Originally, I planned on my next post being my 2012 Le Mans race recap, but sadly a combination of writer’s block and post-race malaise has kept me from going into detail about another amazing race. Soon, I promise.
Something, however, has presented itself I feel it needs to be addressed.
This weekend, Speed.com’s John Dagys posted this story that has race fans cheering or up in arms – depending on what side of the fence you are.
The headline: ALMS, GRAND-AM Finalizing Merger.
Almost immediately, I received several e-mails and texts asking me for my thoughts. Asking me to explain this. Telling me this is the end of American sportscar racing as we know it. Telling me this is one of the signs of the apocalypse. I’ll explain the best that I can, tell you what I know, and help you step away from the edge.
As of right now, 9:00 on Monday morning, September the 3rd, nothing is finalized. Through this website, I have “met” several automotive journalists and I got word of something like this in the works about a week or 10 days ago. Here’s what I know. But first, I need to give you a little history.
The American Le Mans Series was founded in 1998 by Dr. Don Panoz. Dr. Panoz and his pharmaceutical team invented the nicotine patch in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Dr. Panoz partnered up with the ACO – the race organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans – in an attempt to bring European style endurance racing to America.
That same year, Audi introduced the R8 race car. The R8 and it’s successors went on to win 11 Le Mans over the next 13 years. The timing of the two was serendipitous. Audi brought the R8, the R10, the R15, and the R18 to compete in various races here in the States as well as in Europe. The ACO went on to copy the formula and create European and Asian series under the same rules.
Under ACO/ALMS partnership, you can argue, the sport grew faster and greater than either of them expected. The grids were packed. The stands were packed. The ACO and the ALMS fed off each other.
The ALMS, in an attempt to help the fans distinguish class leaders, implemented leader lights on the side of the cars. 3 lights on the side of the cars indicated 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place in class. An idea so simple the ACO adopted it for the 24 hour race. The final race of the ALMS season is held at Road Atlanta. The ALMS coordinated with the ACO so that the class winners from the 10 hour Petit Le Mans would gain automatic entries into the following year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
With the 12 Hours of Sebring starting off the season and the Petit Le Mans closing the season, the ALMS gained international recognition and legitimacy.
Grand-AM was founded a year after the ALMS in 1999; it’s focal race is the 24 Hours of Daytona. With similar rules to the ALMS, the Rolex 24 at Daytona actually featured ALMS competitors and Le Mans winners for the first few years. In 2003, Grand-AM introduced their own prototype class, the spec built Daytona Prototypes. The series was always closely affiliated with NASCAR, it was officially acquired by NASCAR in 2008. Because of it’s NASCAR relationship, Grand-AM never received the international recognition the ALMS did. That’s all about to change.
While the ALMS has operated under the ACO rules, the relationship has cooled over the past few years and the ALMS has operated under ACO sanctioning on a year to year basis. In 2011, the ACO partnered with the FIA to create the World Endurance Championship. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile is the sanctioning body behind Formula 1, WRC rally racing, GT1 and GT3 sportscar championship, and dozens more world championships of motor racing. Through this partnership, the ALMS and it’s races are essentially being squeezed out of international competitors such as Audi and Toyota and other major players are choosing to compete in the WEC and not in North American races.
So now, NASCAR and it’s deep pockets are going after the ALMS. This can be viewed as NASCAR buying out the competition or NASCAR looking for international legitimacy. Without knowing all the details, let’s look at the two possible scenarios.
NASCAR buys the ALMS, merges their competitors and venues and operates under Grand-AM rules. Daytona Prototypes instead of LMP1/LMP2 cars, but the GT classes remain essentially the same.
NASCAR buys the ALMS, merges their competitors and venues and operates under ALMS/ACO/FIA rules. They either eliminate the Daytona Prototypes or get the DP cars homologated by the ACO/FIA and they compete directly with the LMP1/LMP2 cars and the GT classes remain essentially the same. This scenario makes the most sense.
But I have another scenario to throw out for your consideration. And one I think makes a lot of sense.
For a minute, let’s ignore the prototype classes and focus on the GT classes. The ALMS and GA series both allow, Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, and Corvette. But Grand-AM also allows the Audi R8, the Mazda RX-8, and Camaro. The FIA under the GT1 and GT3 classification allows the Mercedes SLS, the Audi R8, the Nissan GTR, BMW Z4, and the McLaren MP4-12. These cars aren’t allowed to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I’m not going to lie, I don’t entirely understand why this is, but there you have it.
So let’s talk about money for a second. Manufacturers and privateers spend a ton of money each year racing. Because of the slightly different rules from organizer to organizer, they have to make a choice which series to compete in. ALMS, GA, or FIA? Sure you can race your Ferrari 458 or Porsche 997 at Daytona, make slight modifications and then go to Sebring, but there are costs involved. But Mercedes and Audi can’t race their flagship GT cars in either. Why not? Well, what if this is all about to end. What if there’s enough pressure from the manufacturers to get the FIA/ACO/ALMS/GA to create across the board rules to allow these cars to compete in all series?
How much would Audi pay to get the ACO to allow the R8 to compete at Le Mans? Can you imagine the marketing opportunities of the R18 e-tron wins overall and the R8 wins the GT class? With the new prototype rules set for 2014 and Porsche already committed to fielding a LMP racer, how about their LMP winning overall at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 997 winning GT class. While this scenario has huge implications in European racing, it certainly opens up American road racing to the world. Take into consideration Porsche sells more cars in California than they do where they’re built in Germany. America is a HUGE market in terms of sales but almost off the radar in terms of international racing.
The US hasn’t had a F1 race since 2007. Finally with the Circuit of the Americas being built in Austin, the US will once again be on the world stage for the pinnacle of racing. But if the merger rumors are true, the 10 year contract for the ALMS to race at COTA, who can and will be there? If my scenario is correct, think of the possibilities. What European manufacturer wouldn’t be there? Whether my thoughts of the ACO to allow FIA GT cars to compete in Le Mans style endurance races are correct or not, let me wrap up this NASCAR/ALMS meger.
