Tomorrow is the opening day for the ALMS/WEC International Sportscar Weekend at The Circuit of the Americas in Austin. What is quickly becoming my home track, the American Le Mans Series will race for 2 hours and 45 minutes on Saturday and we’ll have a 6 hour race on Sunday for the World Endurance Championship.
Between the two series, I’ve seen most of these cars at Le Mans.
I was supposed to drive down to Austin and stay with my sister and her family tonight and spend most of tomorrow at the track, but God had other plans for me today. So, I’ll get up early, head to Competitive Camera where I’ll pick up a new lens for the weekend and, weather permitting, I’ll hit the track.
Fox Sports 1 – originally SpeedTV – was set to broadcast Sunday’s WEC race, they’ve since cancelled those plans. ESPN2, however, will broadcast Saturday’s ALMS race on Sunday. Set your DVR’s.
Until then, here’s what you can expect from this weekend:
Here are Andy Blackmore’s fantastic Spotters Guides.
From the manufacturers themselves.
Toyota will be back.
Audi will defend.
Porsche will return.
2014 will be epic. And I will not miss it.
24 Hours of Le Mans…Done. United States Grand Prix…Done. Time to catch up on my writing and focus on my most recent trip to The Circuit of the Americas: The V8 Supercars Austin 400.
V8 Supercars? Yes, V8 Supercars. To say it’s Australia’s version of NASCAR is unfair to these drivers and cars, but for now, go with it. In Australia, there are two major car manufacturers: Ford and Holden. Sure you can get other makes and models, but the debate Down Under is Blue vs. Red – Ford vs. Holden. This year there are two new marks to enter the fray: Nissan and Mercedes and Volvo recently announced their return in 2014. Tracing it’s roots to 1960 with the Australian Touring Car Championship, the series has gone through various name changes, manufacturers, and teams. Since 1993, however, the one thing that has remained the same: the engine. A 5.0 liter V8 engine producing 600+ BHP powering a 4-door touring car. Fire-breathing beasts that are built like tanks and drivers who follow the rule “rubbin’ is racin’ “; the V8 Supercars is extremely entertaining.
In October 2012, V8 Supercars announced they’d be traveling overseas for the first time ever to The Circuit of the Americas in May 2013. After watching V8 Supercars for years on Speed, I put it on my calendar that I’d be down in Austin that weekend. Of course, while I’m planning my trip, I reach out to my friend Tessa at Grand Prix Tours and offered my assistance. I’m already going and if I can help GPT out – and make up for more than a few mistakes over the USGP race weekend – I will. So, in the months and weeks leading up to the race, GPT started filling up their roster of guests attending the race. We didn’t think we’d need a bus for the race, so I made a deal with Tessa – pay for my gas to and from Austin, rent a nice van, and I’ll take care of the rest. As we get closer to race weekend, our roster is set with 5 Aussies. We don’t need a van so I make arrangements with my brother-in-law to borrow his Yukon. And as it turns out, his truck was in the shop so I’d have a brand-spankin’ new truck to taxi our guests to and from the track. Perfect. The week before the race, I received my care package from Tessa: official GPT shirt, roster, itinerary, and tickets. I’m driving down Thursday before the race and am to meet my guests in the Hyatt lobby Friday morning. I’m all set. The drive down Thursday was a snap. I made sure I packed everyone’s tickets and did not repeat my US Grand Prix mistake. I catch up with Emily that afternoon, watch my niece show off her gymnastics moves, have dinner and call it a night at their new house.
Friday – Meeting my guests and practice
Friday morning I’m to meet my guests in the hotel lobby at 8:00. Friday is an open day for the group – no trip to the track planned but I’m definitely heading out for V8 practice. Shortly after 8, my guests meet me in the lobby. Ian and his mate David, then Bobby, and finally Phil and his wife Hazel. While talking with Phil and Hazel, another Australian couple overhears our conversation and politely raise their hands. They ask about transportation to and from the track. I tell them they’re basically on their own. They tell me that back home in Australia, when they visit a track, the track has transportation arranged for the patrons. While COTA and the city of Austin did have free shuttles for the F1 race, they’re not doing it this weekend. I tell them a taxi will take them to the track and there should be taxi’s for the return trip. I have a full load otherwise I’d take them. They thank me and we all go our separate ways.
It’s 8:30 or so and there isn’t any V8 action until 10, so I head back to Emily’s. I change shirts, gather up my camera equipment, and I’m on the road to the track. Tessa got me/us a parking pass in the main lot so I know right where I’m going. Traffic is light and I’m at the track in no time. I park next to a couple of blokes from Australia. We chat on our way to the main gate. One of them is a marshal for the series and was at last year’s race at Abu Dhabi. He had some hot sport opinions about the Hermann Tilke designed tracks and the lack of action they ultimately promote – lots of runoff areas, wide racing surfaces – something the other tracks on the V8 schedule don’t have. While he’s excited to be here, he’s not expecting the “typical” show on-track. I’m cautiously optimistic because the race officials decided to run the “short track” that cuts out Turns 7-11 with the goal of keeping the cars bunched together.
We pause at the main gate where I offer to take their picture with their camera. We shake hands and head inside. The first of what will be several excellent interactions with some friendly visitors.
Through the gate and turn left…I again have seats in Turn 15, but this time a little closer to the apex of the corner.
I settle in and take in some of the action. These cars have an awesome growl about them.
The first and second practices are done and it’s getting hot. I decide to call it a day and head back home. It’s great to be back at the track for the first time in six months. I’ve said it before, it’s a beautiful facility and with the concert amphitheater complete at the base of the tower, it’s damn near perfect. I’m back at Emily’s in no time where I spend the rest of the day just goofing off and relaxing. That night, Emily, my brother-in-law, Andy, and I have dinner plans downtown. We hit this awesome little tappas place for an excellent dinner before heading to one of their favorite spots where we take in a U2 cover band. It was a great show but it was over all too soon and we call it a night. Tomorrow is a big day.
Saturday – Qualifying and Racing
Saturday morning I’m up and dressed and out the door. Yesterday, I told the group to meet me in the lobby and we’d make our way to the track. Waiting for me in the lobby are Phil and Hazel with Bobby just behind them. Ian and David, however, are nowhere to be seen. We have an 8 AM departure time and everyone is eager to get to the track. I call up to their room. No answer. I head up the escalator to the restaurant to take a quick look…nope. I call up to their room again, this time I get an answer. A very groggy Ian picks up and says: “No thanks, mate. We’ll take a cab.” With that, I gather the others and we pile into the truck. Hazel jokes, that because we had to wait, Ian and David will have to sit in the far back seat the rest of the trip. We all laugh and make our way out.
On the way to the track, the four of us are chatting it up and getting to know each other. Asking what a Texas Ranger is, what I do back home and if I have a horse, where they’re from, and what they do in Australia. Just like yesterday, we’re at the track rather quickly. We find a parking spot and unload. I have my seats in Turn 15, Phil and Hazel are in the Paddock Club, but Bobby has a general admission ticket. Knowing this from yesterday, I grabbed a folding chair from Emily and gave it to Bobby. We also all have a go with the sun block. It’s a cloudless day and it’s going to get hot. And like that we’re off.
It’s about 9:00 and the World Challenge cars are on-track. I head off to my seats and watch some of the World Challenge – Mazdas against BMWs against Hondas against Minis. While it is a race, there isn’t much action going on, so I get up and start wandering around the track and watch from Turns 16-17-18 at the base of the Tower.
