Audi, this shouldn’t take too much time so hopefully the #2 team won’t fall too far behind.

A quick 30 minutes pass and the #2 is ready to return to racing, only two laps down, but with only 2+ hours to go, it’ll be hard to make up that much time lost in the pits.

Returning to Action

Returning to Action

And just a few minutes later, here comes #3.

Audi #3

Audi #3

The Audi mechanics not only had to replace the nose section of both cars, but they had to replace the front suspension of the #3 and who knows what other components on the #2 car.  The fact they got them both on and out in around 20 minutes is a testament to Audi’s engineering and mechanical teams.  Just brilliant work.  The safety car is back in and we have another 2 hours to the finish.  At this point, we’re back to regular racing.  As we near the end of the race, we’re visited by our 10ths friend Eric and we congratulate one another on the completion of another 24 Hours.

Eric

Eric

2:58 and we have one more lap to go.  The cars are lining up for an Audi grand procession.

Last Lap

Last Lap

The official Rolex hits 3:00.  We’ve made it.  The televisions show the cars entering the Porsche Curves.  The marshals are waving their flags in traditional post-race celebration.  At long last, here comes the victorious team.

Winning Audis

Winning Audis

Prior to dropping me off at the front gate and returning to their hotel, the boys informed me of their typical post-race exit strategy.  As the cars pass in front of us and double back down the pit lane exit, the 4 of us collect our equipment and make our way downstairs and outside.  Just outside the ACO Grandstand we gather together.  With hearty hugs and handshakes, we congratulate each other for another successful 24 Heures and bid each other safe travels.  James, Andrew, Tony, and I make our way outside the track and into the parking lot – they head towards James’ car and I off towards my tour bus.

I find our bus in the blue parking lot and climb inside.  Trevor is right behind me.  Slowly, my fellow members of Grand Prix Tours climb aboard the bus.  Among them is my friend Gary.  He too stayed the full 24 and his outdoors/hiking experience and equipment served him well.  A short time later, we’re all on board and heading back to Tours.  It’s a quiet ride back to our hotel.

Trevor

Trevor

A quick nap later and the next thing I know, we’re pulling up to Hotel de L’Univers in Tours.  I head back upstairs and unload my backpack and equipment.  Time for a quick shower and then I need to find something to eat.  Back downstairs and out the door, I’m getting hungry and I’m on the prowl.  Nearing the Tours train station, I hear “Rob…Rob!”  Sitting at an street-side table at Le 16 Congres bar enjoying a beer is Trevor and he’s waving me over.  I join him for a few drinks and another great conversation.  We sit there for a while before I start getting hungry.  I’ve had some wonderful French cuisine the past two weeks, but I’m having an urge to get something a little closer to home.  Just around the corner is a McDonalds where a Royale With Cheese is calling my name.  In keeping with the Pulp Fiction theme, allow me to quote Jules Winnfield: “That is a tasty burger”.  After dinner, I pack my belongings and turn in.  Tomorrow we’re headed back into Paris.

We’re back in Paris Monday morning and I call Séjours & Affaires to come pick me up.  My driver Jean Pierre pulls up and we head back to the apart-hotel.  There’s a slight mix up with my reservation, but we get it sorted out in quick order.  I’m still pretty tired from Le Mans, so I just walk around town for part of the day before returning to my room to prepare for my trip home.

Tuesday morning I’m back at Charles De Gaulle airport and it takes forever to get through the check-in line.  I’ve already checked in online, I’m just waiting in line to check my bags and board the plane.  Eventually, an American Airlines representative walks down the line asking who’s going to DFW.  There are about 4 of us who raise our hands and we’re quickly escorted to the front of the line.  Bags checked, we’re ushered through the maze of construction towards our gate.  We’re at our gate waiting for our boarding call when they announce we’ve been delayed.  Turns out the French version of the FAA was doing a surprise inspection that day and we were just unlucky enough to have our plane picked.  An hour later, we’re in the air.  We still land on-time where Mary Cook is waiting for me outside.  Another trip to Le Mans has come and gone.  The second of what I hope will be many, many more.  I’m afraid, however, I do have some bad news: I won’t be back in 2013.

My original plan was “watch” in 2011 and “do” in 2012.  That all changed after what I experienced in 2011.  I had to come back to Le Mans for 2012.  The ACO and FIA announced a new rules set for 2014, and I don’t think anyone is going to do anything different in 2013 than what they did in 2012.  I’m not saying the competitors will rest on their laurels for 2013, I just think all the teams will stay the course for 2013 and focus their efforts for 2014.  Plus we’ll have a slew of new cars in 2014 – the new Porsche GT and LMP cars, the C7.R, hopefully a more competitive Viper and who knows what from Audi, Toyota, and now Nissan and Renault and maybe even Peugeot.

So, as of this writing, the “do” portion of my plan is to take on the Nordschleife at some point in 2013.  I’m in the initial stages of planning my trip to Germany.  Right now, it looks somewhat similar to my trips to Le Mans.  I’ll fly into Paris and take in the city for a day or two.  Take the train to Cologne where I’ll rent a car.  Whether I take that car on-track or get something  track-ready, I’ll have to make that decision once I know more.  After talking with Walter, there are VLN races at the end of both August and September, so I may have to mix in a little “do” and “watch” in the same trip.  Looking at my schedule for this year, I may have to tackle the Green Hell in August.  I’ve got V8 Supercars down in Austin in May, the WEC/ALMS race in Austin in September, Petit Le Mans in Atlanta in October, and finally F1 down in Austin in November.  I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse to to have a world class racing facility 3 hours away.

In the 8 months it’s taken me to write this, I’ve had a lot of time to look back on this trip.  I’ve written, deleted, rewritten, deleted, and gone back to what was originally written.  I’ve lost some minor details, a few memories have gotten fuzzy, and others still have remained as strong as if they happened yesterday.  I smile when I think about our Tenths meeting.  I chuckle thinking about our Woodford Reserve experience.  I still get chills thinking about the start of the race.  I can still feel the Corvette roar past me.  I can hear the whoosh of the Audi R18.  On occasion, I even tear up thinking about sunrise.  I will, however, never forget my time with Andrew, James, and Tony.  James, thank you so much for reaching out and inviting me to join your group.  Andrew, I can’t tell you what a treat it was to experience the race with a knowledgeable veteran.  Tony, it was a genuine pleasure to get to know you and hear how Tim is doing back home.  The timing of moving from start/finish down to Tetre Rouge, onto Arnage and Mulsanne, and then back to the start/finish – it was the perfect way to experience the race from the best viewing spots.  As amazing as 2011 was, 2012 was simply incredible and it was because of you guys.

With this finally done, I can take the time to write up my United States Grand Prix report.  Thank you to everyone who was a part of this trip.  I’m sorry it took so long to get this done, but I hope it was worth the wait.  See you guys in 2014.

