Essentially, I’ve been away for a good 9 months. To be completely honest with you, my faithful readers, I just haven’t felt like writing for a while. But on this lazy, snowy Saturday, I have 4 races to get caught up on. I have a Le Mans project I’m putting the finishing touches on, and I want to get started on my 2014 Le Mans report. Before I do, I have two races I need to get to: the 2013 United States Grand Prix and the 2014 Red Bull Grand Prix of Americas. Channeling my best Billy Mays, act now, and I’ll throw in a 2nd report for FREE. That’s right – this is a two-fer!
2013 United States Grand Prix.
Through my relationship with Grand Prix Tours, I’m working the 2nd United States Grand Prix in Austin. Having learned a few difficult lessons last year, I’m more prepared to handle my responsibilities. Unfortunately, many of the details have escaped me over the past year +, but maybe that’s a good thing. I have my bus assignment at the Austin Hyatt Regency just on the other side of the river, south of downtown Austin. One morning, I’m standing in the main lobby with my GPT shirt and sign, directing my clients to the bus outside. Near me is a private driver, a woman, with a sign that reads “Emerson Fittipaldi”. The two-time F1 World Champion and 1989 Indianapolis 500 winner, I’m a little excited the Emo is in my hotel. That private driver, keeps looking to her left and right, and has a worried look on her face. I ask her if she knows who Emerson Fittipaldi is. Sheepishly, she says no. I try to describe him the best I can before I offer to help her out. I’m short a few clients, so I volunteer to head up to the restaurant to look around for our combined clients. A quick recon trip upstairs, and I don’t find what either of us are looking for. A little disappointed I couldn’t find Emerson, I head back downstairs, inform the other driver and head to my bus where my missing clients have joined us. We head out to the track. The weather is cloudy, but it’s expected the clear up shortly and become another glorious Autumn day. As we approach the track, it’s eerily quiet. Turns out the fog is too thick to allow for the medical helicopters so the track is red-flagged. And from this shot, it’s easy to see why.
In due time, the fog burns off and we finally get some action on-track.
Aside from the fog, Friday is less that memorable. In fact, so too is Saturday. And to be honest, so is Sunday. One of the best parts was catching up with my good friends from Atlanta Kris and Jim, but otherwise, there’s just not much to write about. Sure I met some interesting people – including American driver Alexander Rossi and BBC commentator James Allen, but the racing was a glorified parade. Red Bull and Vettel won, but it was just rather unmemorable. About the most exciting thing that happened was my wonderful GPT co-host, Cherry, asked if I would be interested in working a tour at Le Mans. Wood eye! Does the Pope wear a funny hat? It took me all of 2 seconds to say yes. More on that later. Until that report, here’s a photo dump of my favorite pictures from the race weekend.
One of the cooler moments from the weekend came from the track marshals. Mark Webber announced he’d be leaving Red Bull racing at the end of the year. For the driver’s parade on Sunday, the marshals came out with at banner thanking Mark Webber for his time behind the wheel.
Oh…and per my contract, I’m obligated to include a pic of Jim and Kris at the race.
2014 Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas
Again, through my relationship with Grand Prix Tours, I was asked to host some clients to the 2014 MotoGP race in Austin. Having missed the 2013 race, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve never seen MotoGP and I thought it’d be fun. And it was. Tickets were quite reasonable, so I grabbed 2 sets and took my best friend Ted with me. We had a place to crash at my sister’s place and only two GPT clients, so it all worked out. Those two clients, a father and son from Seattle, provided some comic relief. I didn’t know if these were two adults or a father and child. So I packed Avery’s child seat just in case. Much to my relief, when I picked them up at their hotel, two grown men hopped off the elevator and introduced themselves to me.
As always, it is just a joy to be at the Circuit of the Americas. I wish I could tell you more about the race action on-track, but again the details escape me and I’m not entirely sure of the racers involved. But it was incredibly cool watching the 2-wheeled machines fly around the track.
Just look at that lean angle.
And that’s about it. We had a great time at the race. While not as parade-like at the F1 race, Marc Marques led the whole race. Ted and I had a blast together and our clients were extremely cool.
I’m certainly not going to submit this post to the powers that be in terms of getting my media pass to the next race, but at least I got these done. Next up, an interview with some passionate Le Mans fans, the 2014 24 Hueres du Mans, and the 2014 Lone Star Le 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Slowly, the cars begin heading out for their reconnaissance laps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The sunrise is cresting the trees and there’s a glorious warmth to another Le Mans 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.
Just at the bottom of the spectator hill is a food tent where they must have breakfast.
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.
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.
Shortly thereafter, here comes Gene
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.
And just a few minutes later, here comes #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.
2:58 and we have one more lap to go. The cars are lining up for an Audi grand procession.
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.
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.
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.
After spending Thursday on the TGV from Paris to Tours and taking in the old part of Tours, Friday was to be at the track for a special event. Ten-Tenths forum member extraordinaire James was able to work his magic again and line up a pit visit for a select few forum members.
In 2010, when I became a regular on the Le Mans sub-forum, James was able to orchestrate a visit with the Rebellion LMP1 Team. Last year, James had been in negotiations with a team and had everything lined up when, in the 11th hour, this team pulled out of Le Mans. Just a few days later, a representative with Audi reached out to James and they were able to visit the 2011 Le Mans winning Audi team and see their new R18. From all reports, the visit was incredible and Audi went above and beyond to accommodate the Tenths group. So much so, that Audi reached out to the Tenthers again this year and invited us to join them in their private suites above the pits to watch this year’s nighttime qualifying.