There’s a tent with several COTA representatives offering Tower tours for $20. I strike up a conversation with one and decide I need to check out the scene from the top. I was told I could go up for 15-20 minutes. I make my way to the base of the Tower and into the elevator where I notice there are only two buttons: “1” and “2”. Well, sure, that makes sense.
In the elevator with me are several members of various Porsche GT3 teams. Heading up, they’ll have a bird’s eye view for the Porsche GT3 qualifying about to begin. They all have 2-way radio headsets to talk to the drivers.
Stepping off the elevator, I’m treated with these amazing views.
One of the cooler features of the Tower is the glass floor.
It’s 22 stories tall, 250 feet high, a little breezy, and surprisingly stable. It’s not that I was expecting it to sway back and forth, but it felt as planted as a 22-story office building. The Porsches are taking to the track for a quick 20 minute qualifying session. It’s a fantastic perspective watching the cars from this high up.
The Porsche GT3 Cup qualifying is over and the V8 Supercars will be taking to the track shortly. When I took the quick trip up the elevator to the top of the Tower, again, I was told I’d have 15-20 minutes before being ushered back down. Looking around, there are only about 12-15 people on the observation deck with me, and no one telling me it’s time to go. I move over to the side overlooking the Turn 15 complex and take in the V8 qualifying.
I settle in next to a gentleman wearing a Stone Brothers/SP Tools V8 shirt and we start talking Texas, V8 racing, the cars, the track and all things racing. By now the cars are taking to the track and I want to get some footage of the cars trying to set a fast time for Race 1 later on today.
You can hear Glenn sharing some of his knowledge with this V8 rookie.
I take a few more photos, but our conversation is too enjoyable to be stuck behind the viewfinder.
Glenn and I swap V8 stories of what I’ve seen on TV and what he’s seen in person. He asks me if I saw the incident from Sydney last year where Shane Van Gisbergen’s steering column broke and he collided with the medical car. I have seen it and it’s one of the more bizarre incidents I’ve seen in racing.
Glenn goes on to tell me he was at that race and was lucky enough to be down in the pits after that incident. While the team is rebuilding the car, he strikes up a conversation with one of the mechanics and asks what they’ll do with the damaged door. After a quick handshake, Glenn owns one of the more unique souvenirs I’ve seen.
All the way from Dapto, NSW – south of Sydney – Glenn and his family are in town for the race, obviously, but he’s also on an amazing cross country motorcycle trip. 14 days and 3,000 miles on a motorcycle through the Colorado/Canadian Rocky Mountains. On one hand, he’s riding through some absolutely beautiful parts of the country, on the other, it sounds completely mad.
Checking our watches, the first qualifying is done and qualifying for Race 2 will begin shortly. What was supposed to be 15-20 minutes in the Tower has turned into almost an hour and a half where I had the pleasure of meeting Glenn and adding another race friend to my experiences. Glenn, it was a genuine pleasure to spending time with you up in the tower. Good luck on your next ride and hopefully our paths will cross again soon.
We shake hands and make our way down the 419 stairs to the ground. About halfway down, the cars are making their way round and I have a great view of Turn 1.
Finally back on solid ground, it’s time to get something to eat. I’ve got about 3 hours before the first V8 race, so I’ve got lots of time to kill. Based on the recommendation of Tessa and the crew this morning, I seek out and find a food truck serving Australian meat pies. A hand-held, meat filled chicken pot pie. I got a fajita chicken/pepper filled pie and it was quite good. Finishing lunch, a three-some asks if they can share the table. I tell them I’m finishing up and the table is all theirs. I ask where they’re from and they all reply “Australia!!!” and proceed to laugh hysterically. Alas, it isn’t the first time I heard that joke, and unfortunately, it won’t be the last time over the course of the weekend.
It’s hotter than usual for this time of year and I’m doing my best to stay hydrated and in the shade as much as possible. The first V8 race isn’t until 3:15, so to keep us entertained, the Pirelli World Challenge is holding a round of their GT/GTS championship. Cars ranging from exotics such as the Audi R8, Nissan GTR, Mercedes SLS and the Cadillac CTS-V.R to race-prepped everyday cars like the new Chevy Camaro, Acura TL, and the Ford Mustang. It’s not exactly the type of racing I was hoping to see, but it’s racing nonetheless.
Where I’m standing in-between Turns 19 and 20, it’s dusty, hot, and completely void of shade so I head back to near my seats where I find some trees and get a quick reprieve from the heat.
The track is now silent as the Pirelli GT/GTS race is over. Race 1 of the Austin 400 will begin shortly. The 2-day race weekend is broken up into four 100 kilometer races – two today and two tomorrow. I’m not used to these sprint races, but it’ll be interesting to see four unique races. I’m back at my seats and before I know it, we’re off and running.
Here are my favorite pictures from Races 1 and 2 both won by Jaime Whincup.
When we arrived at the track this morning, Bobby, Phil, Hazel and I all agreed that we’d call it a day after the second V8 race and skip the final Porsche GT3 race. Race 2 is winding down and I want to get out of the sun and get the car cooled off before everyone gets there. I’m back at the car in no time and Andy’s new loaner truck has first-class air conditioning and it’s cooled off rather quickly. I am, however, spent.
Race 2 is over and here comes the crowd. I scan the parking lot for my guests and I spot Phil and Hazel. We get their equipment loaded up in the back and I’m just about to shut the rear gate when Bobby comes walking up. He’s a nice shade of lobster red from his day in the sun. Even though everyone sprayed on 100 SPF, I think Bobby underestimated the Texas sun. I get a text from Ian and David – they’re taking a taxi home and will take a taxi back to the track in the morning. Ok, that just made tomorrow that much easier.
On our way back we discuss tomorrow’s schedule. Phil and Hazel want to get to the track early-ish for an autograph session. Considering I how tired I am and the fact I have to drive home tomorrow night, I tell the crew I’ll pick them up in the morning, get them to the track where we’ll pick a rendezvous spot, head home to relax before heading back to the track for the return trip home. It’s all settled. I head back to Emily’s where I shower, order a pizza, and call it a night.
Sunday – College Lacrosse and V8 Racing
After a good night’s rest, I’m up and at the Hyatt in no time. Waiting for me out front are Phil and Hazel. No sign of Bobby. I call his room but no answer. Phil and Hazel want to get to the track now and Bobby knows the plan, so we hit the road. With very little traffic, we get to the track quickly and make our way into the parking lot where we find a lot marker and designate that as our rally point. Phil and Hazel are on their way and I’m headed back to Emily’s.
At Emily’s, it’s your typical lazy Sunday morning at the Garrigan residence. Lily and Cam are up and moving about with Emily sitting at her laptop finishing some work and Andy lazing on the couch. We’re watching something random on TV, when Andy switches it over to ESPN for the second round of the college lacrosse playoffs. As long as I’ve known Andy, he’s been a lacrosse coach. From high school club teams, to private summer lessons, to eventually being named the University of Texas lacrosse club head coach earlier this year, it’s been a long time for Andy to finally get the recognition he deserves. Andy’s taught me a thing or two about the sport and I genuinely enjoy watching lacrosse. Today is Duke/Notre Dame and Denver/North Carolina. I don’t remember much about the Duke/ND game, but the Denver/North Carolina game was awesome. Denver was down 8-1 or something like that when they went on a ferocious comeback to win the game 12-11. As cool as that was, this is a racing report, not a lax report.