Ultimately, I can’t imagine a scenario where NASCAR would acquire the ALMS and thumb their nose at the ACO/FIA and run under current Grand-AM rules. This would create US sportscar racing versus what the rest of the world is doing. It doesn’t make sense. I’ve always enjoyed ALMS racing over GA – I just don’t like the Daytona Prototypes. They’re spec cars, they don’t allow for innovation, they are the same cars with different engines. The Audi R18 is different from the Toyota TS030 which is different from the dead Peugeot 908. Different philosophies all aimed the same goal. If NASCAR allows for this, and partners with the ACO/FIA, you would see a whole new world of sportscar racing in the States. And I would love that.
After spending Thursday on the TGV from Paris to Tours and taking in the old part of Tours, Friday was to be at the track for a special event. Ten-Tenths forum member extraordinaire James was able to work his magic again and line up a pit visit for a select few forum members.
In 2010, when I became a regular on the Le Mans sub-forum, James was able to orchestrate a visit with the Rebellion LMP1 Team. Last year, James had been in negotiations with a team and had everything lined up when, in the 11th hour, this team pulled out of Le Mans. Just a few days later, a representative with Audi reached out to James and they were able to visit the 2011 Le Mans winning Audi team and see their new R18. From all reports, the visit was incredible and Audi went above and beyond to accommodate the Tenths group. So much so, that Audi reached out to the Tenthers again this year and invited us to join them in their private suites above the pits to watch this year’s nighttime qualifying.
This year, James was at it again. 20 hand-picked members of the Ten-Tenths forum would get the opportunity to get an up close and personal tour of the new Toyota TS030. Audi last year and Toyota this year – James has far exceeded any and all expectations.
The tour is set up for Friday – the day before the race – and I’m in Tours. I have to get to the track, go on the tour, and get back to the station to catch my train back to Tours so I can get to the hotel and meet up with Trevor and the rest of the Grand Prix Tour group. It was both easier and more difficult than I expected.
I get up Friday morning and check out of my little hotel next to the Tours train station. I take my bags down the street to the Hotel de L’Univers – I’ll check in when I get back. I head back to the Tours train station and wait for my 9:00 train bound for Caen with stops in between, including Le Mans.
It’s another wonderful trip through the French countryside stopping at Chateau-du-Loir and Ecommoy before dropping me off right in the middle of Le Mans.
Just outside the train station is a stop for the Le Mans local SETRAM light rail. 1.40 Euro gets me a ticket from the center of town down to the new Antares station next to the MMArena – just outside the circuit. My friend Walter – another great member of the Tenths forum – has offered to meet me at the gate and take me to pits for our Toyota visit.
Walking up to the gate, I’m greeted by a parade of cars with similar graphics that leaves little to the imagination as to their origin.
Just inside the gate, I see Walter waiting patiently for me. A quick handshake and pat on the back, we’re on our way. But not directly to the pits. Walter has a little surprise for me.
The more I get to know my fellow Tenths members, the more I learn about them. Walter’s experience and knowledge of Le Mans is considerably greater than mine. I saw my first American Le Mans race in 1999 or 2000 with the Audi R8. Sure, I know about the great battle between Ford and Ferrari in the late ’60s, but I have a gap from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Before Audi, competitors at Le Mans in the ’80s and early ’90s raced in the class known as Group C. With bubble canopies and massive tails, these cars more resemble wingless aircraft than cars. And Walter is a bit of a Group C groupie.
Just before meeting me at the Antares entry, Walter and his friends Bryan and Ton were exploring the Group C paddock down in between the Village and the main paddock. Walking in, Walter has a few words of advice: All you have to do is ask. The answer is either “yes” or “no”. If you don’t ask, the answer is always “no”. Initially, I was a bit confused by this, but I went with it.
Just past the security guard, I’m greeted by a pair of Mercedes legends.
All around us are other legendary cars in various states of assembly. With noses and rear decks removed, mechanics are repairing or replacing various mechanical parts in preparation for tomorrow’s support race.
In the tent next to the Sauber Mercedes, is the gorgeous Martini-liveried 1984 Lancia LC2.
Most of the cars are behind ropes and I’m getting pictures as best I can.
Walter asks me if I’d like a closer look: “No, I don’t want to bother them. Besides, I don’t think they’ll let me in.” If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. “Excuse me, can we get a closer look so my friend from America can take some pictures”. Without hesitation, a mechanic looks up and invites us in. Walter looks at me and gives me a knowing wink.
This one is great. This is the 1989 Spice SE89, and for about 5 minutes Walter and I watched this mechanic fiddle around the engine bay. He was working this multi-linked rod from the cockpit, around the newly rebuilt engine, and into a metal sleeve in the back. I ask what he’s working on. “Oh, this is the gear-shift control rod.” Sure, I guess that would be kind of important to shift gears. “No, not just shifting gears. When it gives, you are stuck in one gear.” Has that happened before? He looks up at me, smiles and says: “Not after I’ve installed it.” Just great stuff.
Scattered about the temporary paddock are more great examples of Group C racers.
Walking about, we spot Group C and JMW Ferrari driver Roger Wills giving some friends of his a tour of the Lancia he’ll be driving in the warm up race tomorrow.
On the Tenths forum, in the weeks leading up to the race, we had been discussing our Toyota tour as well as our annual pre-race get together when we got an unexpected surprise invitation. It turns out that Roger Wills is a fellow Tenths member and he reached out to us. He said if we’re going to be down in the pits on Friday, why don’t we stop by his Ferrari team and he’ll show us around. Not only do we get a private tour with Toyota, but a Le Mans competitor has also directly invited us to visit his team.
Walter and I stick around and listen to Roger give his friends an in-depth tour of his Lancia. It’s terribly hot, remarkably fast, unbelievably noisy, and an overall blast to drive. I ask a question or two and he responds. I tell him I’m a member of the Ten-Tenths and we’ll see him later in the day. “Great, I’m looking forward to it.”