-Robert

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Day 4: Train trip and Tours

I forced myself to go to bed early last night.  I crawled into bed around 12:45 or so and found myself in a battle against sleep.  I kept rolling over…1:30…2:15…3:05…I was too excited about my train trip down to Tours.  Specifically, I was excited about taking the TGV.  The bullet train from Paris to Bordeaux with Tours right in the middle.  Eventually, I did get to sleep and woke up without my iPhone alarm going off.  I stay in bed until 7:00 when I forced myself to get up, get dressed and head down to the Sejours & Affaires lobby for coffee.

It’s a beautifully crisp morning and I enjoy several cups of coffee out in the courtyard.  It’s 8:00 and time to get going.  Back to my room for a quick shower and luggage review and I’m out the door by 9:00.  As I near the lobby, my personal driver for the past 2 days, Jean Pierre, greets me and apologizes that his Peugeot minivan is packed.  I pat him on the shoulder and tell him it’s ok, I’ll be back on Monday.  Monday?  Qui.  Good, good…I’ll see you then and take you wherever you want to go.  As of now, I have a new friend in Roissy.  I check out and the 3-hotel bus arrives in short order to take me to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

15 minutes later, I’m at CDG in between gates 2D and 2F, right at the TGV gate.  Heading downstairs, I find one of several TGV self-serve kiosks.  Input my reservation number and my last name, and it spits out my ticket.  TGV 9802 bound for Bordeaux with several stops in between, including Tours.  There are several flat screens around the TGV lobby, giving you the inbound and outbound train information.  Around 10:05, they announce my train is about 5 minutes late and will board in the South terminal in gate 4.  I make my way downstairs, and with a quick ticket validation, up comes my train and I’m on board.

I have an assigned seat in the second car with space for my luggage and a drink/meal car 2 cars down.  And like that we’re off.  A quick stop at Euro Disney and we’re rushing through the French countryside.  We’re travelling well over 100MPH…and it’s eerily quiet.  About the only noise you get is when a train passes you in the opposite direction.  And when it does, it’s a little startling.  But it’s over in a snap.  At some point, we’re parallel to the A10 highway, and we’re passing cars going our direction like they’re standing still.  I check my watch, it’s about 11:45 and we should be nearing Tours.  Sure enough, a voice comes over the loudspeaker and says something to the degree that St. Pierre Des Cor is next – my stop.  I grab my luggage, exit the train and see there’s my in-town commuter train waiting for me.  I board the TER 60709 and 10 minutes later I’m pulling into the main train station in central Tours.

My hotel, Hotel L’Europe, is literally next door.  I walk over and here I am.  Room 401 up the narrowest, steepest flight of stairs I’ve ever seen.  My shoulders slump and then I notice the smallest elevator known to man.  Literally, enough room for me and my luggage.  And the Otis says it’s built for 6.  Yea right…I settle in, change clothes and decide to head out and tour Tours again.

Walking out the door, the manager calls out to me, asking me if I know where I’m going.  Totally, I’ve been here before.  She hands me a map.  No, no…I know where I’m going.  Oh really?  Have you seen the “old city”?  Huh?  She points to the map, and says “Go here”.  Ok, I’ll check it out.  But before that, I’m hitting one of my highlights from last year’s trip.  St. Gatien Cathedral.

St. Gatien Cathedral

It’s a beautiful cathedral with incredible stained glass windows and an impressive nave.  For more pictures, see my post from last year.

Just to the right of the cathedral is the Jardin de la Préfecture – the central park.  It’s dominated by a 200-year-old cedar tree.

le Cedre du Liban

The park was closed last year and I couldn’t get in, but this year I explored the grounds for almost an hour.

Jardin de la Préfecture

Flowerbed

Pan

From here, I make my way towards the Loire River that bisects the city.  As I near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which is shut down so that the city can install a central tram/light rail line, I see this statue built in memory of the American Expeditionary Forces who were based here in Tours.

AEF Fountain

I remember seeing this last year, I just don’t remember it being associated with the American soldiers from World War I.

Checking my map, I decide to follow my hotel manager’s advice and I head into the “old” town.  Looking at the map, the streets take a sudden cramped, and less organized feel.  And just like that, I’m in the middle ages.

More Half Timbering

I get near the center of the “old” town and I’m greeted with this.

Leaning Half Timbering

Just to the right of the building I’m standing next to is Place Plumereau.

Place Plumereau

Place Plumereau

This central square is populated with tables, chairs, and parasols surrounded by several restaurants serving those sitting at their tables.

It is a wonderful mixture of old and new working in perfect harmony.  While the area surrounding Sacre Coeur felt shady and cheap and, quite frankly, an insult to the historic icon just up the cobblestone street, this feels like a wonderful balance.  Again, I’m at a loss for words other than: perfect.

On my map is the Saint Martin Basilica.  I get my bearings and head that direction.  It’s not hard to find when this tower dominates your view.

Saint Martin Basilica

I make my way out of the “old” city and back towards the Hotel de Ville at the center of town near my hotel.  I explore the immediate area surrounding my hotel and the train station before heading back to my room.

Today was supposed to be a goof off day for me.  I was planning on just walking around, seeing what I saw last year.  I am so thankful my hotel manager suggested visiting the “old” town.  Paris is Paris, but Tours is a hidden gem in central France.  I can’t express enough how wonderful and amazing this town is.  Next time I come to Paris, whether it’s for the race or not, I will spend several days down here.  You should do the same.

In racing news: the Audi’s dominated the first qualifying session and they’re currently running their night-time session with the Audi’s running 1,2, 3 and 5 and the new Toyota’s slotting in at 4th and 6th.  And speaking of Toyota, I have my pit visit tomorrow with the Toyota team and the JMW Ferrari team.  I’ll be catching up with my Tenthers group at the track and I’m really looking forward to seeing those guys.  I’ll also be catching up with Trevor from Grand Prix Tours tomorrow night and I can’t wait to see him as well.

Good night from Tours.


Day 3: Paris – Part Deux

I was up a little later than I wanted last night. I was working on my Paris Day 1 report when I hit a brick wall and turned in around 2:30 early this morning. I rolled over about 9:00 and finished my report. Hopefully you’ve read it by now. I take my time again this morning, its cold and overcast. The rain is holding off, for now. Down to the lobby for a few cups of coffee, back to my room, a quick shower, I’m dressed and out the door.

My personal driver from yesterday, Jean, is just pulling in with new tourists staying at the Sejours & Affairs. He asks me if I want a ride back to the airport. Absolutely. And off we go. Back to the CDG 1 Terminal to catch the RER into Paris. Just like that, I’m cruising through the Parisian suburbs and into the Saint Michelle – Notre Dame station. Up the stairs and out into the cool Paris air. Walking down the left bank of Seine River, there’s a magic about being here. The people, the city, the atmosphere…it’s unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

Approaching the end of Île de la Cité, I walk onto Pont Neuf – the oldest bridge in Paris. 400 years old, construction began in 1578, it went through a major renovation in 1994. Looking eastward towards Notre Dame, I’m treated with this view.