It’s about noon when I call back to Bobby’s room. This time he answers and I tell him my plan for the day. He was a bit spent from yesterday’s activities and decided to sleep in. And when you consider the races aren’t starting till 3:00, we’re not missing much. I tell him I’ll pick him up around 2 and we’ll be there in time to catch the first race. Done. So I get some lunch – and learn the magical qualities of crock pot cooking – and we watch some more lacrosse.
Right at 2:00, Bobby is waiting out front and we make our way to the track. I park as close to our rally point as possible and we head in. Just as we enter the gates, we’re treated to another flyover, this time right down the main straight, a B-25 Mitchell flanked by three T-6 Texans. Bobby makes his way up Turn 1 and I set up camp just past the start/finish line – I’m not about to make the walk up to Turn 15 again.
It’s not long before the V8’s are on-track for their warm up. Race 3 is moments away.
It’s again blistering hot, so I don’t take many photos, but here are my favorites from Races 3 and 4.
The cars fly past me one after one. There isn’t much to see from my vantage point and there isn’t a whole lot of action into Turn 1 – not as much as at the Turn 15 complex – but the one thing that stays with me: the sound. The deep throaty growl of these engines, especially being this close, is amazing. Turn your speakers up.
Fabian Coulthard finally broke through and won Race 3 while Jaime Whincup returned to the top step of the podium for Race 4. In between Races 3 and 4, I got up to get some shade and a bite to eat. While chowing down on a burrito wrap, I struck up a conversation with another Australian. I asked what he thought of the track, the race, Austin, and his overall experiences being here in Texas. He loved the track and was quite impressed. He was a little disappointed in the race action; he thought they were too passive. He understood why they held back, but it wasn’t what he was used to. He has thoroughly enjoyed his time in Austin. The locals were more than helpful getting him around town and telling him what to see and do. He couldn’t have been more engaging. We chatted for a while until it was time for the final race to begin. We bid each other safe travels and went back to our seats.
Race 4 is about halfway over and I need to get back to the car – both to get out of the heat and get the car cooled off the the group. Bobby makes his way to the car without issue and we drive to our designated spot. Just as we get there, Phil and Hazel are flagging me down. Perfect timing. On our way back up 130, we’re passed by a Mustang “racing” with a Ferrari 458 – it wasn’t even close. But it was funny to watch the Mustang try to keep up. We get back to the hotel and exchange handshakes and business cards. It was a great weekend spent with some new friends. I genuinely enjoyed my time with Bobby, Phil and Hazel.
I get back to Emily’s for a much needed shower. I pack up my stuff and I’m on the road by 7 and home 3 hours later. Part of me is glad to be home, the other part wishes I’d stayed the night and left in the morning; I’m exhausted.
Looking back on the race weekend, some things were great, others need some major rethinking for next year. I absolutely loved the V8 cars and the people I met. Just seeing a different style of racing than what I’ve previously experienced was well worth the trip. The track was, again, brilliant. The Australians I interacted with were fantastic. The schedule, however, was poorly done. This was a V8 Supercars race weekend but there was more racing from the support races than the actual V8s. In the grand scheme of things, there was far too much time in between the V8s being on-track. Qualifying at 11 and then the race 4 hours later? I don’t know who did the scheduling, but that was far too long to wait for the main event. Sure there were support races to keep us entertained. But I wasn’t there to see Minis race Civics or even the beautiful R8 versus the SLS. Granted, had it not been as hot as it was, my opinion might be different. Looking back on the schedule, on Saturday and Sunday, the V8 cars were actually on the track for around 2 hours a day – 4 hours total! The other series combined were on-track for 3 hours on Sunday alone! I understand why they did this, but, come on. I hope I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Scheduling issues aside, the race weekend was a success. With Jaime Whincup winning 3 of the 4 races in front of over 68,000 fans for the entire 3-day event. Granted, that’s not F1’s 250,000+ for 3 days, but it’s still pretty good. Currently, there are scheduling conflicts between the V8 series and the ESPN Summer X-Games being held at COTA in 2014, but I’m sure they’ll work it out in the coming months.
I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the V8 racing and the people I encountered. From my GPT guests to Glenn and other random Australians I met and interacted with over the weekend, I loved every minute of it. While I am excited about the ALMS/WEC race weekend next month as well as the return of F1 in November, I am equally excited about the return of V8 to American shores next year and I look forward to catching up with new friends and making many more.
With my Le Mans report published, and having recently returned from COTA for the V8 Supercars Austin 400 – where I learned it’s been 6 months since this race, I can now finalize my USGP report.
For the first time since 2007, Formula 1 racing is back in the United States. Our host for the first time in 5 years is the brand new, purpose-built Circuit of the Americas down in Austin, Texas. The return of F1 to the US soil has not been an easy road – for neither the race organizers nor the location.
The USGP raced for 20 years at Watkins Glen, from 1961 to 1980. Since then, the USGP has been held in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Detroit, and my home town of Dallas, Texas. I actually went to the race weekend here in Dallas almost 30 years ago when F1 visited in 1984. My father took me down to the make-shift track in Fair Park, near downtown where the Cotton Bowl is and the home of the Texas State Fair. Fletcher’s corn dogs, prize pigs, Texas/OU, and Ayrton Senna…they all go together so naturally, don’t they? Mix in the fact they held the race in August, the hottest month of the year for Dallas where temperatures are routinely above 100 Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) , and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Keke Rosberg won the one and only USGP held in Dallas which is famous for Nigel Mansell not only earning his first pole position but also pushing his car across the finish line where he promptly collapsed from heat exhaustion. Before the race, the drivers were putting aluminium foil on the top of their helmets to reflect the heat.
After that debacle, the USGP was held in Phoenix, another town known for it’s extreme heat. From 1989 to 1991, F1 raced through the buildings of Downtown Phoenix. My good friend, and fellow Le Mans visitor, Jim sent me these pictures he took from the 1990 race. Recognize anyone special?
From 1992 to 1999, there was no US Grand Prix. In 2000, USGP was held at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway – home of the Indianapolis 500. Raced on a infield anti-clockwise road course, the track was widely regarded by both fans and drivers as “uninspiring” and “dull”. Sure, there was quite the celebration when F1 returned for the first time since 1991, it still had a forced, round peg in a square hole feel to it. Mix in the Ferrari “photo finish” in 2002 and the Michelin tire controversy in 2005 that resulted in only 6 cars racing, and you’ve got a sour taste in your mouth if you’re a F1 fan in the United States – or the world, for that matter. Ultimately, it was announced in 2007 that the IMS could no longer afford to host the USGP and F1 departed our shores. Both fans and F1 management were happy to see an end to what felt like a shotgun wedding.
So, how in the world did F1 wind up in a sleepy central Texas town? Tavo Hellmund, that’s how. Tavo Hellmund is an Austin native and son of Gustavo Hellmund-Rojas. Gustavo Hellmund-Rojas was responsible for getting F1 to return to Mexico City where they raced at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez from 1986 to 1992. Tavo spent some time in Europe competing in the British Formula Three Championship in the mid-90’s as well as SCCA sanctioned events here in the States. Because of his father’s working relationship with Bernie Ecclestone, Tavo developed a friendship with Bernie. With outside investors and funds approved from the state of Texas, Bernie announced in May of 2010 a deal with Tavo, and his group Full Throttle Promotions, for F1 to return to the United States. From that announcement, however, to the start of construction in December 2010 and the waving of the checkered flag in November 2012, there were more plot twists than a mystery novel. Here’s a quick timeline of the events that transpired.