Unfortunately, some of these incredible machines wouldn’t survive tomorrow’s Group C support race.
With that, Walter and I find his friends Ton and Bryan.
We make our way into the Village for a quick bite to eat. It’s about 12:30 when we find a spot to sit down and relax before heading down to the pit lane. Over croque monsieur’s, sausage sandwiches, Coke and beer, the four of us chat about the race, getting here, and what it’s like where we live. It’s great to add two new friends into the mix.
After some ok lunch and great conversation, the four of us make our way down towards the pits. From my experience last year at the track, it’s oddly quiet. But then again, it’s not race day. It’s about 1:30, we’re supposed to meet up with Roger around 2 and the Toyota team at 3. We find our Tenths meeting spot across from the Toyota pits. A few other Tenthers are starting to gather – Nobby, Bernard, Mathias, and Eric just to name a few.
The pitlane is a sea of humanity. I know there are only a few thousand people here, but it’s packed in.
Several of us make our way down to the JMW Motorsports pit and wait patiently.
Moments later, out comes Roger scanning the crowd. I raise my hand and he recognizes me from the Group C paddock – I’m sure the Razorback hat made it a little easy.
He waves me and the rest of the Tenths group in, welcomes us and he starts telling us about the car. Its last year’s car, but updated with the flappy-paddle gearbox. It has a rear-view camera mounted in the bumper with a small screen in the cockpit showing him what’s behind him. They’ve broken the car down to its basic components to check and double-check everything so that when its put back together, it’s in tip-top form for tomorrow’s race.
My friend Bernard, gives us this TwitPic:
The car is disassembled and there’s a long list of things to do to get the car ready for tomorrow.
Roger tells us about his team, and just at that moment, his fellow co-drivers – Jonathan Cocker and James Walker – come walking by. I shake their hands and wish them good luck. Roger continues explaining a stint is about 2 hours for each driver. Long enough for the driver to get out of the car, visit the team doctor, get a bite to eat and something to drink, and maybe some rest, before hopping back in the car and going back out on the track.
Roger’s now moved us towards the back of the garage, where we meet his data engineer, Oli Harding. Oli goes onto tell us about their telemetry program and how it all works. Roger recalls how he was driving during practice when Oli told him to take his foot off the clutch. Inadvertently, Roger was resting his foot on the clutch pedal and that was giving just enough feedback – 3 to 4% pressure – that the team noticed it.
I ask if it’s MoteC – a program I’m familiar with from sim-racing – and Oli tells us it’s not; they use a similar program from Bosch Motorsport called WinDarab. Additionally, race tracks are typically broken down into 3 sectors, but because of Le Mans’ length, they have it broken down into 8 sectors. Roger tells us their system is so good they can tell him he needs to break later or earlier, be softer or harder on the steering input, and when to jump on the throttle. Without a doubt, this is the most fascinating and inside look into a racing team I’ve ever experienced.
Our time is up and we bid the team good luck and best wishes for the race. Just outside, a group of Dutch fans are heckling/taunting/singing to all the teams.
We make our way back towards the Toyota pits where I finally catch up with James, Andrew, and Tony – my Tenths friends I’ll be sitting with tomorrow. With smiles on everyone’s faces, I’m seeing friends I haven’t seen in a year – and it’s a great feeling. More Tenthers are arriving: Simon, Christopher, Pascal as well as a few faces whose names I don’t know yet. But thanks to the common bond that is the Tenths website, we’re all smiles and anxiously awaiting our Toyota visit.
Shortly after 3:00, James gathers us together and a gentleman in Toyota gear asks us to follow him. He and James have a quick conversation before breaking the us up into two 10-man groups. I’m in the first group and we’re led through security. Behind the pits, the gentleman in the Toyota gear introduces himself: Alastair Moffitt with Toyota Europe. Alastair gives us a quick run rundown of the rules: stay together, ask anything you want, and unfortunately – no photos. There will be a secure place for us to put our packs and cameras.
Before we head in, a few things catch my eye. This is just common sight at Le Mans.
Moments later, up walks Toyota driver Alexander Wurz.
From my brief encounters with Johnny Herbert and Allan McNish last year, both of those gentlemen were slightly shorter and considerably smaller than I am. It makes sense, the smaller the driver, the smaller and more aerodynamic you can make the cockpit. But Alex Wurz is HUGE. I can only imagine him squeezing into the Toyota, last few Peugeot 908’s, and all those little F1 cars he drove.
With that, Alastair ushers us into the Denso Toyota Hybrid tent and pit paddock.
Inside, it is the definition of controlled chaos. That’s not a knock, it’s just a little overwhelming to me. Here’s a stack of tires, there are replacement tail pieces, here are replacement noses, and carbon fiber components scattered about. It’s abuzz with activity as mechanics and engineers are moving all over the place. In front, Alastair is talking and moving towards the front of the pit, Eric and I are the stragglers. I’m taking a closer look at the tail and nose pieces and Eric is talking with two of the engineers.
In a corporate collaboration, Toyota has partnered with experienced Le Mans competitor and constructor, Oreca, for logistical help. Oreca is based in France and, as I understand it, many of the mechanics live in or near Le Mans. Well, as it turns out, Eric also lives in Le Mans. He’s stuck up a conversation with a few of the mechanics and I’m lost in the back of the garage looking at all the parts of the car. Suddenly, out of the blue, a Toyota engineer/mechanic/top-of-the-food-chain guy comes up to me and Eric and asks if we’re with the tour. Yes. Well, why don’t you two get back on tour. With that, Eric and I move quickly to the front of the garage where two dismantled TS030’s are right in front of us – and it’s a bit surprising.
All I see is the floorboard, the cockpit, and the engine. I know the engineers want to keep everything as low as possible for the lowest center of gravity possible, but what in front of me is surprising. A 3.4 liter V8 that can produce 500+ HP, literally sitting on the floorboard that then sits an inch or so above the ground. It’s a marvel of engineering.