Down the Seine

Turning around, here’s a statue of King Henry IV – torn down during the French Revolution, it was rebuilt in the early 1800s.

King Henry IV

Further on down the Seine, a bridge with a certain gold hue is the next thing I see.

What are those things?

Padlocks

Padlocks. Padlocks? Are these from former street/riverside side vendors? I don’t know, either way the bridge and the vendors are just some of the mystique of this city.

Vendors

Vendors

I saw everything from out-of-print French romance novels, to 1980s Playboy magazines, to random paintings, to obscure art – a little something of everything. Speaking of random paintings, I’m headed this way for one thing: Musee d’Orsay.

Musee d’Orsay

Gare d’Orsay

The former home of the Gare d’Orsay, a railway station built between 1898 and 1900, its now a museum that houses Degas, Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh. Over the past two days, I took over 1,000 photos and would have had hundreds more if it weren’t for their no photography policy. Here are just a few of the interior.

From the entry

Towards the entry

This is a massive building. All along the main floor are bronze and marble sculptures. I didn’t think of it in time so I didn’t take any notes of the works lining the central spine – but there are several I recognized. Behind the statues on the left and right sides are smaller galleries ranging from Impressionists to naturalists to architecture. At the far end, opposite of the clock is a series of escalators taking you to the main exhibits featuring Van Gogh, Degas, and Monet.

On the top floor, looking out over the Seine River through a windowed clock, I see one of my targets of today’s trip: Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

I wish I had some photos of the works I saw. Saying I saw one of Cezanne’s Mountains, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night or his bedroom, or Degas’ bronze ballerina, or Monet’s La Rue Montorgueil or Cathedral de Rouen just doesn’t do it justice. As skilled as I think I am as a writer, I can’t describe what I saw. Famous works of art I’ve studied and seen in books or slide shows are now right in front of me. It was moving.

My two hours in Musee d’Orsay was far too short. That in and of itself needs to be a half or full day experience. Now I have another reason to come back. It’s now about 3:00 and I need to make my way to my next spot: The Invalides. About an hour later I make it there on the north lawn.

The Invalides

I’ve been walking for the past 4+ hours and I’m beat. So instead of heading in for a closer look, I just find an empty spot on the lawn and watch the people and traffic move past me towards Le Grand Palais.

Le Grand Palais

Right behind me is the Invalides Metro stop that will take me to my next stop: the Bir-Hakeim Bridge. Named after a French World War 2 victory in the North African Desert over Erwin Rommel, it was featured in the movie “Inception”. I’m not going to lie, until I saw the movie, I didn’t know this thing existed. I wanted to make it out last year, but my schedule was so tight I didn’t have time for it. Not this year.

Bir-Hakeim

Bir-Hakeim Plaque

Bir-Hakeim Statue

By now, the clouds are parting and it’s turning into a beautiful day. It’s a short walk to the Trocadéro and the Eiffel Tower. Climbing up to the top of the Trocadéro, they’ve turned the main grounds into a makeshift Euro Cup soccer watching venue. Fans are everywhere. Mostly young people wearing Portuguese flags as capes are all over the place.

Euro Cup and Eiffel

I find a spot at the top, grab a chicken sandwich on fresh French bread and settle in to watch the people. It’s now about 4:45 and I’m starting to hurt a bit. I don’t go down to the Eiffel grounds, I still have dozens of photos from last year’s trip to process, but it’s hard to beat this view.

Eiffel Tower

I spend about an hour on the grounds, just sitting on the steps watching the people. The Trocadéro Metro station is right behind me and from there, it’s just two trains to Sacre Coeur. In the second train, we were packed like sardines, there was no A/C, and had nine stops before I reach the Anvers stop – needless to say, I was a ball of sweat when I finally got off the train. Following the sortie arrows, I get above ground and right in the middle of a flea market.

Seriously, tents set up shilling all sorts of goods: “food” simmering in woks, bras/shorts/t-shirts in bins for 2 Euros each, knock-off Eiffel Tower statues, Vouis Luitton purses – sights and smells I won’t soon forget. I get my bearings and spot the top of the Sacre Coeur, it’s literally right above me.

Sacre Coeur

This is at the top of the first climb, through the bazaar, and I still have three levels to go. But it’s worth it. From the top you get this amazing view.

Paris Panoramic

Paris Panoramic

It doesn’t show up well on these photos, but the bad weather is moving in. Looking up, I see the Joan of Arc and King Saint Louis at the top of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Joan and Louis

I explore the grounds as best I can – it’s heavily built up on all four sides and I can’t get far enough away to get any good shots. I find a spot on the front steps and get back to my people watching. There are scammers all over the place, trying to take advantage of clueless tourists. I’ve got my ear buds in, listening to my iPod, so I easily brush them off. Others…not so much.

After about 30 minutes of just relaxing and taking in the scenery, I feel the first few rain drops. With that, I’m up and heading back to the Anvers Metro. By the time I get down to the Metro, it’s raining and the bazaar is breaking up and everyone’s heading underground. The easiest way for me to pick up the RER back to the airport is 3 trains and about 20 Metro stops.

It takes me almost two hours before I’m actually back to my room.

Overall, the last two days in Paris were incredible. I did everything I wanted to do. While it did rain, the rain cooperated extremely well. The Metro is incredibly easy to use and ridiculously convenient. Tomorrow I catch the TVG to Tours for a goof-off day before events at the track on Friday and the race on Saturday and Sunday. It’s almost midnight here so I’m going to wrap this up.

Paris is just…magical. I want to come back when I don’t have the race as the excuse to come over here. There are things I want to do and see here and things I have to do and see here.


Day 2: Paris

I stayed up as late as I could yesterday – 10:30.  Which is 3:30 Dallas time.  Does this guy know how to party, or what?  I crash.  But only for about 6 hours.  The TV in my bedroom has a blue power indicator ring, and when I wake up at 4:30 or so, my room is awash in an annoying blue glow.  I grab a towel and thrown it over the screen to extinguish the blue washing over me.  I crash again.  When I wake up, there’s a warm glow peaking through the blast shield I’ve lowered over my bedroom window.  It’s 10:30.  12 hours since I turned out the lights.  12 hours of sleep.  In Paris.  This is so hard it’s not even funny.

So, I get up, head down to the apart/hotel complex and grab a coffee and some French, strawberry Twinkie for breakfast.  Back to my room and I start making my attack plan for the day ahead.  Paris.  What to see?  Where to go?  Relying on Claire’s notes and my trip last year, I have my tour in quick order.  Shower, shave, get dressed and I’m back down in the lobby pre-noon.  My luck, the personal shuttle is on stand-by and 5 minutes later, we’re on our way to Charles de Gaulle.