May 2010: Texas State Comptroller announces the approval to release $25M to fund Bernie’s travelling circus. A few weeks later, Bernie announces a deal with Full Throttle Productions to bring F1 to the US.
December 2010: The track design is approved by the FIA and construction begins.
April 2011: The circuit is officially named The Circuit of the Americas.
November 2011: Bernie publicly doubts Austin will happen. The track owners claim they do not have a contract to host the race and construction is halted. Panic ensues.
From May 2010 to November 2011, things looked good. So what happened to make things go sideways?
Money and politics.
One of Tavo’s outside investor was billionaire Texas oilman Red McCombs. Bernie and F1 signed a deal with Tavo’s group Full Throttle Productions, not with Red. Red and other investors wanted controlling power of the race and how to run it. Tavo wouldn’t give it to him. Why would he? Tavo negotiated the deal with Bernie, Tavo sketched out the original design of the track, and Tavo put together the investment group. But Red followed the Golden Rule: he with the gold makes the rules. Tavo was forced out. But Bernie still held all the cards. Technically, he didn’t have to negotiate with anyone else. Red and his group wanted a new contract. Eventually, a new deal was signed between Bernie and Red. A lawsuit followed shortly thereafter between Tavo and Red. Ultimately, it would be settled out of court. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but that’s business.
Construction resumed in early December 2011 after a new deal was struck between Bernie and Red. Construction crews worked day and night until the track’s certification in September 2012. They even had the ability to build the track 24 hours a day – something they never had to do.
While all of this is going on, I’m still planning my trip down to Austin. With Austin only a 3 hour drive south, it’s not like I would be put out if they cancelled the race. So while all the political and financial back-room dealings continued, I kept talking with my good friend Tessa with Grand Prix Tours.
In the months and weeks leading up to the race, I was, for the lack of a better word, the Grand Prix Tours Texas representative. We’d chat weekly, if not daily, about what to do, where to go, restaurants, nightlife, all things Austin. She’s ask a question, I’d drop a note to my sister Emily, who lives in Austin and would give me an answer, and I’d relay that back to Tessa. Slowly, over the course of a few weeks, various details were hammered out.
Through our e-mail conversations, I asked about the possibility of a couple of open seats on one of their tour buses. I was looking to hitch a ride for me and Dad during the race weekend. At first, Tessa didn’t think their’d be room. Slowly, as the GPT group grew, and additional buses were needed, there might be room. And then I got a note from Tessa asking if I’d be willing to help. I’d have a spot on a bus, but I’d be a GPT representative responsible for their clients and directing the bus to and from the track. I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve done two trips with Trevor to Le Mans. How hard can it be? Considerably more difficult than I could have imagined. But we’ll get to that shortly.
Wednesday – The drive down, FOTA, and finally meeting friends.
I’m packed and on the road down to Austin. I have an event with FOTA – Formula One Team Association – for a fan forum. It’s being held in the new downtown Austin Hilton. Tessa was kind enough to get me on the invite list. Somewhere between Waco and Temple, I start thinking about some a recent text between me and Jim in Atlanta.
When my tickets arrived, they were generic gray tickets with bar codes at the bottom, like the kind you’d get for a concert. I found it odd, but chalked it up to the fact I bought my tickets so long ago, they hadn’t been given the proper design yet. I shot Jim a text with a picture of my tickets and Jim responded with a picture of his tickets. Jim’s were quite fancy with a F1 car on them and were substantially larger in size. And then it occurred to me: I’VE LEFT MY TICKETS IN THEIR ENVELOPE ON MY ENTRY-WAY TABLE AT HOME. Crap. Well, it’s Wednesday, and I don’t need them until Friday, we can get this sorted out. I call mom, who has a key to the house. I explain the situation, tell her where the tickets are, and ask that she get them to dad where he can FedEx them to Emily for Thursday delivery and I’ll have them for Friday. Crisis averted.
So I get to the new Downtown Hilton without issue and find the parking garage. Making my way into the lobby, the Caterham F1 team has a car on display.
It’s about 4:30 and I have an hour to kill before the forum begins. I make my way to the bar where I enjoy a nice Le Mans favorite: Woodford Reserve on the rocks. There are two gentlemen from the Portland area just down from me who are also headed to the FOTA event. We chat about Austin, the track, and the upcoming events of the weekend. And like that, an hour has passed. They settle their tab and make their way to the elevators. I’m shortly behind them. I grab the next elevator where a gentleman is standing with several credentials around his neck.
He asks me if I’m in town for the race and where I’m from.
“Oh yea, I have a house up in Allen.”
He hands me his card. Geoff Moore, Chief Marketing Officer with Circuit of the Americas. He used to be with the Dallas Stars and moved to take a new position with COTA. We chat for a while in the lobby where we’re approached by another gentleman. I can’t remember his name, but Geoff comments he’s glad this gentleman finally made it. I ask if he had troubles. 24+ hours of travel and he’s just now getting to the hotel. Flight delays and incorrect directions from his in-car GPS led from one setback to another. I joke that I shouldn’t comment on my 3-hour drive down from Dallas. He just shakes his head and laughs. The event is starting shortly. We shake hands and I make my way inside.
Up front is a stage with microphones. Shortly, Geoff takes the mic, introduces himself, makes a brief statement before he turns it over to our host for the evening: SpeedTV on-track commentator Will Buxton. Will is having some issues with his lapel-mic, but he makes due the best he can. He introduces us to the first panel: Sam Michael, Sporting Director at McLaren F1 Team, Nick Fry, CEO of Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, Robert Fernley, Deputy Principal at Force India F1 Team, and Graeme Lowdon, CEO of Marussia F1 Team.
They take questions from the audience and discuss matters ranging from a salary cap, tire management, the track, the season, and the upcoming race. And like that, an hour has flown by.
Soon thereafter, Will Buxton announces the next group: Heikki Kovalainen, Finnish Driver for the Caterham F1 Team, Alexander Rossi, US Test Driver for the Caterham F1 Team, and Esteban Gutierrez, Mexican Test Driver for the Sauber F1 Team. The drivers chat about their path to F1, their racing history, and future plans. Just like with the first panel, another hour has flown by.
I get a text from Tessa that she and Cherry are down in the hotel lobby bar. I make my way to the bar where we finally meet face to face. 2+ years of e-mail and the occasional phone call and we finally meet in person. It’s like catching up with an old friend. She introduces me to Cherry, her Grand Prix Tour coworker and someone else I’ve actually spoken with at GPT. We chit-chat for a while before we decide to grab a bite to eat.
Based on Emily’s recommendation, we cross the street to Carmelo’s Restaurant. Housed in the old Austin Hotel Depot, the building dates back to the 1870’s and is an historic landmark. Over dinner, we discuss the weekend plans and our time table. After dinner, they ask what’s a fun place to go and have a good time. Checking my map, we’re a block off 6th Street – the Austin party/bar scene – and I find an old favorite: Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar. But before we make our way there, it’s time for some happy fun-time pictures.
Pete’s is packed. Tessa gets us drinks while Cherry and I secure a table. There’s a very international crowd in here. We all laugh at the two pianists and their banter back and forth as well as their song selection. The highlight of the night was their cover of the 1995 Dutch remake “Alice”, where the singers laments: “For 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice”. Whereupon the crowd responds with: “Alice!?! Who the fuck is Alice?!?” It’s great. We finish our drinks and call it a night. I’m beat from travelling and ready to get some rest.