This year, James was at it again. 20 hand-picked members of the Ten-Tenths forum would get the opportunity to get an up close and personal tour of the new Toyota TS030. Audi last year and Toyota this year – James has far exceeded any and all expectations.
The tour is set up for Friday – the day before the race – and I’m in Tours. I have to get to the track, go on the tour, and get back to the station to catch my train back to Tours so I can get to the hotel and meet up with Trevor and the rest of the Grand Prix Tour group. It was both easier and more difficult than I expected.
I get up Friday morning and check out of my little hotel next to the Tours train station. I take my bags down the street to the Hotel de L’Univers – I’ll check in when I get back. I head back to the Tours train station and wait for my 9:00 train bound for Caen with stops in between, including Le Mans.
It’s another wonderful trip through the French countryside stopping at Chateau-du-Loir and Ecommoy before dropping me off right in the middle of Le Mans.
Just outside the train station is a stop for the Le Mans local SETRAM light rail. 1.40 Euro gets me a ticket from the center of town down to the new Antares station next to the MMArena – just outside the circuit. My friend Walter – another great member of the Tenths forum – has offered to meet me at the gate and take me to pits for our Toyota visit.
Walking up to the gate, I’m greeted by a parade of cars with similar graphics that leaves little to the imagination as to their origin.
Just inside the gate, I see Walter waiting patiently for me. A quick handshake and pat on the back, we’re on our way. But not directly to the pits. Walter has a little surprise for me.
The more I get to know my fellow Tenths members, the more I learn about them. Walter’s experience and knowledge of Le Mans is considerably greater than mine. I saw my first American Le Mans race in 1999 or 2000 with the Audi R8. Sure, I know about the great battle between Ford and Ferrari in the late ’60s, but I have a gap from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Before Audi, competitors at Le Mans in the ’80s and early ’90s raced in the class known as Group C. With bubble canopies and massive tails, these cars more resemble wingless aircraft than cars. And Walter is a bit of a Group C groupie.
Just before meeting me at the Antares entry, Walter and his friends Bryan and Ton were exploring the Group C paddock down in between the Village and the main paddock. Walking in, Walter has a few words of advice: All you have to do is ask. The answer is either “yes” or “no”. If you don’t ask, the answer is always “no”. Initially, I was a bit confused by this, but I went with it.
Just past the security guard, I’m greeted by a pair of Mercedes legends.
All around us are other legendary cars in various states of assembly. With noses and rear decks removed, mechanics are repairing or replacing various mechanical parts in preparation for tomorrow’s support race.
In the tent next to the Sauber Mercedes, is the gorgeous Martini-liveried 1984 Lancia LC2.
Most of the cars are behind ropes and I’m getting pictures as best I can.
Walter asks me if I’d like a closer look: “No, I don’t want to bother them. Besides, I don’t think they’ll let me in.” If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. “Excuse me, can we get a closer look so my friend from America can take some pictures”. Without hesitation, a mechanic looks up and invites us in. Walter looks at me and gives me a knowing wink.
This one is great. This is the 1989 Spice SE89, and for about 5 minutes Walter and I watched this mechanic fiddle around the engine bay. He was working this multi-linked rod from the cockpit, around the newly rebuilt engine, and into a metal sleeve in the back. I ask what he’s working on. “Oh, this is the gear-shift control rod.” Sure, I guess that would be kind of important to shift gears. “No, not just shifting gears. When it gives, you are stuck in one gear.” Has that happened before? He looks up at me, smiles and says: “Not after I’ve installed it.” Just great stuff.
Scattered about the temporary paddock are more great examples of Group C racers.
Walking about, we spot Group C and JMW Ferrari driver Roger Wills giving some friends of his a tour of the Lancia he’ll be driving in the warm up race tomorrow.
On the Tenths forum, in the weeks leading up to the race, we had been discussing our Toyota tour as well as our annual pre-race get together when we got an unexpected surprise invitation. It turns out that Roger Wills is a fellow Tenths member and he reached out to us. He said if we’re going to be down in the pits on Friday, why don’t we stop by his Ferrari team and he’ll show us around. Not only do we get a private tour with Toyota, but a Le Mans competitor has also directly invited us to visit his team.
Walter and I stick around and listen to Roger give his friends an in-depth tour of his Lancia. It’s terribly hot, remarkably fast, unbelievably noisy, and an overall blast to drive. I ask a question or two and he responds. I tell him I’m a member of the Ten-Tenths and we’ll see him later in the day. “Great, I’m looking forward to it.”
Unfortunately, some of these incredible machines wouldn’t survive tomorrow’s Group C support race.
With that, Walter and I find his friends Ton and Bryan.
We make our way into the Village for a quick bite to eat. It’s about 12:30 when we find a spot to sit down and relax before heading down to the pit lane. Over croque monsieur’s, sausage sandwiches, Coke and beer, the four of us chat about the race, getting here, and what it’s like where we live. It’s great to add two new friends into the mix.
After some ok lunch and great conversation, the four of us make our way down towards the pits. From my experience last year at the track, it’s oddly quiet. But then again, it’s not race day. It’s about 1:30, we’re supposed to meet up with Roger around 2 and the Toyota team at 3. We find our Tenths meeting spot across from the Toyota pits. A few other Tenthers are starting to gather – Nobby, Bernard, Mathias, and Eric just to name a few.