Back at CDG Terminal 1 for the RER into Paris.  Last year, I asked for a round-trip on the RER and an all-day pass on the Metro.  35 or so Euros.  Today, the teller sells me an all-rail, all-day pass for 25 Euros.  They’ve either changed systems or I got ripped off last year.  It doesn’t matter.  I make my way downstairs and on RER is pulling away from the station, but another one is sitting there waiting for me. I board and grab a seat.  Shortly there after a young woman sits down across from me.

If a woman with dark hair is a brunette and a woman with light hair is a blonde, what do you call a woman with purple hair?  Purplette?  Let’s go with that.  So I help purplette with her backpack, loading it into the overhead shelf.  And the train is pulling out of the station.  About half way into Paris, I make a comment how bumpy the ride is, and she realizes I speak English.  “I’m from Dallas, where are you from?” “Montreal.  I’m in town visiting my boyfriend and his family.”  We talk about the F1 race this past weekend and the student riots.  “Oh, you’ve heard about the riots down there in Dallas?”  Yes.  And then the standard question comes out: “So…do you have any horses in Texas?”  Sigh…no.  We small talk on our way to St.Michell/Notre Dame.  We part ways and I make my way up the stairs.  And just like last year, I’m immediately greeted with this.

Notre Dame

I explore the grounds for a while when I’m approached by an English couple.  They see my camera and recognize I’m a professional and ask me to take their picture.  I graciously oblige.  Upon returning their camera, I ask them if they’d return the favor.

Me at Notre Dame

Finally, proof this isn’t an elaborate ruse and that I’m really in Paris.   I hang around a little while longer before making my way towards the Louvre.  Last year, I tried this and got ferociously lost.  This year, not so much.  I know right where I’m going.  And as I walk towards the Louvre, I see the same monuments I saw last year and wonder how in the world I took the wrong turn last year.  Either way, I’m making my way down Rue de Rivoli and I finally see it.  The east side of the Louvre.

The Louvre

A short walk later, I find one of the entrances and I see what I wanted to see last year.  Just through the arch…I.M. Pei’s masterpiece.

Seeing the Pyramid

As I exit the hallway, I see a couple taking a self-portrait of themselves in front of the Pyramid.  They try, try again, try again, and again.  I finally ask them if they’d like me to take their picture.  “Sure thanks.”  They’re John and Ginger from Virginia and they’re celebrating their honeymoon in Paris.  We chatted for a while and parted ways.  They were very friendly and I wish them the best of luck.  I probably spent an hour on-ground and took dozens of photos.  While I may have better pictures, here is what it looks like.

The Pyramid

Behind me is the Tuileries Garden.  It’s absolutely majestic.  I’m a huge fan of the Dallas Arboretum, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the Tuileries.   Created by Queen Catherine de Medici for her son King Francois II between 1559 and 1564, it was opened to the public in 1667, you enter the garden through this monument.

Entrance to the Tulieries

Off in the distance, the Eiffel Tower calls to me.  The clouds may have something to say about that, but in the meantime, I have these beautiful grounds to explore.

The Eiffel Tower

Scattered about the grounds, are various sculptures and surrounding one of the central fountains are works like these.

At the West end of the Tuileries, these horses guard the horseshoe.

Just beyond the horseshoe, I make my way towards the Place de la Concorde where the Obelisk and Fontaines de la Concorde.  The Maritime Fountain and the Fountain of Rivers.

The Obelisk

I enjoy the grounds for about an hour before making my way towards Place Vendome.  At the center of the Place is the Vendome Column.  Originally erected by Napoleon, it dominates the Place.

The Vendome Column

Just beyond the Place Vendome is Harry’s New York Bar.  The walls of Harry’s are lined with pennants from various US universities.

Harry’s New York Bar

Inside Harry’s

After enjoying a scotch and a pleasant conversation with a couple in town from Vancouver, I make my way back towards the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.  Originally, I planned on hopping the Metro up towards the Arc de Triomphe, but then I thought when am I going to get a chance to walk this famous avenue.  Walking the Avenue, it’s lined with shops, restaurants, and Parisians galore.  It’s about 5:30 and it’s absolutely packed.  And it’s glorious.  About halfway up, I find the Toyota showroom, where inside is a mock up of the Le Mans competitor, the TS030.

TS030

Just as I get to the Arc, the skies open up and what begins as a light drizzle is quickly becoming a full-on downpour.  I duck under an awning and put on my new REI rain jacket.  I scramble up under a tree and I notice repeated police sirens going off.  Walking up the Champs, towards the Arc in the pouring rain is  some procession.

Parade

It’s now about 7:00 and this is a good time for me to throw in the towel.  I find the nearest Metro entrance where I make my way to the RER and finally back home.  It isn’t until I get home that I realize I haven’t eaten yet.  I change clothes and head into central Roissy where I grab a table at La Vitrine for breakfast/lunch/dinner.

While my day in Paris is cut short by the rain, I’ll make up for it on Wednesday.  The Eiffel Tower, Bir-Hakeim, Sacre Ceour, Musee d’Orsay, and the Invalides.


Day 1: Travel and Roissy-en-France

Here I am.  Le Mans Week officially begins.  Each great journey, begins with a single step.  Today was the first step.

With Dad out golfing with the boys out in East Texas, Mom picked me up Sunday afternoon at 2:30.  Perfect timing, too.  Lewis Hamilton just crossed the finish line, winning the Canadian Grand Prix.  Returning to the site of his first F1 race win, where, oddly enough, Dad and I were there for that maiden victory back in 2007.  We’re off to DFW where my chariot awaits. Unfortunately, various mechanical gremlins keeps us on the ground.  A new airplane, a new gate, and a new hour later, we’re finally we’re in the air.

I’m sitting next to a quiet French native who was not nearly as engaging as my San Francisco based travel partner from last year’s trip.  The in-flight movies are The Vow and The Young Victoria.  The Vow cranks up and I plug into my iPhone.  Even without the movie sound on, I pretty much nail the plot of the movie.  The Young Victoria was an interesting period piece.  I wasn’t all that engaged with it as I drifted in and out of sleep.  I wake up in time to see the sunrise cresting the horizon, just over the engine nacelle of my trusty American Airlines 767.

Sunrise

The pilot announces we’ll be landing within the hour while the flight attendants serve us breakfast.  Before I know it, we’re making our final descent and taxiing up to our gate.  Off the plane, through customs, and on towards the baggage area.  Five minutes later, here comes my bag.  Without knowing where my hotel/apartment has their shuttle pick-up/drop-off locations, I grab a taxi give him the address and we’re off.  But not without some drama.