Catching up with the group, Alastair is talking about the hybrid system they use and how it’s different from the “other guys”. The “other guys” are Audi. Their hybrid system powers the front wheels, the Toyota system powers the rear wheels. And Toyota built theirs in-house. “They bought their system” Alastair says with a respectful/playful shot at Audi. After a few more questions and answers that are hard to make out due to the loud public address speaker, we make our way towards the back of the garage where we gather our packs. We’re taken outside to the Michelin tire engineers who are hand inspecting each of the tires. We chat with the tire guys a bit before our tour is over.
We get back to the pit lane where Alastair and James corral the second group and the rest of us talk about what we’ve just seen. Initially, we were told each group would have 15-20 minutes with Toyota. Looking at my watch we’ve been with Alastair for almost 45 minutes! And now a small problem has presented itself. But so too have solutions.
When we were first told about our visit, James told me I would have a spot in one of the two groups. I planned accordingly. Staying in Tours, I would take a regional train to Le Mans, catch the SETRAM to the track, and just reverse course to get back to Tours to catch up with Trevor and the rest of the Grand Prix Tour group for dinner. With the train schedule finally set – the SNCF doesn’t release the train schedule until a few weeks before traveling – I purchased my tickets. Leave Tours at 9:30 and get to Le Mans at 11. Leave Le Mans at 4:30 and return to Tours by 6. Absolute perfect timing. However, Toyota had other plans.
Our pit visit wasn’t planned until 3:00. Dramatically narrowing my travel window. There was another train bound for Tours, but that wasn’t leaving until 6 or so, and I would miss or be late for dinner with Trevor. And, quite frankly, I didn’t want to miss dinner. So, in the Toyota visit discussion thread on the Tenths forum, I threw out my problem. But the guys online were more than willing to help.
First to speak up was Christopher. He gave me some assurances, that with good timing, I could make my train and in the grand scheme of things, it’ll all work out. Next up was Eric – our Le Mans local. He said if the weather was good, he would take his motorcycle to the track and he’d get me back to the station in no time. Finally, Pascal speaks up and offers me a ride in his Peugeot. He doesn’t live far from Tours and he would take me back to my hotel if need be.
The first group is out in the pit lane and we’re all talking about what we’ve just seen. Eric and Pascal check on me and my schedule. Looking at my watch, there’s no way I’ll make it to the SETRAM and then onto Gare Le Mans. Pascal says tells me to come on and we head to the parking lot just outside the track.
We get to his car and he pulls out his trusty TomTom GPS and plugs in the address to the Gare Le Mans. The funny thing is, as we get going, the TomTom is issuing directions in French. Of course it would, but it gave me a giggle nonetheless. One small problem, it keeps telling us to turn left onto one way streets.
We make our way through town as best we can – his knowledge of Le Mans is a little rusty and mine is near zero. We spend the time talking about ourselves – what we do in the real world outside of the Tenths forum. He’s in information management and, while living in Blois, he spends his work week in Pairs. Blois and Tours share the Loire River and he lives about an hour from where I’m staying.
Turn here, the TomTom says, but we can’t – it’s one way. Turn here – nope can’t do that either. Finally, we make our way onto Boulevard des Riffaudires that’ll take us to Boulevard Demorieux and straight to the station. Checking my watch, we’re cutting it close. Finally, we make it to the station and with a quick handshake and a poorly spoken “merci beaucoup”, I hop out of the car and sprint into the Gare Le Mans lobby. I find a ticket kiosk, key in my reservation code and last name, and grab my ticket.
Checking the train information board, I’m departing from platform 6. Another quick sprint and I find my train, hop on board, and grab a seat. Two minutes – and I’m not exaggerating – two minutes later and the train is pulling out of the station. Talk about by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin, that was close. Not that it would have been a bad journey to Tours with Pascal, I honestly didn’t want to put him through the trouble.
With that, I’m again rolling through the French countryside. I don’t know how to describe it, but there’s something magical about riding the train through Europe. This is something I will definitely do again. I’m back in Tours in no time where I check in and grab my bags at the Hotel de L’Univers. Up to my newly remodeled room where I take a much needed shower and shave. It’s almost time for dinner, but more importantly, time for a drink in the hotel bar.
Exiting the lift, walking right in front of me is Trevor from Grand Prix Tours. Last year, Trevor and I hit it off and he was one of the selling points in using Grand Prix Tours again this year. He’s a wonderful English gentleman with a racing background and he knows his stuff. In the months after returning from last year’s trip, I was able to find Trevor on Facebook where we would chat online from time to time. Calling out to Trevor, he turns around with a smile and it’s like catching up with another old friend.
Trevor and I make our way to the bar where we get a drink and he gives me a Le Mans history book that was a Sunday newspaper insert a few weeks ago. It’s a wonderful gesture and a prize I have and will read often. Finishing our drinks, we move into the main dining room where the rest of our GPT group is waiting.
At our dinner table are two couples who have visited Le Mans before as well as first-timer, Gary. Gary lives in Detroit and is an engineer of some sort with General Motors. Over dinner, he and Trevor discuss certain automotive technicalities like the spring and roll bars of various racing cars. I knew some of the things they were talking about, others, not so much. Afterwards, Gary strikes up a conversation with me and Trevor about what he wants to do and where he wants to go. Some places: yes. Others: no. I offer my experiences from last year – he takes some with a grain of salt, others he clings to. Trevor turns in while Gary and I head to the bar to discuss more of what to see and where to go. After a drink, it’s getting late so we call it a night – Gary, you still owe me a beer. Tomorrow is Le Mans, and we have a long day in front of us.
I head back to my room and open my bedroom window to let in some fresh air – and to help air out the smell of freshly painted walls. Going over my equipment for tomorrow’s race, it’s starting to rain. This will dramatically change my plans for staying the full 24 hours. A wet Le Mans without the sunset or sunrise is not what I want. Things could change, but right now, I’m leaning towards not staying the entirety of the race. And with that, I turn in.
It was an incredible day. To James, Walter, and Pascal, Roger Wills and the whole JMW Motorsports team, and Alastair Moffitt with Toyota Europe, a massive thank you for providing an incredible experience and an amazing inside view of racing at Le Mans.