The pitlane is a sea of humanity. I know there are only a few thousand people here, but it’s packed in.
Several of us make our way down to the JMW Motorsports pit and wait patiently.
Moments later, out comes Roger scanning the crowd. I raise my hand and he recognizes me from the Group C paddock – I’m sure the Razorback hat made it a little easy.
He waves me and the rest of the Tenths group in, welcomes us and he starts telling us about the car. Its last year’s car, but updated with the flappy-paddle gearbox. It has a rear-view camera mounted in the bumper with a small screen in the cockpit showing him what’s behind him. They’ve broken the car down to its basic components to check and double-check everything so that when its put back together, it’s in tip-top form for tomorrow’s race.
My friend Bernard, gives us this TwitPic:
The car is disassembled and there’s a long list of things to do to get the car ready for tomorrow.
Roger tells us about his team, and just at that moment, his fellow co-drivers – Jonathan Cocker and James Walker – come walking by. I shake their hands and wish them good luck. Roger continues explaining a stint is about 2 hours for each driver. Long enough for the driver to get out of the car, visit the team doctor, get a bite to eat and something to drink, and maybe some rest, before hopping back in the car and going back out on the track.
Roger’s now moved us towards the back of the garage, where we meet his data engineer, Oli Harding. Oli goes onto tell us about their telemetry program and how it all works. Roger recalls how he was driving during practice when Oli told him to take his foot off the clutch. Inadvertently, Roger was resting his foot on the clutch pedal and that was giving just enough feedback – 3 to 4% pressure – that the team noticed it.
I ask if it’s MoteC – a program I’m familiar with from sim-racing – and Oli tells us it’s not; they use a similar program from Bosch Motorsport called WinDarab. Additionally, race tracks are typically broken down into 3 sectors, but because of Le Mans’ length, they have it broken down into 8 sectors. Roger tells us their system is so good they can tell him he needs to break later or earlier, be softer or harder on the steering input, and when to jump on the throttle. Without a doubt, this is the most fascinating and inside look into a racing team I’ve ever experienced.
Our time is up and we bid the team good luck and best wishes for the race. Just outside, a group of Dutch fans are heckling/taunting/singing to all the teams.
We make our way back towards the Toyota pits where I finally catch up with James, Andrew, and Tony – my Tenths friends I’ll be sitting with tomorrow. With smiles on everyone’s faces, I’m seeing friends I haven’t seen in a year – and it’s a great feeling. More Tenthers are arriving: Simon, Christopher, Pascal as well as a few faces whose names I don’t know yet. But thanks to the common bond that is the Tenths website, we’re all smiles and anxiously awaiting our Toyota visit.
Shortly after 3:00, James gathers us together and a gentleman in Toyota gear asks us to follow him. He and James have a quick conversation before breaking the us up into two 10-man groups. I’m in the first group and we’re led through security. Behind the pits, the gentleman in the Toyota gear introduces himself: Alastair Moffitt with Toyota Europe. Alastair gives us a quick run rundown of the rules: stay together, ask anything you want, and unfortunately – no photos. There will be a secure place for us to put our packs and cameras.
Before we head in, a few things catch my eye. This is just common sight at Le Mans.
Moments later, up walks Toyota driver Alexander Wurz.
From my brief encounters with Johnny Herbert and Allan McNish last year, both of those gentlemen were slightly shorter and considerably smaller than I am. It makes sense, the smaller the driver, the smaller and more aerodynamic you can make the cockpit. But Alex Wurz is HUGE. I can only imagine him squeezing into the Toyota, last few Peugeot 908’s, and all those little F1 cars he drove.
With that, Alastair ushers us into the Denso Toyota Hybrid tent and pit paddock.
Inside, it is the definition of controlled chaos. That’s not a knock, it’s just a little overwhelming to me. Here’s a stack of tires, there are replacement tail pieces, here are replacement noses, and carbon fiber components scattered about. It’s abuzz with activity as mechanics and engineers are moving all over the place. In front, Alastair is talking and moving towards the front of the pit, Eric and I are the stragglers. I’m taking a closer look at the tail and nose pieces and Eric is talking with two of the engineers.
In a corporate collaboration, Toyota has partnered with experienced Le Mans competitor and constructor, Oreca, for logistical help. Oreca is based in France and, as I understand it, many of the mechanics live in or near Le Mans. Well, as it turns out, Eric also lives in Le Mans. He’s stuck up a conversation with a few of the mechanics and I’m lost in the back of the garage looking at all the parts of the car. Suddenly, out of the blue, a Toyota engineer/mechanic/top-of-the-food-chain guy comes up to me and Eric and asks if we’re with the tour. Yes. Well, why don’t you two get back on tour. With that, Eric and I move quickly to the front of the garage where two dismantled TS030’s are right in front of us – and it’s a bit surprising.
All I see is the floorboard, the cockpit, and the engine. I know the engineers want to keep everything as low as possible for the lowest center of gravity possible, but what in front of me is surprising. A 3.4 liter V8 that can produce 500+ HP, literally sitting on the floorboard that then sits an inch or so above the ground. It’s a marvel of engineering.