My driver didn’t know where my hotel, Sejours & Affairs, is when he accepted me as his fare.  He plugs in the address I give him into his GPS and the French curse words begin flowing off his lips.  “Merde!  Merde!  MERDE!”  as he slams his sunglasses down.  I’m sliding across the bench seat as he takes the roundabouts a bit too fast for me – and that’s saying something!  We find the place and I feel bad for him. I don’t know if he was having a bad day, or if it was because he just picked up this ‘Merican piece of merde and lost out on a potential whale cab fare, either way, I tip him handsomely.  10% of that big tip may have been the hopes that he doesn’t come back here and kill me later tonight.

Check-in here was fairly painless.  A quick signature, double-check of my ID and I’ve got my key.  It’s a large, 2-room apartment style hotel with a den/kitchen, bedroom, and bath.  I give myself time to take a breather and check out the apartment for about an hour.  Kitchenette, couch with a flatscreen, bedroom with another flatscreen, and a bathroom with the little flush/big flush feature and a shower with a half-glass door and probably a terrible shower head.  Hard to beat.  I change clothes and make my way into Roissy.

The other night, Claire and I were chatting on the phone and I was giving her a tour of the city with the help of Google Earth.  I show her the Petit Casino grocery and a couple of restaurants I’ve spotted.  She finds a crêpe restaurant and the town hall.

City Hall

Aux Trois Gourmands

Passing by the Aux Trois Gourmands, I take a sneak peek at the menu.  They have all sorts of entrée crêpes, but what catches my eye are the desert crêpes.  Chocolate banana, strawberry, crème, and I see what I’m looking for.

I’m seated and handed a menu.  I’d like an orange crêpe.  My waitress looks up from her pad and asks in disbelief: “You want a desert crêpe?”  Yep and a cup of coffee.  She shrugs her shoulders, says ok, and heads back up front.  A few minutes later, here comes a cup of coffee and this delicacy.

Crepe l’orangerie

It was all I could do not to devour it in one bite.  About halfway through, I found myself giggling that while I wouldn’t admit I liked crêpes, I would admit I like really thin pancakes.  Google those last 5 words before you ask me to explain.  I finish up and make my way back towards the hotel.

Roissy-en-France is a charming French village.  It’s remarkably quiet considering it’s proximity to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Street Light

Post Office and City Clock

Bus Stop

Roissy House

It wasn’t until I got back here to the hotel that I realized I forgot to check out the local church.  And when I realize it was just a block away from the French IHOP, I had my first of what will be, no doubt, several “D’OH” moments.  Maybe tomorrow morning before I hit Paris.  I have no idea specifically what I’ll check out tomorrow, but I’ll be in Paris.  I’m leaning towards copying, but in greater depth, my day in Paris last year.  I’ll add in a few extra stops along the Champs.  Either way, I’ll be in Paris.

Since this is a racing website, let’s at least touch the racing page.  Andy Blackmoore released his 2012 Le Mans Spotter Guide.  You can grab a full resolution PDF here.


Le Mans

I was finally able to get to sleep last night, but well after 1AM.  The 6AM alarm goes off far too early for my liking, but I’m up and out of bed seconds later.  Today is the day.  Saturday June 11th, 2011.  Today is Le Mans.

Le Mans.  It is the first race to carry the name “Grand Prix”.  In 1967, Dan Gurney’s win in the Ford GT40 Mark IV led to his spontaneous decision to spray champagne in victory lane – the first time ever.  Today is the 79th running of the endurance classic.

Like a kid at Christmas, I spring out of bed.  I’m quickly dressed and I’m going through my backpack to make sure I’ve got everything packed.  Camera and accessories?  Check.  Extra socks?  Quad check.  Overnight clothes?  Check.  Done.  I’m packed and ready to go.

I head downstairs for breakfast.  Most of my fellow Grand Prix Tour group are already conversing over coffee.  The breakfast buffet calls to me.  Fresh croissants, scrambled eggs and bacon.  The only odd thing was the coffee which came out of this automated machine – no real French press coffee.  Oh well.

8:00 AM – time to board the bus.  Before I know it, we’re back in the French countryside.

In what feels like the blink of an eye, we’re quickly approaching Le Mans.

I didn’t capture any good shots driving out of Paris, but all along the French countryside, as you near a town, there are these stylized city signs.  There was an earlier Le Mans sign that highlighted the race with what looked like old Group C cars that I missed, but I caught this one.

As we travel along, Trevor grabs the built-in microphone and announces: “If you look out the left window, you’ll see Tertre Rouge and the Mulsanne straight.”  WHAT!?!?  We’re already there?!?  I scramble for my camera and feebly attempt to capture a movie of the cars heading down the straight.  About the only thing you can make out is the scream of the engines as they tear off away from you.

He continues: “Off to your left is the museum, the front straight, and the airport”

Off to our right, is the Le Mans Exposition Hall and a long queue of cars heading towards the various parking lots.  After about 5 minutes without moving, Trevor announces we’re going onto plan B…into the neighboring town of Arnage.

Trevor instructs our bus driver to head to a small side street, where we’re met by the local gendarmes and told we can’t go this way.  OK…plan C.  We approach a round-about where we’re again met by the police and told to move on.  Plan D.  This time it works.  Trevor has taken us though small neighborhood streets, that, upon initial look, you’d never know there are 250,000 race fans less than a mile away.  We get to the blue parking lot and it’s go time.

Trevor announces that if you’re taking part in the Indianapolis/Arnage field trip, you need to be back at the bus around 6:00 PM.  We’ll be boarding the orange tour bus we’re parked right next to.  In all the excitement of just being here, I’d forgotten all about that expedition.  Well, this changes my original on-track necessities.  Originally, I’d packed my hiking pack for the full day and night.  Camera accessories, Cliff Bars, over-night clothes, everything I think I’ll need for the next 36 hours.  Since I’m coming back to the bus early evening, I don’t need all that stuff for the day.  So I grab some cash, my camera, a few other things, and I’m traveling light.

It’s a glorious partly-cloudy morning, the temperature somewhere in the mid-60’s and it’ll climb into the lower-70’s.

We walk up to the Maison Blanche entry where we’re greeted by a multitude of Ferrari F458s for the Ferrari Challenge support race.

There are 50 competitors from both the Italian and European series competing today.  The field of cars lined up is fantastically impressive.  Enough gawking, it’s time to see the track.

One of the first things I see, towering over the track, is the iconic Le Mans Ferris wheel.

Just beyond the Ferris wheel lies the track.  The race control building dominates the view as we look over the Ford chicane.

Off in the distance, I see the Dunlop Tribune.

Wow…that’s quite a ways off and it’s a lot higher than I was expecting.  I’m distracted by the sound of the Le Mans Legends support race quickly approaching.

65 vintage cars from 1949 to 1965 roar past us at the beginning of a 45-minute timed race.

#22 is a 1952 Frazer Nash Le Mans Mk II competitor and #26 is a 1953 Aston Martin DB2/4

I’m eager to see my seat in the Dunlop Tribune, so I bid farewell to my fellow GPT race fans and I start heading uphill.