Thursday – Lunch and Dinner with Friends.
There’s nothing planned for Thursday outside of grabbing lunch with my buddy John Greenwood and dinner with the full GPT team at the Driskill Hotel. John and I used to work together when he lived in Dallas, but he and his smokin’ hot wife moved to Austin a few years ago. He’s a LSU graduate (if there is such a thing) and we have a running LSU/Arkansas football bet. Arkansas lost in 2011 and I owe him lunch and we need to renew the bet for the upcoming game. He works for Frost Bank downtown so I meet him at his office. We walk down the block to The Roaring Fork where we saddle up to the bar and order lunch. We catch up for a bit before he starts asking all sorts of F1 and track related questions. He admits he’s a bit curious about the weekend’s festivities, but he also admits he knows next to nothing about the drivers, the cars, or the sport. I tell him what I know and how these cars compare to NASCAR and Indy. Finishing up, we head back to the Frost Tower with another Hog/Tiger bet in place – one that I predictably lost. I putz around for a bit before heading back to Emily’s house to get ready for dinner. I’m joining Tessa, Cherry, and two other “free agents” of Grand Prix Tours for dinner at the Driskill Hotel.
Built in 1886, the Driskill Hotel is not only on of Austin’s historical landmarks, but also home to one of Austin’s finest restaurants. I find Cherry and Tessa upstairs in the bar and we’re quickly joined by Mike Merriman from England and Tony from New Jersey. Mike is an Englishman who works for another racing tour group based in England and Tony has his own business on the East coast and has worked with Grand Prix Tours in the past. Both are in town to help Tessa, Cherry and GPT owner Barry guide the tour group.
Looking over the wine menu – something I’m quite comfortable with thanks to Mom and Dad as well as Anne and Francois – I spot a personal favorite. I make a deal with the table, I’ll buy the wine, but you guys are buying my food. They all agree and I order a bottle we jokingly call “House of Candy”.
After some fantastic dinner, excellent wine, and wonderful conversation we switch into work mode. Tessa hands us all packages with our itineraries. Tessa quickly shoots me a text and tells me not to pull out what’s in my bag and not to say anything – I give her a knowing nod. We go over our timing, our hotel assignments, and our guest rosters. I’m to be at the downtown Omni by 7:30, valet my car, meet Cherry in the lobby, and lead my group out to the track. Simple enough. But as I’ve said before, easier said than done. We finish up and call it a night.
Friday – Practice (both for the cars and for me).
I’m up and dressed in my new official Grand Prix Tours shirt. Out the door and I’m at the Omni in no time. Originally, my nephew Cameron was set to joing me out at the track. Unfortunately, he didn’t make his grades and, alas, he wasn’t allowed to join me. Reluctantly, my sister took his place. She’s dropped off my niece at school and is about 10 minutes behind me. Cherry is waiting for both of us in the lobby and introductions are made. Slowly, several members of the Ferrari team start gathering in the lobby. Various mechanics and engineers as well as Ferrari test driver – and 2009 Le Mans winner – Marc Gene are standing 10 feet from me. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone up to him and introduced myself. Several of our GPT guests make their way to our table and ask about our departure time. We’re just waiting on the bus and the rest of our group. It’s 8:00 and no sign of our bus. I have the driver’s phone number so I give him a call and ask where he is. He’s still at the depot. Crap. I hand the phone to Cherry and she tells him to get his butt in gear and to the Omni ASAP. Cherry calls and gets one of our other buses to the Omni and we load up about 20 of our 50 guests. A dreadfully long 30 minutes later, our bus arrives and we load up. Based on information we’ve been given from track representatives, we’re told to expect about a 2 hour journey into the track and a 3 hour return trip home. A father and son ask how long it’ll take to get to the track and I give him the grave update that we’re most likely going to miss the first F1 practice.
We’re taking the 183 Highway to the west of the airport versus the tollway on the east side. And just like that, the track is right in front of us. We actually pass one of our other buses exiting off the 130 tollway. We’re in the parking lot and as our guests are exiting the bus, the glorious sound of F1 engines firing up as the cars take to the track fills the air. A 2 hour prediction turned into closer to 45 minutes.
Everybody unloads and makes their way to the track. Part of the package Tessa gave me last night were two tickets to the exclusive VIP Paddock Club located above the pits. These are not your typical tickets, these puppies are hard plastic with microchips inside – very high tech. Those of us with these VIP tickets board a shuttle bus that takes us beneath the track to the paddock area. We scan our tickets and make our way upstairs. Wow. The Paddock Club is broken out into large, private suites. Each with their own balcony overlooking the track. We find our suite and make our way inside. F1 practice is over and the F1 Classics have taken to the track. Just beneath us are the garages for the teams. We can feel the vibrations from the engines on our feet.
Stepping out onto the balcony seats, we’re treated to an exceptional view.
The backside of the Paddock Club looks out over the support facilities and the iconic tower.
The F1 Classic cars are on-track and it’s a cool trip down memory lane.
While in our private suite, we were treated to a fabulous buffet lunch and two special treats. For our first treat, a local artist was painting an Austin F1-themed piece that would be auctioned off later in the day.
After lunch, we were treated with a question and answer with a living legend: Sir Jackie Stewart himself.
We were seated in the back of the room, near the track, and the speakers were struggling against the roar the F1 engines below. He spoke about how wonderful he thought it was that F1 was back on US soil, the safety improvements in the sport, and his time behind the wheel. I wish I could have heard more of his Scottish accent, but just being in the same room with him was special enough for me.
After Sir Jackie left, we’re told, because of our VIP passes, we’d get to walk the pit lane and get to see the cars and teams up-close and personal. Almost immediately, we’re told cameras would not be allowed. A bit disappointing, but I wasn’t going to try to sneak my camera down to the pit and then be told I had to take it back upstairs. We file outside and get in line to be let onto the pit lane. We make our way though the gate and almost immediately we hear someone yelling “Garrigan!”. Off to our left is a friend of Emily and Andy’s, Dr. Drew Fielder, chief trama surgeon at Brackenridge Hospital. He’s the acting chief medical officer at the track for the weekend. After some quick introductions and conversation, he offers to take our picture.
We say goodbye and proceed to take in the pitlane tour. The first thing I notice: everyone has cameras. Damn. Looking back, not having my camera isn’t such a bad thing. Too often, I’m stuck on the other side of the lens, and not really taking in all that I can. So, this isn’t really a bad thing. We are down on the pitlane and quite close to the cars and teams. We get down to the Lotus pit where there’s a crowd gathered. The team is graciously showing off one of their steering wheels. Emily takes a hold of it and has a great smile on her face. She passes it to me. It is feather-light – around than three pounds in weight. And when you consider the average cost of a F1 steering wheel is around $50,000, it’s a shocking what I’m holding. I hand it back to the Lotus engineer and congratulate her for Kimi’s win at the last round in Abu Dhabi where we got the wonderful Kimi radio comments to his engineers: “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” and ” Yes, yes, yes. I’m doing all the time. You don’t have to remind me every second.” Great stuff. Upon handing back the steering wheel, we run into another one of Emily’s friends. We chit chat for a while before our tour is over and we’re ushered off the track. What an amazing experience.
We head back to our suite and grab my pack, we’re going to take a tour of the track. We’re inside turns 2-3-4 and outside turns 16-17-18, just opposite the observation tower. It’s an incredible structure.