Catching up with the group, Alastair is talking about the hybrid system they use and how it’s different from the “other guys”. The “other guys” are Audi. Their hybrid system powers the front wheels, the Toyota system powers the rear wheels. And Toyota built theirs in-house. “They bought their system” Alastair says with a respectful/playful shot at Audi. After a few more questions and answers that are hard to make out due to the loud public address speaker, we make our way towards the back of the garage where we gather our packs. We’re taken outside to the Michelin tire engineers who are hand inspecting each of the tires. We chat with the tire guys a bit before our tour is over.
We get back to the pit lane where Alastair and James corral the second group and the rest of us talk about what we’ve just seen. Initially, we were told each group would have 15-20 minutes with Toyota. Looking at my watch we’ve been with Alastair for almost 45 minutes! And now a small problem has presented itself. But so too have solutions.
When we were first told about our visit, James told me I would have a spot in one of the two groups. I planned accordingly. Staying in Tours, I would take a regional train to Le Mans, catch the SETRAM to the track, and just reverse course to get back to Tours to catch up with Trevor and the rest of the Grand Prix Tour group for dinner. With the train schedule finally set – the SNCF doesn’t release the train schedule until a few weeks before traveling – I purchased my tickets. Leave Tours at 9:30 and get to Le Mans at 11. Leave Le Mans at 4:30 and return to Tours by 6. Absolute perfect timing. However, Toyota had other plans.
Our pit visit wasn’t planned until 3:00. Dramatically narrowing my travel window. There was another train bound for Tours, but that wasn’t leaving until 6 or so, and I would miss or be late for dinner with Trevor. And, quite frankly, I didn’t want to miss dinner. So, in the Toyota visit discussion thread on the Tenths forum, I threw out my problem. But the guys online were more than willing to help.
First to speak up was Christopher. He gave me some assurances, that with good timing, I could make my train and in the grand scheme of things, it’ll all work out. Next up was Eric – our Le Mans local. He said if the weather was good, he would take his motorcycle to the track and he’d get me back to the station in no time. Finally, Pascal speaks up and offers me a ride in his Peugeot. He doesn’t live far from Tours and he would take me back to my hotel if need be.
The first group is out in the pit lane and we’re all talking about what we’ve just seen. Eric and Pascal check on me and my schedule. Looking at my watch, there’s no way I’ll make it to the SETRAM and then onto Gare Le Mans. Pascal says tells me to come on and we head to the parking lot just outside the track.
We get to his car and he pulls out his trusty TomTom GPS and plugs in the address to the Gare Le Mans. The funny thing is, as we get going, the TomTom is issuing directions in French. Of course it would, but it gave me a giggle nonetheless. One small problem, it keeps telling us to turn left onto one way streets.
We make our way through town as best we can – his knowledge of Le Mans is a little rusty and mine is near zero. We spend the time talking about ourselves – what we do in the real world outside of the Tenths forum. He’s in information management and, while living in Blois, he spends his work week in Pairs. Blois and Tours share the Loire River and he lives about an hour from where I’m staying.
Turn here, the TomTom says, but we can’t – it’s one way. Turn here – nope can’t do that either. Finally, we make our way onto Boulevard des Riffaudires that’ll take us to Boulevard Demorieux and straight to the station. Checking my watch, we’re cutting it close. Finally, we make it to the station and with a quick handshake and a poorly spoken “merci beaucoup”, I hop out of the car and sprint into the Gare Le Mans lobby. I find a ticket kiosk, key in my reservation code and last name, and grab my ticket.
Checking the train information board, I’m departing from platform 6. Another quick sprint and I find my train, hop on board, and grab a seat. Two minutes – and I’m not exaggerating – two minutes later and the train is pulling out of the station. Talk about by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin, that was close. Not that it would have been a bad journey to Tours with Pascal, I honestly didn’t want to put him through the trouble.
With that, I’m again rolling through the French countryside. I don’t know how to describe it, but there’s something magical about riding the train through Europe. This is something I will definitely do again. I’m back in Tours in no time where I check in and grab my bags at the Hotel de L’Univers. Up to my newly remodeled room where I take a much needed shower and shave. It’s almost time for dinner, but more importantly, time for a drink in the hotel bar.
Exiting the lift, walking right in front of me is Trevor from Grand Prix Tours. Last year, Trevor and I hit it off and he was one of the selling points in using Grand Prix Tours again this year. He’s a wonderful English gentleman with a racing background and he knows his stuff. In the months after returning from last year’s trip, I was able to find Trevor on Facebook where we would chat online from time to time. Calling out to Trevor, he turns around with a smile and it’s like catching up with another old friend.
Trevor and I make our way to the bar where we get a drink and he gives me a Le Mans history book that was a Sunday newspaper insert a few weeks ago. It’s a wonderful gesture and a prize I have and will read often. Finishing our drinks, we move into the main dining room where the rest of our GPT group is waiting.
At our dinner table are two couples who have visited Le Mans before as well as first-timer, Gary. Gary lives in Detroit and is an engineer of some sort with General Motors. Over dinner, he and Trevor discuss certain automotive technicalities like the spring and roll bars of various racing cars. I knew some of the things they were talking about, others, not so much. Afterwards, Gary strikes up a conversation with me and Trevor about what he wants to do and where he wants to go. Some places: yes. Others: no. I offer my experiences from last year – he takes some with a grain of salt, others he clings to. Trevor turns in while Gary and I head to the bar to discuss more of what to see and where to go. After a drink, it’s getting late so we call it a night – Gary, you still owe me a beer. Tomorrow is Le Mans, and we have a long day in front of us.