Thank you very much. Experiencing the Le Mans in the stands is one thing, but seeing what goes into fielding a competitive team to challenge Le Mans is a different thing entirely.
I forced myself to go to bed early last night. I crawled into bed around 12:45 or so and found myself in a battle against sleep. I kept rolling over…1:30…2:15…3:05…I was too excited about my train trip down to Tours. Specifically, I was excited about taking the TGV. The bullet train from Paris to Bordeaux with Tours right in the middle. Eventually, I did get to sleep and woke up without my iPhone alarm going off. I stay in bed until 7:00 when I forced myself to get up, get dressed and head down to the Sejours & Affaires lobby for coffee.
It’s a beautifully crisp morning and I enjoy several cups of coffee out in the courtyard. It’s 8:00 and time to get going. Back to my room for a quick shower and luggage review and I’m out the door by 9:00. As I near the lobby, my personal driver for the past 2 days, Jean Pierre, greets me and apologizes that his Peugeot minivan is packed. I pat him on the shoulder and tell him it’s ok, I’ll be back on Monday. Monday? Qui. Good, good…I’ll see you then and take you wherever you want to go. As of now, I have a new friend in Roissy. I check out and the 3-hotel bus arrives in short order to take me to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
15 minutes later, I’m at CDG in between gates 2D and 2F, right at the TGV gate. Heading downstairs, I find one of several TGV self-serve kiosks. Input my reservation number and my last name, and it spits out my ticket. TGV 9802 bound for Bordeaux with several stops in between, including Tours. There are several flat screens around the TGV lobby, giving you the inbound and outbound train information. Around 10:05, they announce my train is about 5 minutes late and will board in the South terminal in gate 4. I make my way downstairs, and with a quick ticket validation, up comes my train and I’m on board.
I have an assigned seat in the second car with space for my luggage and a drink/meal car 2 cars down. And like that we’re off. A quick stop at Euro Disney and we’re rushing through the French countryside. We’re travelling well over 100MPH…and it’s eerily quiet. About the only noise you get is when a train passes you in the opposite direction. And when it does, it’s a little startling. But it’s over in a snap. At some point, we’re parallel to the A10 highway, and we’re passing cars going our direction like they’re standing still. I check my watch, it’s about 11:45 and we should be nearing Tours. Sure enough, a voice comes over the loudspeaker and says something to the degree that St. Pierre Des Cor is next – my stop. I grab my luggage, exit the train and see there’s my in-town commuter train waiting for me. I board the TER 60709 and 10 minutes later I’m pulling into the main train station in central Tours.
My hotel, Hotel L’Europe, is literally next door. I walk over and here I am. Room 401 up the narrowest, steepest flight of stairs I’ve ever seen. My shoulders slump and then I notice the smallest elevator known to man. Literally, enough room for me and my luggage. And the Otis says it’s built for 6. Yea right…I settle in, change clothes and decide to head out and tour Tours again.
Walking out the door, the manager calls out to me, asking me if I know where I’m going. Totally, I’ve been here before. She hands me a map. No, no…I know where I’m going. Oh really? Have you seen the “old city”? Huh? She points to the map, and says “Go here”. Ok, I’ll check it out. But before that, I’m hitting one of my highlights from last year’s trip. St. Gatien Cathedral.
It’s a beautiful cathedral with incredible stained glass windows and an impressive nave. For more pictures, see my post from last year.
Just to the right of the cathedral is the Jardin de la Préfecture – the central park. It’s dominated by a 200-year-old cedar tree.
The park was closed last year and I couldn’t get in, but this year I explored the grounds for almost an hour.
From here, I make my way towards the Loire River that bisects the city. As I near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which is shut down so that the city can install a central tram/light rail line, I see this statue built in memory of the American Expeditionary Forces who were based here in Tours.
I remember seeing this last year, I just don’t remember it being associated with the American soldiers from World War I.
Checking my map, I decide to follow my hotel manager’s advice and I head into the “old” town. Looking at the map, the streets take a sudden cramped, and less organized feel. And just like that, I’m in the middle ages.
I get near the center of the “old” town and I’m greeted with this.
Just to the right of the building I’m standing next to is Place Plumereau.
This central square is populated with tables, chairs, and parasols surrounded by several restaurants serving those sitting at their tables.
It is a wonderful mixture of old and new working in perfect harmony. While the area surrounding Sacre Coeur felt shady and cheap and, quite frankly, an insult to the historic icon just up the cobblestone street, this feels like a wonderful balance. Again, I’m at a loss for words other than: perfect.
On my map is the Saint Martin Basilica. I get my bearings and head that direction. It’s not hard to find when this tower dominates your view.
I make my way out of the “old” city and back towards the Hotel de Ville at the center of town near my hotel. I explore the immediate area surrounding my hotel and the train station before heading back to my room.
Today was supposed to be a goof off day for me. I was planning on just walking around, seeing what I saw last year. I am so thankful my hotel manager suggested visiting the “old” town. Paris is Paris, but Tours is a hidden gem in central France. I can’t express enough how wonderful and amazing this town is. Next time I come to Paris, whether it’s for the race or not, I will spend several days down here. You should do the same.
In racing news: the Audi’s dominated the first qualifying session and they’re currently running their night-time session with the Audi’s running 1,2, 3 and 5 and the new Toyota’s slotting in at 4th and 6th. And speaking of Toyota, I have my pit visit tomorrow with the Toyota team and the JMW Ferrari team. I’ll be catching up with my Tenthers group at the track and I’m really looking forward to seeing those guys. I’ll also be catching up with Trevor from Grand Prix Tours tomorrow night and I can’t wait to see him as well.
Good night from Tours.
I was up a little later than I wanted last night. I was working on my Paris Day 1 report when I hit a brick wall and turned in around 2:30 early this morning. I rolled over about 9:00 and finished my report. Hopefully you’ve read it by now. I take my time again this morning, its cold and overcast. The rain is holding off, for now. Down to the lobby for a few cups of coffee, back to my room, a quick shower, I’m dressed and out the door.