We cross the track on one of the two pedestrian bridges. They’ve put up tarps on either side of the bridge to prevent people from stopping bridge traffic and watching the cars. The tarp, however, isn’t very tall nor is it hard to pull down and view some of the action. I grab a few shots and this video of the cars out of turn 15 and screaming beneath us.
We get a good idea of where my seats are for tomorrow and begin our walk back to the Paddock Club. Just opposite the tower, a group of gentlemen are walking towards us. I immediately recognize one of the gentlemen as Tavo Hellmund himself. At that moment, one of the gentlemen speaks up “Emily Garrigan?” It’s Emily’s friend – and Tavo’s attorney – Casey Dobson. Quick introductions are made, but Tavo and the other gentlemen are a few paces away. I was a bit taken aback and I really wish I’d asked for an introduction just so I could have thanked Tavo for his hard work and tell him how pleased I am with what was his project.
We head back to the Paddock Club where we settle in and watch the rest of the practice sessions and take in the people watching and the free champagne. Our day is winding down and it’s time for us to head back to the buses. We get back and find our bus, catch up with Tessa and the other GPT group. While our bus this morning was only picking up from the Omni, our return bus is filled with guests from the Omni, Four Seasons, and the Hyatt. I have no idea where the Four Seasons is and a vague clue where the Hyatt is. Emily steps up to the plate and promptly hits it out of the park. She tells the driver where to go, how to get there and what do to.
We’re loaded up and on our way out. Going back to this morning, our bus was late and we only loaded up about 30 people. On our way back into Austin, Tessa texts me and asks how many I had on my bus this morning and how many I have on my bus now. I have no clue how many I had this morning. I was in a panic about the late bus I failed to take a head count. Without knowing how many we had this morning, there’s no way to know how many – exactly – we were taking home. Big foul up on my part. Add that in with a few other minor things I didn’t do this morning, and my first time as a GPT staffer isn’t exactly going according to plan. The traffic out is a breeze and we’re back in downtown Austin in about an hour. Thanks to Emily, we get everyone back to their hotels and in good shape. Good job sis!
We head back to Emily’s house and settle in. It’s been a long day and we have a long day tomorrow. Dad is flying in tonight and the three of us – me, Emily, and Dad – are supposed to have dinner tonight, but I’m beat and decide to stay in. Em picks up dad, they have a nice father/daughter dinner and get home. I make sure we’re all packed and good to go for tomorrow. We have to be out the door by 6:30 AM, so it’s not a late night and we all turn in.
Saturday morning – Qualifying.
After a good night’s rest, we’re up, dressed, and out the door. Just as we get to the car, Tessa calls to check in. We’re on route – this time to the Hyatt. We park, catch Tessa and Cherry out front, and set up shop in the lobby. Our bus arrives on-time and with a roster, I take a head count and we head out without issue. Just as we’re leaving the parking lot, I get a call from Tessa, another bus hasn’t show up at the Omni. We make our way there and pick up a few stragglers including GPT chief Barry. Not quite silky smooth, but we’re finally off.
We take a different route to the track than yesterday – this time we’re on the new 130 tollroad – but just like yesterday, we make it to the track in less than an hour. We unload at the front gate, point to where the buses will be this afternoon and we’re off. Yesterday, Emily and I didn’t get to see much of the track, and considering this is dad’s first time at COTA, we decide to climb the hill and check out Turn One. It’s a crisp Hill Country morning keeping the temperatures down, but the uphill climb is enough to get me sweating. But the view is more than worth it.
We continue our climb.
We crest the hill outside of Turn One and watch some of the action as the cars scream downhill though Turns 2, 3, and 4. It’s a great spectacle watching the cars flow past us.
We get to the first pedestrian bridge, crossing the track where we get a great view overlooking the Esses.
It’s about 10:30 and I get a text from Jim and Kris – my Le Mans friends from Atlanta – they want to catch up. We make arrangements to meet up near the reflecting pool on the backside of the Tower and the Amphitheater. Dad and I find a spot and a short time later, I feel the grasp of two strong hands on my shoulders. It’s Jim and Kris! The four of us give each other hugs and catch up. It’s close to noon and time to find something to eat.
Surrounding the pool are food trucks and various food stands ranging from BBQ to hot dogs to pizza to burgers and beers from around the world. We all get what we want and find a place on the lawn where, over good food and great conversation, we enjoy lunch. And like that, it’s time for F1 qualifying. We’ve made plans to get together for dinner tonight, so we say our goodbyes and head off to our seats. Jim and Kris are over looking Turns 3-4-5 while Dad and I have our seats a short walk away in the Turn 15 complex. It’s a quick walk to our seats where we finally get a chance to take in our surroundings.
The Turn 15 complex is a wonderful collection of turns similar to the stadium complex at Hockenheim in Germany. The cars exit Turn 11 at the far end of the track before rocketing off down the main straight where they’ll near 200 MPH. They’ll be hard on the breaks towards us into Turn 12 where we’ll get our first glimpse of the cars. Out of Turn 12 and through Turns 13, 14, 15 and into 16, we’ll get a great view of the cars in action.
It’s time and the cars are on the track. Immediately in front of us are a timing tower and a jumbotron showing the international feed.
The cars scream by us, creating this wonderful symphonic melody as the cars move up through the gearbox.
Q1 is out done and the usual backmarkers are eliminated. Q2 has come and gone, and again, nothing to write home about. Q3 was again without surprise. Sebastian Vettel sets pole with the fastest lap of the weekend – 1:35.6 – easily 2 seconds faster than they were lapping yesterday. Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber round out top 3. The surprise was Romain Grosjean out-qualifying his teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Romain would suffer a 5-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox, but still, pretty impressive considering the season he’s had so far.
We stick around and watch the Ferrari Challenge and Porsche Cup practice before heading back to the buses. We get everyone loaded up and with a firm headcount in hand, we head back to Austin. Dad and I are meeting Jim and Kris tonight for dinner – something that’s become sort of tradition with the four of us.
We’re back at Emily’s house in no time where we’re quickly showered, changed, and back out the door on our way to Jasper’s in The Dominion. The Dominion is a wonderful mixed-use multifamily/retail development filled with shops and restaurants. We find the place and grab our table. Jim and Kris are right behind us. Dinner was quite good in spite of the less than stellar service. Given the activities of the day, however, as dinner wore on, our conversation became less and less as the four of us are winding down at the table. It’s time for some much needed rest. We call it a night and head home. What started out as a quick introduction in France 18 months ago, has become a wonderful friendship that I truly cherish.
Sunday – Race Day.
After some much needed rest, Dad and I are again out the door and at the Hyatt. Our bus driver from yesterday, Richard, pulls up right on time. Everyone knows what to do and where to go. We’re loaded up on the bus without issue and on our way to the track. Today is a full day. Yesterday, Dad and I went up to Turn 1 and made our way around the track. Today, we make a direct line around Turn 20 and behind the Tower to our seats. Again, it’s a wonderfully crisp morning and we spend the morning just enjoying the track and it’s wonderful facilities.
We have our two support races right off the bat. The Pirelli GT3 Porsche Cup followed by the Ferrari Challenge.
With the support races done, it’s lunch time. We need to get some lunch and we have some time to kill. We get up and begin to explore the grounds around the Tower. I can’t tell you how impressive this structure is.