I head back to my room and open my bedroom window to let in some fresh air – and to help air out the smell of freshly painted walls. Going over my equipment for tomorrow’s race, it’s starting to rain. This will dramatically change my plans for staying the full 24 hours. A wet Le Mans without the sunset or sunrise is not what I want. Things could change, but right now, I’m leaning towards not staying the entirety of the race. And with that, I turn in.
It was an incredible day. To James, Walter, and Pascal, Roger Wills and the whole JMW Motorsports team, and Alastair Moffitt with Toyota Europe, a massive thank you for providing an incredible experience and an amazing inside view of racing at Le Mans.
Thank you very much. Experiencing the Le Mans in the stands is one thing, but seeing what goes into fielding a competitive team to challenge Le Mans is a different thing entirely.
Out of sheer boredom and the fact there’s nothing on TV tonight, I decided to finally finish watching my DVR recording of the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans. It occurred to me watching the final laps, watching the clock count down to 0:00…it’s been 6 months to the day since the race.
My immediate thought: I’ve only got 6 months to plan 2012.
Since this summer – my first race – a week hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought about the race. That I haven’t thought about meeting the Ten-Tenths crew. That I haven’t thought about seeing the sun come up and watching the checkered flag wave. And it seems like a blur.
After Christmas and New Years, I’ll start piecing together the 2012 trip with some slight modifications. I’ll go earlier, stay longer, and know where to go.
I think I saw these guys walking around the track with their equipment.
October 1st was the 14th running of the Petit Le Mans held at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia. 53 entries packed into the 2.5 mile, 12 turn track carved into red clay hills of North Georgia. Over the past 13 years, Audi has won 9 times in the bullet-proof R8 and R10 and were looking for number 10 in the Le Mans winning R18. The Peugeot 908, however, has won the last two. Could they make it a hat trick?
Just like at Le Mans, the Friday morning 5AM alarm is too early for my sleep-loving nature, but Dad and I have an early flight to Atlanta. We’re at DFW by 7 and in the air by 8:30. A quick two hour flight later and we’re landing at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. 15 minutes later, we’re in our Chevrolet Impala heading into Buckhead – a northern suburb of Atlanta that’s filled with hotels, bars, clubs, office buildings, restaurants and car dealerships.
We’re scheduled to have lunch with a commercial real estate client of ours. We’ve closed two big commercial deals and we’re working on a third with Tim and his group, but we’ve never met him – just dealt with him over the phone and through e-mail. About 12:30, we find his building, walk in, and finally meet face-to-face. After some small talk, we hop into the Impala and Tim shows us a back route through the Disco Kroger parking lot to a Gordon Biersch – a micro brew restaurant. Bob’s never been, and I’ve only been to the one on Legacy for drinks, so this works out great. Over lunch – which included some garlic fries that were overly garliced – we chat about business and get to know each other on a personal level. Tim’s a jovial fellow with a great mind for investments and he knows his stuff. An hour and a half later, he shows us another back road through a residential neighborhood to his office where we exchange handshakes and promises of future business.
We’re staying at the Grand Hyatt Atlanta about two blocks from Tim’s office. We pull into the covered front drive, tell the valet we’re checking in, changing clothes and we’ll be out in 15-20 minutes. He says OK and moves the car out of the way. We get upstairs, change clothes, and we’re back downstairs heading towards I-85 to get to Road Atlanta.
We cruise though the Georgian countryside, along I-85, that’s wonderfully lined with pine trees and live oaks, past Dr. Don Panoz’s Chateau Elan, and onto Highway 53. 5 Minutes later, there’s the track off to our left. Just past the track is the will call trailer where my infield parking pass awaits. Pass in hand, we enter the track and drive across the Audi bridge, past the Patron Tequlia party tent and the Vendor Village, where we find a spot just between two cars. Right, we’re set.
We’re at the top of the hill near Turn 2, just above the Esses. We find a spot next to the fence and settle in. It’s about 3:30 and we’re just beginning the LMP qualifying. The diesels and petrol prototypes whisper and scream by.
The speed at which these machines fly past us is still amazing to me. I will never grow old of seeing the speed of the cars or the talent of the drivers. Dad and I stick around to see what we see and 45 minutes later, qualifying is done.
At Road Atlanta, the paddock/garage area is open to the public. Anyone can walk down at any time. As a fan, I love this. As a driver or mechanic or race engineer, I would hate this with the fury of a 1,000 suns. We walk down the hill towards the paddock and the first thing we see is the Oreca Matmut trailer with their Sebring-winning Peugeot HDi FAP 908. As we move in for a closer look, a pot-bellied bubba asks one of the French mechanics “How’d y’all do today?” With a wonderful French accent, he responds “Perdon?” The fan reissues “HOW’D Y’ALL DO TODAY?” in a louder and slower Southern drawl. “Oh, good” the mechanic responds with a thumbs-up gesture as he returns to his duties. Ahh, the glory and splendor of the French Rivera thrown smack dab in the middle of NASCAR country.
I chuckle to myself and we move through the rest of the paddock. The GT cars are all in various states of repair and assembly and the LMP cars are making their way back to their garages and scrutineering. At the far end of the paddock, near pit-entry and Turn 12, we find a line of cars waiting their turn for official inspection. Here’s the Technical Director of Audi Sport Brad Kettler looking over the #1 Audi R18.