My personal driver from yesterday, Jean, is just pulling in with new tourists staying at the Sejours & Affairs. He asks me if I want a ride back to the airport. Absolutely. And off we go. Back to the CDG 1 Terminal to catch the RER into Paris. Just like that, I’m cruising through the Parisian suburbs and into the Saint Michelle – Notre Dame station. Up the stairs and out into the cool Paris air. Walking down the left bank of Seine River, there’s a magic about being here. The people, the city, the atmosphere…it’s unlike anywhere else I’ve been.
Approaching the end of Île de la Cité, I walk onto Pont Neuf – the oldest bridge in Paris. 400 years old, construction began in 1578, it went through a major renovation in 1994. Looking eastward towards Notre Dame, I’m treated with this view.
Turning around, here’s a statue of King Henry IV – torn down during the French Revolution, it was rebuilt in the early 1800s.
Further on down the Seine, a bridge with a certain gold hue is the next thing I see.
What are those things?
Padlocks. Padlocks? Are these from former street/riverside side vendors? I don’t know, either way the bridge and the vendors are just some of the mystique of this city.
I saw everything from out-of-print French romance novels, to 1980s Playboy magazines, to random paintings, to obscure art – a little something of everything. Speaking of random paintings, I’m headed this way for one thing: Musee d’Orsay.
The former home of the Gare d’Orsay, a railway station built between 1898 and 1900, its now a museum that houses Degas, Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh. Over the past two days, I took over 1,000 photos and would have had hundreds more if it weren’t for their no photography policy. Here are just a few of the interior.
This is a massive building. All along the main floor are bronze and marble sculptures. I didn’t think of it in time so I didn’t take any notes of the works lining the central spine – but there are several I recognized. Behind the statues on the left and right sides are smaller galleries ranging from Impressionists to naturalists to architecture. At the far end, opposite of the clock is a series of escalators taking you to the main exhibits featuring Van Gogh, Degas, and Monet.
On the top floor, looking out over the Seine River through a windowed clock, I see one of my targets of today’s trip: Sacre Coeur
I wish I had some photos of the works I saw. Saying I saw one of Cezanne’s Mountains, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night or his bedroom, or Degas’ bronze ballerina, or Monet’s La Rue Montorgueil or Cathedral de Rouen just doesn’t do it justice. As skilled as I think I am as a writer, I can’t describe what I saw. Famous works of art I’ve studied and seen in books or slide shows are now right in front of me. It was moving.
My two hours in Musee d’Orsay was far too short. That in and of itself needs to be a half or full day experience. Now I have another reason to come back. It’s now about 3:00 and I need to make my way to my next spot: The Invalides. About an hour later I make it there on the north lawn.
I’ve been walking for the past 4+ hours and I’m beat. So instead of heading in for a closer look, I just find an empty spot on the lawn and watch the people and traffic move past me towards Le Grand Palais.
Right behind me is the Invalides Metro stop that will take me to my next stop: the Bir-Hakeim Bridge. Named after a French World War 2 victory in the North African Desert over Erwin Rommel, it was featured in the movie “Inception”. I’m not going to lie, until I saw the movie, I didn’t know this thing existed. I wanted to make it out last year, but my schedule was so tight I didn’t have time for it. Not this year.
By now, the clouds are parting and it’s turning into a beautiful day. It’s a short walk to the Trocadéro and the Eiffel Tower. Climbing up to the top of the Trocadéro, they’ve turned the main grounds into a makeshift Euro Cup soccer watching venue. Fans are everywhere. Mostly young people wearing Portuguese flags as capes are all over the place.
I find a spot at the top, grab a chicken sandwich on fresh French bread and settle in to watch the people. It’s now about 4:45 and I’m starting to hurt a bit. I don’t go down to the Eiffel grounds, I still have dozens of photos from last year’s trip to process, but it’s hard to beat this view.
I spend about an hour on the grounds, just sitting on the steps watching the people. The Trocadéro Metro station is right behind me and from there, it’s just two trains to Sacre Coeur. In the second train, we were packed like sardines, there was no A/C, and had nine stops before I reach the Anvers stop – needless to say, I was a ball of sweat when I finally got off the train. Following the sortie arrows, I get above ground and right in the middle of a flea market.
Seriously, tents set up shilling all sorts of goods: “food” simmering in woks, bras/shorts/t-shirts in bins for 2 Euros each, knock-off Eiffel Tower statues, Vouis Luitton purses – sights and smells I won’t soon forget. I get my bearings and spot the top of the Sacre Coeur, it’s literally right above me.
This is at the top of the first climb, through the bazaar, and I still have three levels to go. But it’s worth it. From the top you get this amazing view.
It doesn’t show up well on these photos, but the bad weather is moving in. Looking up, I see the Joan of Arc and King Saint Louis at the top of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
I explore the grounds as best I can – it’s heavily built up on all four sides and I can’t get far enough away to get any good shots. I find a spot on the front steps and get back to my people watching. There are scammers all over the place, trying to take advantage of clueless tourists. I’ve got my ear buds in, listening to my iPod, so I easily brush them off. Others…not so much.
After about 30 minutes of just relaxing and taking in the scenery, I feel the first few rain drops. With that, I’m up and heading back to the Anvers Metro. By the time I get down to the Metro, it’s raining and the bazaar is breaking up and everyone’s heading underground. The easiest way for me to pick up the RER back to the airport is 3 trains and about 20 Metro stops.
It takes me almost two hours before I’m actually back to my room.
Overall, the last two days in Paris were incredible. I did everything I wanted to do. While it did rain, the rain cooperated extremely well. The Metro is incredibly easy to use and ridiculously convenient. Tomorrow I catch the TVG to Tours for a goof-off day before events at the track on Friday and the race on Saturday and Sunday. It’s almost midnight here so I’m going to wrap this up.
Paris is just…magical. I want to come back when I don’t have the race as the excuse to come over here. There are things I want to do and see here and things I have to do and see here.