We stroll around the grounds for an hour or so, just checking out the scene. Vendors booths, manufacturers booths, team booths, there are souvenirs galore all around us. We waste some time before we head back to out seats. The drivers parade is about to start.
Riding around in classic American convertibles, the drivers make their way past us, waving.
Over the loud speaker, we hear Greg Kramer announce the flyover. At first, looking around, we don’t see anything. But at the last second, here comes the formation with a P-38 Lightning in the lead, with 2 P-51 Mustangs on either wing and a F-16 Fighting Falcon taking up the rear.
It’s not long now before the safety cars tour the circuit, tires screeching as they make sure all is right with the track. It’s about to get serious, but before it does, a bit of levity from the track marshals.
Almost immediately in front of us, there is some loud tapping. Even over the hum of the crowd, you can hear this rhythmic tapping. Looking up, one of the marshals is tapping/banging his flag on the Armco barrier. He screams out loud: “1! 2! 3!” and raises his hands. Another few taps followed by a louder “1! 2! 3!!!” and he raises his hands again. This time the crowd gets it.
The grand American sporting tradition…The Wave.
And before we know it, they’re off.
The race action is amazing. The track-side speakers do a wonderful job relaying the action over the scream of the engines. All is pretty much normal until lap 17, when Mark Webber’s RB8 breaks down right in front of us with what would later be diagnosed as an alternator failure.
Again, the race continues with the action is playing out right in front of us. With Vettel in the lead and Hamilton close behind things are playing out accordingly.
And then they start lap 42. Vettel has caught up with backmarker Narain Karthikeyan in the Esses and is unable to pass him. This allows Lewis Hamilton to close the gap. And with the long straight from Turn 11 to Turn 12, that includes the DRS (Drag Reduction System) zone that allows the trailing driver to open a flap in his rear wing giving him less drag, and thus higher top speed, Hamilton is able to make the pass on Vettel going into Turn 12.
It wasn’t easy, but he made it stick. There are 10 laps remaining and still lots of time for Vettel to mount a comeback. Personally, I’m quite happy. Nothing against Vettel, but I have a soft spot for Lewis Hamilton. Back in 2007, I took Dad to Montreal for his 60th birthday. There we saw, then rookie driver, Lewis Hamilton take his first victory at the Grand Prix du Canada at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
The cars continue to scream past us. The great thing about our seats is the almost 6 corners right in front of us. And when you mix in the fact the leaders are lapping 2-3 seconds a lap faster than the slowest cars and the field is now quite spread out, we get cars racing in front of us for a good 30-40 seconds at a time. They just don’t flash past us and we have to wait another minute and a half for the next car, they’re always in front of us.
We’re nearing the checkered flag. 2 laps to go.
Three minutes later, it’s over. Lewis Hamilton wins the 2012 United States Grand Prix and the inaugural race at Circuit of The Americas!
With the race complete, we get the traditional congratulatory waving of the flags from the marshals.
Lewis takes his victory lap, and slowly cruises past us.
Dad and I stick around for a few minutes as the cars take their final lap. We say goodbye to our race neighbors and make our way back to the buses. It’s been another successful race. So successful, in fact, that in May 2013, the SportsBusiness Journal would name the United States Grand Prix the “Sports Event of the Year”. More than 250,000 fans visited the track over the three-day event. Quite impressive.
We make our way back to the buses. After rounding up everybody and getting them loaded on the bus, we bid farewell to Tessa and the rest of the GPT group before we head back to Austin. Just like yesterday, we drop off everyone at their hotels before heading back to Emily’s house. A quick shower, and we’re back on the road to Dallas. After a long day, the 3-hour drive home felt double that.
It was an incredible weekend at an amazing facility. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of the finest race tracks in the world. Nothing can compare to the event, the atmosphere, the cars, or the history of Le Mans. But Circuit of the Americas is the finest track I’ve ever visited. Turn 1, the Tower, the Turn 15 complex, it’s all simply brilliant. If you haven’t been, and you’re a race fan, you simply must go.
Sorry it took so long to get this report complete. I’ll get started on my V8 Supercars report shortly – that was another amazing race weekend where I had the pleasure of meeting some wonderfully friendly Australians. It’s only been 2 months since that race, but considering I have the ALMS/WEC race weekend in September, I can’t let my race reports get too backed up.
With two races down in Austin in the next 4 months – WEC and F1 – I’m planning those trips now. I need to start planning if I’m going back to Atlanta in October. With the merger of ALMS and Grand-Am, I fear Petit Le Mans could be a thing of the past and I need to go. My hope is that I finally get my media/photographer credentials for one of these races. If and when I do, you’ll know it.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the track.
Today is Tuesday, June 18th, 2013. The 90th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is 4 days from now. On Saturday, June 22nd, at 3:00, Jim France of NASCAR, and now United Sportscar Racing, will have the honor of waving the French tricolour to signify the start of the race. I’m not going to lie, I’m beginning to regret my decision not to go to this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. But, alas, here we are.
In preparation for this year’s race, I’ve gathered some thoughts and information that should help you, my loyal readers, know what to look for and what to expect.
Our two main heavy weights are Audi and Toyota. I based my decision on not going this year on the fact there aren’t any major rules changes from 2012 to 2013. But that doesn’t mean these two manufacturers haven’t made some substantial changes to their cars.
Audi rolled out their R-18 Longtail for better aerodynamics. You can see the difference here:
Successful at Silverstone and Spa, this updated machine is the one to beat.
Not to sit idly by, Toyota has been busy updating the 2013 TS030 for La Sarthe.
There’s nothing major in the LMP2, GTE-Pro, and GTE-Am classes. Porsche is fielding two new factory supported (not privateer) 991 cars. They’ll have their hands full against the battle-hardened Corvette C6.R, the Ferrari F458, and a fleet of Aston Martin Vantages – including the beautiful Art Car.
To help us know the cars we’re watching, Andy Blackmore finalized his 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans Spotters guides.
I’ve promised the Tenths boys I’ll be up early – 5AM – to share a drink with them while they meet. 3 hours later, I’ll be tuned into Speed and online to watch as much of the 24 Hours as I can. Can’t believe I’m missing this one, but that should make next year’s race that much more special. I’m in the final stages of finishing my US Grand Prix report and then I can start on my V8 Supercars report. Soon….
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.
Call it what you want. Buyout. Merger. Collapse. Future. Whatever it is, it is the future of American sportscar racing. Today the ALMS and Grand-AM held a joint press conference at the Daytona International Speedway. Here’s what we learned:
For 2013, the two series will operate independently. Starting with the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the series will operate under a unified format.
Jim France of NASCAR/Grand-AM will be director, ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz will be Vice Chairman, and ALMS President Scott Atherton will be on the board of directors of the new group.
Said Dr. Don Panoz: “I have the Le Mans virus in my blood”. They will be meeting with the ACO in the coming weeks.
This deal happened over a handshake on the golf course between Jim France and Dr. Don Panoz. For six months and 14 days this deal was kept under wraps. They originally made a run at a merger about 5 years ago, but the timing wasn’t right according to Scott Atherton. They dealt with several of the manufacturers for their input in this future endeavor. After the initial shock of seeing France and Panoz in the same room together, all the manufacturers were on-board with the proposed merger.
Ed Bennett, President and CEO of Grand-Am racing said overall, between the ALMS and Grand-AM, there are 8 series they govern. There are still details to be hammered out, but again, they’re all moving forward in the direction of what is best for all parties.