I finally get to my seat and it’s exactly what I had envisioned.  Off to my left is the Dunlop Bridge, off to my right is the bend just past the start/finish line, and directly in font of me is the Dunlop chicane.  I’m in the first row and, while not as high as I wanted, I’m still higher than the spectators on the ground, so I should have a fairly unobstructed view of the race.

The Legends Race is still going on, and I capture a few more shots.  This one in particular.  It isn’t until I got home, that I realize who was piloting the #7 1961 Porsche RS61.  The legend himself: Sir Stirling Moss.

Sir Stirling Moss

The Legends Race is done and it’s time for the Ferrari Challenge.  I climb the grandstand and position myself at the top to clear the view of the catch fencing and I’m able to capture this:

I can’t believe the driver of the yellow F458 spun as much as he did and rejoined the race in the way that he did.  Stupid.

It’s a little after 11:00 and I’m meeting the Ten-Tenths forum group shortly.  It’s time to check out the ACO Village.  It’s an absolute mad-house collection of drink and food stands mixed in with car manufacturer displays and other groups associated with the race; Audi, BMW, Lotus, Nissan, Guinness, Grand Marnier, Michelin, Playstation/GT5…they’re all here.

Ten-Tenths.com is an online discussion forum dedicated to racing and is populated by race fans from around the world.  We have a sub-forum dedicated to Le Mans, and those of us attending have discussed a central meeting point: a tree in the Village.  I head towards where I think we’re going…nope, there’s a Nissan display there.  I move down a bit.  Wait, I’ve gone too far.  There’s some Audi monument with a band playing right in front.

So I turn around and head back towards where I think I’m going.  There’s a gap in between the Michelin display and a French radio station where a few spectators are gathered.  I approach one and ask: “Is this the Ten-Tenths meeting?”

I’m immediately greeted with: “I’m Tim and this Tony” and suddenly, like that, I’m surrounded with familiar online names;  Aysedasi, Bentley03, PascaLM, Batmobile, GT6, lemansfan, Kpy.  With hardy handshakes and gracious smiles, I “meet” them all for the first time.  But this is not like meeting strangers…this is more like catching up with old friends.  I know all of these guys.  I’ve interacted with all of them on one level or another.  It is truly a special gathering.  Wine and fois gras – as well as some Romanian rocket fuel – are shared with one another.  Word of wisdom are passed along.  What was an online commonality is now a friendship that I won’t soon forget.  To this point, this is the absolute best part of the trip for me.

To James and Andrew, Christopher, Tim and Tony, Walter, Eric, Pascal, William, Simon, and James: it was a pleasure meeting all of you.  Thank you all very much.

And just like that, two hours have passed – not to mention several bottles of wine are consumed – and the race will soon begin.  We all shake hands and go our separate ways.

I’m back to my seat over the Dunlop Bridge.  The cars fly by on their practice laps and soon thereafter, the roar of the Patrouille de France with their tri-colored smoke fly overhead.  Silence…and then:

And we’re off.  The start of the 2011 24 Heures du Mans – the 79th running of the Grand Prix d’Endurance.  The roar of the cars…the hum of the crowd.  The hushed whisper of the Audi R18 diesel as it wooshes past you followed by the throaty growl of the Corvette ZR1, and the high-pitched scream of the Ferrari F458.  Different technological philosophies all aimed at the same goal: finish.  But in order for you to finish first, you must first finish.  Unfortunately, for one of the favorites, finishing became an afterthought and surviving is rushed to the forefront.

Just about an hour into the race, the #3 Audi R18, piloted by Allan McNish, tries an inside move on a slower Ferrari F458 just past the Dunlop Bridge – and me – as he flows into the Esses.  What happens next, is both a triumph of modern safety standards and a miracle.

Before

During

After

The footage of Allan McNish climbing out of the car and the subsequent shot of Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich – head of Audi Motorsport – with a relieved, albeit emotional, smile on his face, are two of the more memorable visuals of the race.

If you haven’t seen it, it truly is amazing that McNish walked away from this shunt and the only thing he broke: his cell phone.

It’s around 5:00 and I’m meeting the tour group in 90 minutes, I’ve got time to head down to the Village, grab a bite to eat, and see what I see.  Crossing the Dunlop Bridge, I grab a Guinness and an “American Burger” – although I’m curious what a “non-American burger” is.  I check out a few of the sights and head down through the tunnel under the track and back the way I came.  I pass the Ferris wheel and I keep walking.

Just like in Paris, I’m walking, I’m looking, I’m walking, I’m looking…there’s a sea of humanity and it’s a little confusing.  There’s an exit gate where they scan my ticket noting that I’ve left but with the option of returning.  I get outside and I don’t see anything I recognize.  Well, how hard can it be to find a bright orange tour bus next to a sliver Mercedes tour bus?

Outside the race track, it’s just a sea of cars parked in open fields.  Crap, I’ve gone too far.  It’s just before 6 and the bus departs at 6:30.  15 minutes of walking, I finally find the bus – both ours and the neighboring orange bus.  But no one’s on it.  There’s a driver walking around the orange bus and I ask him where everyone is.  He points back towards the track and tells me that’s the Arnage bus.  A quick walk/slight jog and I finally get there to an exasperated looking Trevor.

“I was beginning to worry and thought we’d have to leave you”.  After a quick apology, I hop on the bus and see Clayton as well as Kris and Jim, all from Atlanta.  Only four of us from our group are heading to Indianapolis/Arnage.  GPT has partnered with another group – hence the orange bus – and the four of us are with a group of racing fans all from England.  Just like that, we’re on our way.

A few minutes later, we’re parked and make our way through a ticket gate.  The viewing area is rather small with a grass covered, man-made viewing hill overlooking the short straight in between the Indianapolis and Arnage corners.  Off to my far right, is the right-hand kink that becomes the left-hand, banked, Indianapolis corner.  I can’t get too far down because of the barriers, but I’m able to capture these pictures:

The catch fencing again obstructs my view, but we’re 20 feet away from the cars.  From the scream of their engines, I can “feel” the cars as they fly past me.

Moving to the Arnage corner, I’m able to see the cars take the slowest corner on the track and then rocket off towards Maison Blance and the Porsche Curves.

As I’m standing in the back, behind several rows of fans, trying to capture some of the cars through the catch fencing, a random spectator approaches me and says: “If you stand next to this tree, you can get a great shot through the fence”.  At first, I’m a little confused.  “Uh…ok, thanks.”  He tells me he saw my Arkansas Razorback baseball cap, figured I was from the States, and would reach out to me.  We introduce ourselves, exchange pleasantries, and show each other our photos.  He’s Matt from South Florida and he tells me I’m the first American he’s met here in Europe.  We chat a bit and go our separate ways.  Small world…

Two quick hours later, it’s time to head back to the main part of the track.  We get back to the blue parking lot where our tour bus and my overnight pack awaits.