I stayed up as late as I could yesterday – 10:30. Which is 3:30 Dallas time. Does this guy know how to party, or what? I crash. But only for about 6 hours. The TV in my bedroom has a blue power indicator ring, and when I wake up at 4:30 or so, my room is awash in an annoying blue glow. I grab a towel and thrown it over the screen to extinguish the blue washing over me. I crash again. When I wake up, there’s a warm glow peaking through the blast shield I’ve lowered over my bedroom window. It’s 10:30. 12 hours since I turned out the lights. 12 hours of sleep. In Paris. This is so hard it’s not even funny.
So, I get up, head down to the apart/hotel complex and grab a coffee and some French, strawberry Twinkie for breakfast. Back to my room and I start making my attack plan for the day ahead. Paris. What to see? Where to go? Relying on Claire’s notes and my trip last year, I have my tour in quick order. Shower, shave, get dressed and I’m back down in the lobby pre-noon. My luck, the personal shuttle is on stand-by and 5 minutes later, we’re on our way to Charles de Gaulle.
Back at CDG Terminal 1 for the RER into Paris. Last year, I asked for a round-trip on the RER and an all-day pass on the Metro. 35 or so Euros. Today, the teller sells me an all-rail, all-day pass for 25 Euros. They’ve either changed systems or I got ripped off last year. It doesn’t matter. I make my way downstairs and on RER is pulling away from the station, but another one is sitting there waiting for me. I board and grab a seat. Shortly there after a young woman sits down across from me.
If a woman with dark hair is a brunette and a woman with light hair is a blonde, what do you call a woman with purple hair? Purplette? Let’s go with that. So I help purplette with her backpack, loading it into the overhead shelf. And the train is pulling out of the station. About half way into Paris, I make a comment how bumpy the ride is, and she realizes I speak English. “I’m from Dallas, where are you from?” “Montreal. I’m in town visiting my boyfriend and his family.” We talk about the F1 race this past weekend and the student riots. “Oh, you’ve heard about the riots down there in Dallas?” Yes. And then the standard question comes out: “So…do you have any horses in Texas?” Sigh…no. We small talk on our way to St.Michell/Notre Dame. We part ways and I make my way up the stairs. And just like last year, I’m immediately greeted with this.
I explore the grounds for a while when I’m approached by an English couple. They see my camera and recognize I’m a professional and ask me to take their picture. I graciously oblige. Upon returning their camera, I ask them if they’d return the favor.
Finally, proof this isn’t an elaborate ruse and that I’m really in Paris. I hang around a little while longer before making my way towards the Louvre. Last year, I tried this and got ferociously lost. This year, not so much. I know right where I’m going. And as I walk towards the Louvre, I see the same monuments I saw last year and wonder how in the world I took the wrong turn last year. Either way, I’m making my way down Rue de Rivoli and I finally see it. The east side of the Louvre.
A short walk later, I find one of the entrances and I see what I wanted to see last year. Just through the arch…I.M. Pei’s masterpiece.
As I exit the hallway, I see a couple taking a self-portrait of themselves in front of the Pyramid. They try, try again, try again, and again. I finally ask them if they’d like me to take their picture. “Sure thanks.” They’re John and Ginger from Virginia and they’re celebrating their honeymoon in Paris. We chatted for a while and parted ways. They were very friendly and I wish them the best of luck. I probably spent an hour on-ground and took dozens of photos. While I may have better pictures, here is what it looks like.
Behind me is the Tuileries Garden. It’s absolutely majestic. I’m a huge fan of the Dallas Arboretum, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the Tuileries. Created by Queen Catherine de Medici for her son King Francois II between 1559 and 1564, it was opened to the public in 1667, you enter the garden through this monument.
Off in the distance, the Eiffel Tower calls to me. The clouds may have something to say about that, but in the meantime, I have these beautiful grounds to explore.
Scattered about the grounds, are various sculptures and surrounding one of the central fountains are works like these.
At the West end of the Tuileries, these horses guard the horseshoe.
Just beyond the horseshoe, I make my way towards the Place de la Concorde where the Obelisk and Fontaines de la Concorde. The Maritime Fountain and the Fountain of Rivers.
I enjoy the grounds for about an hour before making my way towards Place Vendome. At the center of the Place is the Vendome Column. Originally erected by Napoleon, it dominates the Place.
Just beyond the Place Vendome is Harry’s New York Bar. The walls of Harry’s are lined with pennants from various US universities.
After enjoying a scotch and a pleasant conversation with a couple in town from Vancouver, I make my way back towards the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Originally, I planned on hopping the Metro up towards the Arc de Triomphe, but then I thought when am I going to get a chance to walk this famous avenue. Walking the Avenue, it’s lined with shops, restaurants, and Parisians galore. It’s about 5:30 and it’s absolutely packed. And it’s glorious. About halfway up, I find the Toyota showroom, where inside is a mock up of the Le Mans competitor, the TS030.
Just as I get to the Arc, the skies open up and what begins as a light drizzle is quickly becoming a full-on downpour. I duck under an awning and put on my new REI rain jacket. I scramble up under a tree and I notice repeated police sirens going off. Walking up the Champs, towards the Arc in the pouring rain is some procession.
It’s now about 7:00 and this is a good time for me to throw in the towel. I find the nearest Metro entrance where I make my way to the RER and finally back home. It isn’t until I get home that I realize I haven’t eaten yet. I change clothes and head into central Roissy where I grab a table at La Vitrine for breakfast/lunch/dinner.
While my day in Paris is cut short by the rain, I’ll make up for it on Wednesday. The Eiffel Tower, Bir-Hakeim, Sacre Ceour, Musee d’Orsay, and the Invalides.
Here I am. Le Mans Week officially begins. Each great journey, begins with a single step. Today was the first step.
With Dad out golfing with the boys out in East Texas, Mom picked me up Sunday afternoon at 2:30. Perfect timing, too. Lewis Hamilton just crossed the finish line, winning the Canadian Grand Prix. Returning to the site of his first F1 race win, where, oddly enough, Dad and I were there for that maiden victory back in 2007. We’re off to DFW where my chariot awaits. Unfortunately, various mechanical gremlins keeps us on the ground. A new airplane, a new gate, and a new hour later, we’re finally we’re in the air.