On-track, the SCCA Trans-Am support race is going on. An incredibly odd mix of Corvettes, Celicas, Jaguars, Porsches and what look like NASCAR Chevy Monte Carlos are all on track together racing. It’s about 4:30 and we have dinner plans, so we head back to the Impala and back into Atlanta. Even with some rush hour traffic, we’re back at our hotel by 6, so we hit the bar for a scotch. Dinner’s not until 7:30 and the restaurant is 5 minutes away, so why not?
While in Le Mans, I met Clayton, Jim and Kris – all from Atlanta. Oddly enough, the four of us were the only ones from our Grand Prix Tour group to make the field trip to the Indianapolis and Arnage corners. Clay was my hotel next door neighbor and I had dinner and drinks with Jim and Kris, but our extra adventure gave us all the chance to get to know each other a little better. All three told me if I liked this type of racing, I need to come to Atlanta and check out Petit Le Mans. And so the seed was planted.
In the days and weeks after Le Mans, I was able to find Clay, Jim and Kris on the internet and started writing them through e-mail and Facebook. As I started planning this trip, I wrote them and said I’d like to meet up with them while we’re in town. Clay tells me he’s RV’ing it at the track and tells me to call when we get there and he’ll guide me to his spot. The week before the race, Jim and I made plans for the four of us to have dinner in Buckhead at this Italian restaurant Pricci – a favorite of theirs. Plus, it just happens to only be about 5 minutes from our hotel. After qualifying and grabbing quick a glass of scotch and a shower, Dad and I are out the door and on our way to Pricci.
We get to the restaurant and pulling up behind me is Jim and Kris! Perfect timing. As I get out of the driver’s seat and greet Jim, Dad’s gone to Kris’ door, opened it for her, and says : “You must be Kris.” She responds: “You must be Dad!”
We have a wonderful 2+ hour dinner enjoying outstanding food, wine, and conversation. It is a real pleasure catching up with Jim and Kris. It’s one thing to click with someone over a short time together, and another thing to get to know someone over e-mail and online chatting, but it’s an entirely different thing to get to know someone over dinner and drinks. It is a wonderful night out. Thank you Kris and Jim for coming down and having dinner with us!
We say goodnight and make plans to catch up tomorrow at the track. Dad and I get back to the hotel where we meet up with Ted – he took a Friday afternoon flight and then caught the MARTA train to the hotel. He and I have a night cap in the hotel bar before turning in. From what I’ve read and been told, we need to be at the track early to get a good parking spot and to avoid traffic.
The alarm goes off this time at 6AM – but considering we’re in the Eastern Time Zone, it’s still 5AM on my body. After a quick shower and backpack review, Dad and I are in the lobby meeting up with Ted. 5 minutes later and we’re in the car and through a crazy left hand HOV highway on-ramp, we’re on the road to Road Atlanta.
45 minutes later, we’re in line just like yesterday and we’re being waved into a parking lot recently cleared out of the trees right in the middle of the track. The placement couldn’t be more perfect.
We gather up and make our way to the top of the hill near turns 2-3-4. It’s about 8:30 and we still have 3 hours before the race, it’s time to check out the paddock and get ready for the gridwalk. Heading back down the hill the same way we did yesterday, we make our way into the paddock. Past the Oreca Matmut garage and onto the main area.
The teams are putting the final touches on their cars. With hoods open and rear decks removed, the engineers are giving the engines one last look over. We get up close and personal with the LMP1 Oak Racing Pescarolo Judd and the LMP2 Level 5 HPD ARX-01G cockpit. I find it interesting, most of the cockpits we saw had some sort of track map positioned inside.
We find the Peugeot garage just in time to see the 908’s coming out of their garages.
As we walk towards pit-in, we pass the various team trailers. GTE Pro competitors Flying Lizard Porsche and Extreme Speed Motorsports ready their cars for the race.
We get to the Audi garage and I set up camp. This is what I want to see. Looking around I see familiar faces. Familiar in that I’ve seen these guys on TV over the years. Ralf Juttner and Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich march past me towards the pit. I’m giddy in the way that a teenage girl is if Justin Bieber walks past her.
Here’s race engineer Howden Haynes talking with driver Dindo Capello.
Moments later, Allan McNish exits the trailer and strolls towards me.
I rattle off a few snapshots before extending my hand and wishing him good luck. He returns my handshake and says: “Thanks”. First Johnny Herbert and now Allan McNish…I shook hands with two Le Mans winners.
We continue towards pit-in, taking in all that is around us. Cars are taking to the track for some practice laps and the roar of the engines is echoing through the hills surrounding us. It’s now about 10:00 and we decide to head back towards turn 1 to get into position to take part in the grid walk.
From what I understand, Petit Le Mans is unique in that the organizers open up the grid prior to the race allowing the spectators to walk amongst the cars. We gathered in a huddled mass behind a chain-link fence. Mechanics and engineers with tires and fuel make their way though the crowd. Over the speakers, the French National Anthem followed by the US national anthem are sung by local artists. Overhead, the US Army parachute demonstration team, The Golden Knights, descend upon us.
Moments later, the track announcer comes over the loudspeakers and announces the grid is open. A wave of humanity descends upon the track, crowding around their favorite cars. At the front of the grid, I can barely see the cars. It’s absolutely packed and borderline maddening, but oh so very cool at the same time.