Inside is Trevor, where we catch up and I repack my night pack.  He tells me I need to check out the Porsche Curves.  Right, I’m all set.  I get to the Porsche Curves, and just like at Arnage, there’s a hill overlooking the track and you can see the cars find their rhythm as they head to the start/finish line.  I stick around for about 30 minutes and begin my trek back up the track and to my seat.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the rotary powered Mazda 787B win at Le Mans.  To date, it is the first and only Japanese manufacturer to win overall at Le Mans.  To celebrate it’s victory, Mazda dusted off the old girl, got her back up and running, and invited Johnny Herbert, who crossed the finish line in 1991, to come back and take this beast out on track.  He took the 787B out for two parade laps when I was meeting up with the Ten-Tenths group a few hours ago.  Where we were standing at pit exit, we could hear the 4-rotary engine screaming all the way down to Tertre Rouge…and I mean this thing screamed!

When I got interested in sports car racing in the late 90’s, the Audi R8 was conquering every race it entered.  Johnny Herbert was in F1 with Stewart Racing, but in 2001 he joined the Champion Racing squad and that’s when I first became aware of him.  I always enjoyed his interviews and I rooted for him on-track.

I find the Porsche Curves a bit frustrating – it’s hard to see anything from where I am – so I decide to head back to my seat at Dunlop.  I’m walking past the start/finish line where the main ACO offices and grandstand are and I see a guy with a familiar look talking to two other gentlemen.

As I get closer, I do a double take and it’s Johnny Herbert!  He’s shorter than I expected.  My first thought: shake his hand.  I curl around one of the two gentlemen and I extend my hand: “Excuse me.  Mr. Herbert, my name’s Robert Blanshard and I’m from America.  I just wanted to say thank you.  I enjoyed watching you when you raced in the States and I sure do miss seeing you behind the wheel.”  He takes my hand and replies: “Robert, I’m Johnny.  It’s a pleasure meeting you.”  He shrugs and continues: “Yea, it’s a shame I’m not racing over there anymore .  Don’t tell anybody, but I’m working on something.”  He smiles and winks at me.

We wave goodbye and I head off.  Why I didn’t take a picture is beyond me.  There are hundreds of people in that immediate area and, other than the two guys he is talking to, there isn’t a soul asking for an autograph.  I’m not even sure anyone is aware he is there.

It’s about 9:30 and it’s starting to get dark.  Christopher, one of the Ten-Tenths members I met earlier in the day, told me he was camping at the track and invited me to join him and some of his camping buddies for a drink.  He gave me his phone number and told me to call.  I told him I was heading to Arnage, but would be back around 8:30.  I’m about an hour late.  I try calling him, but he doesn’t answer.  I walk around for a while, trying to find his campsite.  The maps that are randomly located around the Village aren’t exactly to scale and simply point me in the general direction of the Houx campsite.  I figure I’ll just try to find the campsite, and when I get near, I’ll call him again.  After wandering around for an hour and change, I give up.  It would have been fun to join Christopher, but I don’t have a clue where I’m going.  I head back into the Village and decide I’m going to down to Tertre Rouge and catch some of the action down there.

Just past my seat, below the Dunlop Bridge, are the Esses.  This is where Allan McNish had his shunt seven hours ago.  The Esses are a downhill, flowing series of curves that lead into Tertre Rouge.  I’m at the Dunlop Bridge and I see people going down through a tunnel that goes below the Bugatti circuit.  I make my way though the tunnel and head off to my left and find a spot where I can sit down and take a break.

I settle in and it’s eerily quiet.  I look up to the Dunlop Bridge and see a safety car coming down the hill.  Just a few minutes ago, Mike Rockenfeller in the #1 Audi R18 collided with the AF Course Ferrari F458 driven by Robert Kauffman in one of the kinks on the way down to Indianapolis.  It is another violent wreck that destroys the car and severely damages the armco safety barrier.  So much so, we’re now in the middle of an almost 2 1/2 hour safety car period.  There’s very little video footage of the shunt, but from what little is available, it’s quite violent.  But just as with the McNish incident, Rocky exited the car under his own power.

It’s around 11:00 PM, and, while there’s a faint glow from the sunset – yes, really – it’s starting to get cold.  I hang out at the Esses for a little while longer and decide to head down to Tertre Rouge.  Both to see the famous corner and try to warm up a little.

On the inside of the track, near the straight towards the corner, and the corner itself, there is another man-made viewing hill similar to the one at Indianapolis/Arnage, but significantly bigger and taller.  I find an empty spot on the hill and set up camp.

Off to my right, just a short walk away, is the corner itself.  I head down there where I settle down next to a group of English-speaking gentlemen.  We’re still under a full course yellow and groups of cars just casually cruise past us.  With this break in the action, I put on the rest of my cold weather clothes – basically wool socks, my polar fleece, some cotton lined sweat pants from my days tending bar and swap out my Hog hat for a wool cap.  Ahh, that’s a little better.

There isn’t any action going on here, so I don’t really think about taking pictures, but I capture a few.

It’s now getting really boring and when you combine the cold and fatigue, doubt is starting to settle in.  Checking my watch it’s 1AM.  The tour group left the track two hours ago to head back to the hotel in Tours.  By now, all – save for 4 of us – are back in their warm beds.  I’m sitting on a REI tripod seat with over $1,000 in camera equipment in my backpack and 300 euros in my pocket – needless to say I’m a little worried about some of the questionable elements I’ve been warned about here at the track.  And I’m beginning to fear I’ve made a mistake.

When I first started planning this trip, I reached out to the Ten-Tenths guys.  Andrew was the first to speak up and tell me I have to stay the full 24.  I need to see the party in the Village and I need to see sunrise.  So I set for myself the goal of seeing sunrise.  At this point, I’m wondering if this is a good idea.

Back behind me is one of the three Houx campsites and someone is firing off fireworks.  It’s both a friendly reminder of the party atmosphere as well as a warning of the potential madness that lies before me.

They start racing again around 1:30AM and I watch a the cars for a few more laps before I start shivering.  I need to get up and move about.  I gather up my equipment, repack and decide to make my way back towards my seats and the Village.  Back where my seat is in the Dunlop Tribune, it’s a considerable hike.  And all uphill.  Yea, yea…I know.  Uphill, both ways, in driving snow….but I’m absolutely beat.  But wait, there’s a food/drink booth, just what I need.

I’m standing in line and I see people ordering french fries – pomme frites.  The maiden behind the counter asks a question that I don’t understand.  The answer is “qui”.  She spins and douses the french fries in mayonnaise.  Not just a quick squirt, but several pumps out of a Sam’s Club jug of mayo.  Needless to say, I lose my appetite rather quickly.  But I am thirsty and get myself a grande Kronenbourg – a French beer that’s rather quite good.  Keep your eyes open and get it at your finer establishments.