I’m sitting next to a quiet French native who was not nearly as engaging as my San Francisco based travel partner from last year’s trip. The in-flight movies are The Vow and The Young Victoria. The Vow cranks up and I plug into my iPhone. Even without the movie sound on, I pretty much nail the plot of the movie. The Young Victoria was an interesting period piece. I wasn’t all that engaged with it as I drifted in and out of sleep. I wake up in time to see the sunrise cresting the horizon, just over the engine nacelle of my trusty American Airlines 767.
The pilot announces we’ll be landing within the hour while the flight attendants serve us breakfast. Before I know it, we’re making our final descent and taxiing up to our gate. Off the plane, through customs, and on towards the baggage area. Five minutes later, here comes my bag. Without knowing where my hotel/apartment has their shuttle pick-up/drop-off locations, I grab a taxi give him the address and we’re off. But not without some drama.
My driver didn’t know where my hotel, Sejours & Affairs, is when he accepted me as his fare. He plugs in the address I give him into his GPS and the French curse words begin flowing off his lips. “Merde! Merde! MERDE!” as he slams his sunglasses down. I’m sliding across the bench seat as he takes the roundabouts a bit too fast for me – and that’s saying something! We find the place and I feel bad for him. I don’t know if he was having a bad day, or if it was because he just picked up this ‘Merican piece of merde and lost out on a potential whale cab fare, either way, I tip him handsomely. 10% of that big tip may have been the hopes that he doesn’t come back here and kill me later tonight.
Check-in here was fairly painless. A quick signature, double-check of my ID and I’ve got my key. It’s a large, 2-room apartment style hotel with a den/kitchen, bedroom, and bath. I give myself time to take a breather and check out the apartment for about an hour. Kitchenette, couch with a flatscreen, bedroom with another flatscreen, and a bathroom with the little flush/big flush feature and a shower with a half-glass door and probably a terrible shower head. Hard to beat. I change clothes and make my way into Roissy.
The other night, Claire and I were chatting on the phone and I was giving her a tour of the city with the help of Google Earth. I show her the Petit Casino grocery and a couple of restaurants I’ve spotted. She finds a crêpe restaurant and the town hall.
Passing by the Aux Trois Gourmands, I take a sneak peek at the menu. They have all sorts of entrée crêpes, but what catches my eye are the desert crêpes. Chocolate banana, strawberry, crème, and I see what I’m looking for.
I’m seated and handed a menu. I’d like an orange crêpe. My waitress looks up from her pad and asks in disbelief: “You want a desert crêpe?” Yep and a cup of coffee. She shrugs her shoulders, says ok, and heads back up front. A few minutes later, here comes a cup of coffee and this delicacy.
It was all I could do not to devour it in one bite. About halfway through, I found myself giggling that while I wouldn’t admit I liked crêpes, I would admit I like really thin pancakes. Google those last 5 words before you ask me to explain. I finish up and make my way back towards the hotel.
Roissy-en-France is a charming French village. It’s remarkably quiet considering it’s proximity to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
It wasn’t until I got back here to the hotel that I realized I forgot to check out the local church. And when I realize it was just a block away from the French IHOP, I had my first of what will be, no doubt, several “D’OH” moments. Maybe tomorrow morning before I hit Paris. I have no idea specifically what I’ll check out tomorrow, but I’ll be in Paris. I’m leaning towards copying, but in greater depth, my day in Paris last year. I’ll add in a few extra stops along the Champs. Either way, I’ll be in Paris.
Since this is a racing website, let’s at least touch the racing page. Andy Blackmoore released his 2012 Le Mans Spotter Guide. You can grab a full resolution PDF here.
When last we saw the Toyota TS030, they rolled out their Le Mans hybrid competitor at Spa for a photo shoot. Sporting the familiar red and white livery, we were able to see significant changes in the body-work from what they rolled out just a few months ago.
Today, they unveiled their Le Mans colors.
Looking remarkably like the Peugeot 908 from the last few years, lets see if they can match the Pug’s success. Hat tip to Tessa for the heads-up on the new-look Toyota.
In other racing news, the American Le Mans announced today they’re returning to Texas.
The American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón (ALMS) announced today that its 2013 season will include a race at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) – the soon-to-be-completed motorsports, entertainment and business development complex in Austin, Texas. The ALMS event will take place during the spring portion of the 2013 race schedule, which will be announced later this year.
Located less than 15 miles from the Texas state capital’s central business district, the unique 3.4-mile Circuit of The Americas will serve as a leader in sustainability through high-performance operations, design, research, education and partnerships, track developers say.
“The opportunity to partner with the Circuit of The Americas and bring North America’s premier sports car racing series to fans across Texas, at what is going to be one of the finest road-racing facilities in the world, is a natural fit for all involved,” ALMS President and CEO Scott Atherton said. “The addition of Circuit of The Americas to our schedule will be very well-received by our fans and stakeholders alike. We know we have a lot of ALMS fans in Texas, and for our teams, manufacturers and sponsors, Austin and the surrounding region represent an important new business market.”
“Our vision is to bring premier sports and entertainment programming to Circuit of The Americas and to partner with motorsports organizations that put a premium on innovation, fan experience and environmental sustainability,” Circuit President Steve Sexton said. “The American Le Mans Series – with its highly competitive, customer-focused programming and its well-known commitment to Green Racing – certainly fits that vision. The ALMS at Circuit of The Americas will be an endurance race, which will be another thrilling experience for fans. We know ALMS fans to be extremely loyal and engaged, and we look forward to showing them a great time in Central Texas.”
In 9 days, I’ll be boarding a plane bound for Paris. 3 days in Paris, followed by a day in Tours, a field trip to Le Mans to see the Toyota TS030 up close and personal, and finally the race. I’ll update the blog and Facebook as often as I can.