Somehow, the three of us keep up with each other, catching glimpses of cars, engineers, drivers, sponsors, and grid girls – some of whom I wish had stayed home. We get near one French based team – I can’t remember who – and after inspecting the car, Dad pats a driver or engineer on the shoulder and wishes him “bonne chance.” We get near Turn 12 and decide to make our way back towards Turn 1 through the pit lane. There are several cars starting from the pits and we take a closer look. But cars aren’t the only thing worth looking at here. Here’s Dad and some of the Buffalo Jills – the cheerleading squad of the Buffalo Bills.
Huh? Dad asked why they’re here and it turns out, one of the LMPC drivers is from Buffalo, New York and they were down to show their support. Given the opportunity, I’d head to Atlanta from Buffalo any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Through several new friends we’ve made on-track, we’ve been told to position ourselves near Turn 1 for the start of the race. So we make our way down pit lane where we find an empty spot on the wall overlooking Turn 1 and pit-out. We hoist ourselves precariously up onto the wall, clinging to a sagging chain link fence.
It’s 11:15 or so and the cars have fired up their engines. The rumble of 50+ cars casually make their way past us for a couple of formation laps and then…
As the cars exited pit-out, just under where we were standing, the vibration through your body was considerable. I felt the cars as much as I heard them drive past us.
We stick around for a few laps before we head up the hill and towards the Vendor Village. Similar to the ACO Village in Le Mans, but considerably smaller, we check out the vendor stands and exhibits before grabbing lunch and a beer. Finishing up, we decide to make our way to Spectator Hill overlooking The Esses.
We head to the car and grab our folding chairs we bought last night at Sports Authority. The initial walk is a pleasant downward slope but we’re quickly greeted with a substantially greater incline than one would expect. Slowly passing us on our walk are random cars and golf carts. By chance, I turn around just in time to see a gentleman alone in his golf cart decorated with Christmas tree lights. On a lark, I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride. He stops right in front of me and waves us on. Quick introductions are made and we start chatting. We tell him this is our first time down and he tells us about dinner last night with Dr. Don Panoz and a funny story Dr. Panoz told comparing the nicotine patch with a condom – ask me offline and I’ll tell you. He’s with some buddies in the Mazda hospitality tent at the top of Spectator Hill and is camping on the outside of the backstretch. He tells us where and invites us to join him and his friends later tonight. We park, shake hands, and bid each other farewell.
We find an empty spot and set up camp. Absolutely perfect. It’s exactly as I imagined it.
There’s a big screen in front of us and live commentary being broadcast over the speaker system. Add the fact there’s a beer/food stand almost right behind us and a clear, blue sky overhead, and it’s a perfect combination. We find an empty spot at the top of the hill and enjoy the cars race past us. Dad decides he wants to get a little closer to the action so he makes his way down towards the track. About 15 – 20 minutes later, he comes back and tells us the #2 Audi has some damage and has colored duct tape holding the rear deck together.
It’s about 1:45 and it turns out while we were in the Village getting lunch, Tom Kristensen collided with the Robertson Racing Ford GT in Turn 10B causing damage around the right rear tire. And now, we notice there’s only one Peugeot 908 circling the track. Just a few minutes ago, the pole sitting #7 908 with Sebastien Bourdais behind the wheel, pulled off-track retiring with mechanical problems. Even with the big screen TV and commentary coming over the loud speakers, it’s still hard to keep up with the race action unless it happens right in front of you.
We stick around for an hour or so before I want to check out the cars from a different angle. Dad wants to tag along so we leave Ted and make our way to the bottom of the Esses and look up as the cars fly past. From where we are, the cars move down the Esses towards us from the left into Turn 5 before climbing the hill and disappearing on their way towards Turns 6 and 7 and Spectator Hill is up to our right.
We’re just coming out of a safety car period and the cars are all stacked up. It’s really cool watching these cars zoom past as they wind down the hill and rocket up past us. We catch some race action for an hour in various spots before making our way back towards Ted. It’s about 3 o’clock and we decide to make our way to Turns 6 and 7.
A quick 20 minute walk through the RV parking lot, we find a spot on the wall in between Turns 6 and 7. The cars are right there, 20-25 feet from us as they enter Turn 6 to our left and slow down dramatically for Turn 7 before they jet off down the straight.
We stick around for 30 minutes or so before deciding to head down to Turns 10A and 10B. It’s about 4:00 and we get to the Mazda bridge over the backstretch. Crossing the bridge, there’s a wonderful engine whine echoing through the trees. Mix that with the swoosh of the cars as they stream beneath us as well as the rocking of the bridge caused by the aerodynamic wake from the cars and it’s an incredible experience.
Looking down through the slats of the walkway, you can see the cars for a fraction of a second. Putting my cinematographer hat on, I place the camera looking down through a gap to capture the cars as they roar off towards turns 10A and 10B.
Crossing the bridge to the outside of the backstretch, we walk past RV after RV and make our way to the braking zone going into Turn 10A. The aches and pains of walking around for the past 8 hours are moving in, so we find an open spot and settle in. Dad decides he’s going to check in with mom and Ted makes his way towards the track to get up close and personal.