I’m just past Tertre Rouge and heading back up towards the Esses.  I finally get back into the Village.  The Guinness tent is now a dance hall.  There’s a party breaking out in the middle of the race.  Or is there a race going on in the middle of a party?  Either way, I’m just walking around.  And it is now quite cold.  Depending on the weather report, it was either 42 or 43.  I’d really like to find a place to warm up.  I look off to my right and see an Audi R18 on display.  It’s very cool looking, but what’s even better is it’s parked in front of the Audi Fan Area.  Inside, there are a handful of people wearing Audi gear and a few people sitting at some bar tables watching the race on a couple of TVs.  It looks closed, but I find an open door and move in like I know what I’m doing.  I figure if I’m not supposed to be in there they’ll ask me to leave.

It’s not heated, but it is warmer in here.  They have two TV’s – one showing the international broadcast feed and the other showing live timing and scoring.  Perfect.  It’s about 3:30 and it feels good just to sit down and get out of the cold.  They have various Audi pamphlets for reading, so between the TV and the Audi magazines, an hour flies by.  I look up at the TV, and they have an on-board shot of one of the cars as he’s heading towards Tertre Rouge.  Wait…is that the sunrise glow on TV?

I look outside, but the glare from the Village lights makes it hard to see the sky.  It’s about 4:30 and we still have 10+ hours of racing.  Another 30-45 minutes pass and they show another on-board shot.  I look outside again, it’s definitely getting lighter.  I gather up my stuff and make my way back to my seat.  A quick 20 minute hike and I’m back to the Dunlop Tribune and the glow is substantial now.  The sun hasn’t crested the horizon yet, but there’s a glorious warm glow.

It’s 6AM.  And suddenly, a wave sweeps over me.  Four hours ago, I was filled with self-doubt, regret, fear and countless concerns.  And like that…they’re all gone.  I set myself the goal of seeing the sunrise, and I did it.  Everything I felt just a few hours ago is now gone.  New emotions are rising up…and I find myself tearing up.  I can’t explain it.  The history of the race itself, the significance of being here, the spectacle of the race, my personal accomplishment…it’s overwhelming.

The teams who have competed here, speak about the sunrise giving them a second wind.  And they’re right.  I dry my eyes and move off to my right, towards the start/finish line.  It’s 6:30 and we’re in the middle of another safety car period for several unrelated racing incidents.

But five minutes later, we’re racing again.  Here you can see the unique Audi tail lights as he goes under the bridge.

A little further towards the start/finish and I’m able to capture some of my favorite photos.

From here, I head to the other side of the Dunlop Bridge, to the outside of the Esses.  Now the sunrise is in full glory.

Turning back towards the bridge, the cars crest the hill and swoop down into the Esses.

The beer booths are starting to reopen, but now they’re serving breakfast.  I grab two small cups of coffee and two delicious, fresh-baked croissants, and take time to reflect on the last 17+ hours.  After taking in the scene for a little bit, the exhaustion is moving in with a vengeance.  The GPT bus won’t be back for another few hours, so I head back to the Dunlop Tribune where I catch a few 5-10-15 minute naps.  It’s now around 11:00 AM and the tour bus must be back.  I grab a beer and a quick bite to eat before finding Trevor napping in the tour bus.  We chat briefly and I give myself a Wet-Wipe shower.  It’s incredibly dusty here and I have dirt everywhere.  I strip off my overnight clothes and catch another nap.

After an hour+ nap, it’s about 1:30 and time to head back one and 1/2 hours to go. The clouds have moved in and it’s starting to sprinkle.  I wander around for about an hour but I need to find a place to watch the finish.  I head up to one of the start/finish grandstands where the crowd has flooded back in.  I can’t see the track, but I can see the podium and the Rolex clock.  As the minutes tick off, we’re getting ever so close.  Finally, 0:00…but we’re not done.

The #2 Audi driven by Andre Lotterer crossed the line some 70 seconds ago and he was trailed by the #9 Peugeot by about 14 seconds.  This is not going to be a ceremonial last lap.  In fact, it’ll be the first fast lap at Le Mans since 1969.  Finally, the lone running Audi R18 crossed the finish line 2 minutes and 20 seconds later with the Peugeot 908 crossing 13.854 seconds later!  24 hours of racing and it’s decided by 13 seconds.  763 meters.  2500 feet.  Half of a mile.

A quick thank you to my fellow Gran Prix Tourers Bob and Sue for sharing this photo.  My vantage point was nowhere near as good as theirs.  He showed me this photo on the bus back to the hotel and I asked him to send it my way and he did.  Thanks Bob.

Finally the race is over and the car is back in the pit lane.  Here are the drivers standing on the cockpit of their car.

The winning car and the winning team – Benoit Treluyer, Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler along with race engineer Leena Gada, the first female race engineer ever to win the race – survived a Le Mans 24 Hours that was a dramatic and closely contested race.  Marred with heart-stopping accidents and mind-numbing mechanical failures, this was an incredible race.

I watch the awards ceremony – what little I could see – before I head back to the tour bus.  Slowly, the rest of the tour group returns to the bus and in short order, we’re back on the road heading back to Tours where room service, a shower, and a comfortable bed await me.

Traffic out of the track was fairly thin thanks again to Trevor and his knowledge of the local back roads.  A quick nap later and we’re back at the hotel.  I head upstairs and take a quick shower before ordering room service and settling in to watch the F1 Canadian Grand Prix.  After watching Jenson Button pass Sebastian Vettel on the last lap, I turn off the lights and get a full night’s rest – 40 hours after I woke up yesterday morning.

Thank you to everyone who was a part of this trip – Mom and Dad, Emily and Claire, Ted and Peter, Smades, Maureen, Laura, Sherry and Phil, Tessa and everyone at Grand Prix Tours, Trevor for his invaluable experience and priceless race tid-bits as well as all my fellow tour group members – Clayton, Paul, Sue and Bob, Kris and Jim, Lauren and David, Lisa and John.  This was a trip of a lifetime, and I thank you all for your support and for being a part of this trip.

These days, people ask me: What are you going to do next?  Are you going to get something to eat?  You going to hit the range?  What’s the plan?  Well, I think I’ve got something smaller planned.  Something a little more Petit…


It’s all done

I’m sitting here in my hotel in Tours, watching F1 on BBC, waiting on room service, and I’m processing what’s happened over the past 36+ hours.

I went to Paris.

Spent the night in Tours with the GPT tour group.

Went to Le Mans.

Met the Ten Tenths Le Mans group.

Teared up as the race began. Watch the race move from light to dark. Saw the sunrise. Teared up again. I met Johnny Herbert (yes really!)

As I process the race and what I experienced and go through the 1,500+ photos, I’ll continue to update this blog.

When all is said and done, this was simply an amazing trip.

-Robert