The future class structure is still being defined. Again, they’re still dealing directly with the manufacturers to come up with what works best for all parties. Not only are they looking to merge technologies in terms of the competitors, but they’re still working out the best in terms of scheduling. The 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona will be the initial race, and from there, it’s wide open. It’ll be a 12 race schedule with the flexibility for the teams to compete at Le Mans.
Dr. Panoz still wants the cars to be able to compete at Le Mans. There are ideas and issues that are on the table that have yet to be determined. They’re looking at solutions on giving the ALMS and Grand-AM competitors a common balance. If Dr. Panoz wants the cars to be able to compete at Le Mans, it looks like to me, that the Grand-AM GT competitors will become GTE competitors.
The merger has been discussed with the ACO. The ACO expressed interest in working with the new group.
One journalist on the floor questioned the commonalities of the two groups and sees nothing but a “minefield”. Sponsors, ACO, FIA, NASCAR, broadcasters, manufacturers (tire and auto), competitors…how do they overcome those issues? Mr. France and Dr. Panoz both said they know of these issues, but they have an open mind and lots of input from all those aspects and are working to resolve all those issues before the start of the 2014 season. Mr. Atherton spoke of “cross pollination and synergistic energies” that open up a whole new realm of possibilities that out weigh the issues.
Speaking of P1/LMP1, Dr. Panoz said that’s outside of what the ALMS/Grand-AM is considering. That class is for the manufacturers to develop on their own. There is room for both the Daytona Prototypes and LMP1 classes, but at this moment, it’s outside of their discussion. I’m sure this is something that’ll happen over the next few months as the new group works with groups like Audi, Toyota, and Porsche with regards to their 2014 prototype projects.
Speaking again of GT racing, Mr. Atherton and Mr. France both said the ALMS GT class is the basis and the Grand-AM GT class better step up to what the ALMS offers. Again, this sounds to me like the Grand-AM competitors have the next 18 months to update or acquire GT cars that can compete in the ALMS model and ultimately compete at Le Mans.
They’ve asked for patience, they’re all on the same page working towards a common goal – and I’m happy to hear – Le Mans is in that goal.
Following the conclusion of the press conference, we began receiving word from organizers, competitors and manufacturers.
From the current president of the ACO, Pierre Fillon:
The merger of these two championships, which was carried out with the approval of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, has become necessary to enable endurance racing to continue to evolve. In 2014, this branch of the sport will have a bigger calendar and high-quality fields. Everybody will benefit from this unified series: entrants in North America, drivers and fans. This rapprochement proves that Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s assessment of the situation is the right one, and one of its major initiatives is to reinforce the presence of endurance racing on the international scene. The foundation consists of three continental series: the European Le Mans Series, the Asian Le Mans Series and this North-American merger in 2014, which will make the base even stronger together with the FIA World Endurance Championship, while the summit of this pyramid remains the Le Mans 24 Hours. I’m happy to meet up with the new team directing this new series in the near future, and to start working with them on this North-American Championship.
Jamie Allison, Director Ford North America Motorsports
“Today’s announcement is a seismic moment in the sports car racing landscape. This is an event that is natural and will endear itself to all sports car enthusiasts, both in the U.S. and around the world. … We at Ford embrace and support this unification and look forward to working with the organization in the future.”
Mark Reuss, President, GM North America:
“This is an exciting moment in sports car racing. This merger combines the best attributes of GRAND-AM Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series to create a singularly focused series. Congratulations to Jim France and Dr. Don Panoz on having the passion for sports car racing and the vision to take it to the next level. The joining of these two series will provide a foundation for Chevrolet to develop technologies and race cars with tremendous relevancy to the production vehicles we sell today and in the future.”
Porsche Cars North America:
“Porsche Cars North America, Inc., one of the few auto manufacturers which has been involved with both ALMS and Grand-Am from the beginning of both series, is pleased that the primary sanctioning bodies for professional sports car racing in North America are combining resources to produce the best possible series for our customers –sports car racing fans.
“Our fans want to see high performance race cars, big fields filled by the world’s top manufacturers, close racing and entertaining events both on television and the internet, and of course, at the race track.
“With events now possible at all the major road racing tracks – Daytona International Raceway, Road Atlanta, Watkins Glen, Canadian Tire Mosport Park, and Sebring – all formerly owned by either one series or the other – the growing number of fans in our sport will truly have a national championship to follow.
“Our fans want to see us compete against the same cars we compete with in the marketplace, and they want to see us win under the most heated on-track, head-to-head competition. We believe this new racing organization gives us that opportunity.
“We are also excited about the combining of personnel talent as the most skilled and experienced racing and rules managers will spend the next year crafting a series that meets everyone’s basic goals and objectives.”
Scott Sharp, Team Owner, Extreme Speed Motorsports (ALMS/GRAND-AM):
“I’m very excited about the potential merger of ALMS and GRAND-AM. I think bringing together the potential that both series have when it comes to TV package, scheduling, competitors and tracks, it could be huge. Hopefully, it will turn out that way.
“I think sports car racing needs to become more viable. It has to become more attractive to advertisers and sponsors. This potential merger has to be able to increase that opportunity by putting all fronts together pointing in the same direction. This could be a huge boost for sports cars and probably the biggest step forward in several decades.
“From our sponsor Tequila Patrón’s perspective, this can only be a huge benefit. If we can go to better tracks with bigger audiences and a more solid television package, it has to be something that Patrón will appreciate from all avenues. That is certainly the hope.”
Ludwig Willisch, President and CEO, BMW of North America, LLC:
“Racing success has helped to define The Ultimate Driving Machine, and BMW of North America, LLC welcomes today’s announcement. The France family has been an excellent steward of the sport since its earliest days in North America and we are pleased to see that a unified GRAND-AM and ALMS will provide the direction professional sports car racing will take in the future.”
Ricky Taylor, Driver, SunTrust Racing (GRAND-AM):
“I think it’s exciting. I never thought I’d be able to see something like this happen in my lifetime. I’ve been following sports car racing my whole life and look at all the old pictures of my dad racing GTPs and what everybody says are the good ‘ol days.
“Hopefully we can get back there and hopefully have sports car racing be right up there with open-wheel.”
Rob Dyson, Team Owner, Dyson Racing (ALMS):
“I’ve won championships in both series and I think it’s good. You have to look at it from the outside in. For fans, now they can follow one sports car series. For the tracks, they can promote one sports car series. Then take a look at the schedule we’re going to have. It’s going to be great race tracks.
“All of a sudden, you have a cohesiveness for the fans and for the tracks. We have to talk about what we are bringing to the tracks and the fans. They have to work at that. Frankly, I think [it should be like] the old IMSA. Bring back GTP. GTP Lites, GTO and GTU. You’ve got people building cars for every one of those.
“The key thing is that the cars have to be fast and they have to be aspirational. Prototypes have to look like fighter jets and GT cars have to represent what people aspire to own.”
In closing, all the parties involved – from the ALMS, Grand-AM, the manufacturers, the ACO and FIA, the competitors – from both the ALMS and Grand-AM – the sponsors, and all the other major decision makers – they’re all saying the right things. A unified North American road racing championship with direct links to it’s European heritage and, ultimately Le Mans. There are still mountains of details to be sorted out, rules to be set, venues to be decided upon, and from what I hear, read, and have been told in confidence, they’re all on the same page moving towards a common goal.
Today stands to be an historic day for road racing in North America. I’m hopeful everyone will stay true to their words and the best decision will be made for all. Most importantly, the fans.