After hanging out for an hour or so, we decide to make our way to the area overlooking Turns 10A and 10B to watch the end of the race. It’s about 5:30, and with the sun setting behind us, the temperature’s dropping. We find an open spot in the spectator area carved into the hills overlooking 10A, I turn on my phone to check for a signal – it’s been spotty all day so I’ve been keeping my phone off to preserve the battery. I get a flood of texts. My beloved Arkansas Razorbacks have come from behind to beat Texas A&M at Cowboys Stadium! Behind all game, they took the lead with 1:40 left in the game. Everyone tells me it was quite a game. That’s great, but we’re watching quite a race.
About that same time, roughly 6:00, I get a text from Jim and Kris – they’re doing the same thing we are and are heading our way to watch the end of the race. Looking of to my right, towards the tunnel underneath the track, I keep my eyes pealed for Jim and Kris. In short time, I see them moving my direction. I flag them down and the 4 of us catch up and I introduce them to Ted. We line up and prepare for the last few remaining hours of racing.
Before we know it, we’re in the middle of another safety car period. Just a few minutes ago, the 2nd place Audi driven by Romain Dumas got an excellent jump out of Turn 7 and was making a move on the lead 908 driven by Franck Montagny. In the way, however, is a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. Depending on whom you talk to, Dumas misjudged the gap between his Audi and the Porsche or Montangy moved over to close the door causing the Audi to clip the Porsche. Either way, the Audi and the Porsche came together and careened into the wall near the Mazda bridge we crossed just a few hours prior. It’s an unfortunate end to an otherwise excellent race between Audi and Peugeot.
It’s nearing 7:00 and the shadows are getting longer. Just like at Le Mans, it’s starting to get cold. Our car, according to Jim and Kris who parked in the same parking lot as us, is just through the tunnel under the track and a short 10 minute walk away. Ted, Dad, and I all have warmer clothes back in the car. Being the virile, young bucks we are, Ted and I volunteer to head to the car to grab warmer clothes. 30 minutes and several additional layers of clothing later, we’re all back together.
We’re a little less cold, but a lot more hungry. Dad, Ted, and I decide to cross the Audi bridge and head for some grub in the Village. The pickings are slim, but we all grab a pretty good pulled pork bar-b-que sandwiches and they’re devoured in short order. Heading back towards Jim and Kris, I wish I’d brought my tripod. With as steady a hand as I could muster, I’m able to pull off this 4 second exposure.
Crossing the bridge, I capture the #2 Audi racing for pride as he’s more than 70 laps down after dealing with various mechanical gremlins. Once we get back to Jim and Kris, Dad spots the #24 Oak Racing had a pretty strong forward brake bias and his rotors were still lit up as he headed into Turn 12.
And speaking of lit up rotors, the #59 Luxury Racing Ferrari F458 had a little problem as he pulled off-track. He’s on fire but a marshal is Johnny-on-the-spot and the fire is quickly extinguished.
The cars continue to stream past us and before too long, we have our last safety car period. Just a few minutes ago, Chris Dyson in his Mazda powered Lola clipped another car at the top of the hill in Turn 3. Several cars behind him got caught up in the chaos and went off-track, bringing out the safety car. 7 laps left. While the LMP1 race is all but decided with the #8 908 in the lead with a 5 lap cushion, the GT race is far from over.
With 3 laps remaining, we’re green and racing again. After 9 hours of racing, it becomes a 3 lap sprint race between Ferrari, BMW, and Porsche. At Turn 7, with two laps left, the Flying Lizard Porsche passes the BMW M3 GT for second while the AF Corse Ferrari F458 stretches his lead. Over our heads the fireworks go off, but the GT battle rages on in front of us. First the Ferrari and a few seconds later the Porsche with the BMW on his bumper. Through 10A and 10B, under the bridge and across the finish line, the Porsche holds onto second with the BMW in third 2/10ths of a second behind him.
The fireworks continue and we watch the last of the competitors file past us.
I’m not going to lie, I’m really disappointed for Audi. Bad luck, bad timing, and bad decisions kept them from returning to the top step of the podium. Congratulations, however, to Peugeot. They too had bad luck, bad timing, and bad decisions but they fought through 1,000 miles and came out on top for the third year in a row.
Here’s a rather well done race recap from Peugeot
We gather up our stuff and the five of us make our way back to our cars. 15-20 minutes later we’re loading up our cars and we say goodnight. It was a lot of fun watching the last few hours of the race with Jim and Kris along side Dad and Ted. It’s a shame we didn’t catch up with Clay at the track. I should have called much earlier in the day. Guess, I’ll have to come back next year, Clay!
Despite the number of cars and the sea of taillights in front of us, we make it out of the track in fairly short order and back on the highway rather quickly. Tired, but still excited from the race action all day, the three of us have one last night cap in the hotel bar. The clink of the glasses and a toast to a successful race trip, we down one last scotch before calling it a night.
We’re up early Sunday morning, return the car, catch the train to the airport, get through security and finally board the plane home.
It’s been a quick two weeks since the race. I’ve been working on this and processing my 800+ photos and almost 30 minutes of video.
Thanks again to everyone who was part of this trip. Dad and Ted, it was great to have you guys with me as we experienced a wonderful race at an excellent facility. Jim and Kris, thank you so very much for meeting us out for dinner and catching up with us at the track. It’s a great treat to have met you two in France and continued our friendship Stateside. Clayton, again, I’m sorry we couldn’t get together on-track, but your notes and tid-bits about the track and what to expect were priceless.
I guess now it’s time to change the name of the blog back to it’s original state and start planning for the 2012 24 Heures du Mans.