Auto Tech

The Fury and the Spectacle: 96 Hours at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

It's the greatest auto race in the world, taking place once a year, for 24 hours straight. Running at full throttle for most of the 8.5-mile track, it's the ultimate test of man and machine. Here's what it's like to be there.

Geoffrey Morrison
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Geoffrey Morrison

Gray dirt roads ablate their ashen surfaces like a traumatized Marlboro. Cars and tents bleed color under the onslaught, sliding into a B&W facsimile of their former selves. The dust is everywhere. I can see it, taste it, smell it. I think I can hear it.

Hordes of pasty northern Europeans, scorched to a vibrant magenta their vehicles cannot match, ride shirtless on mini motorcycles and powered razor scooters.

At 3pm on Saturday, three days from now, the greatest auto racing event begins. Here, though, in the campsites and fields within and beyond the track, the spectacle has already begun.

This is the Circuit des Vingt-quatre Heures. This is Sarthe. This is Le Mans.


Wednesday

Five Germans dangle out the windows of a black $90,000 Range Rover, blasting Dixie on air horns. It's the most anachronistic thing I've ever seen, until a dilapidated Austin Mini Countryman turns a bend, painted in full-on General Lee livery, and plays same.

I'm staying in Beausejour, a massive campsite inside the track and adjacent to the Porsche Curves. If there's a posh area to stay for Le Mans, this is the point farthest from. It's the Bleachers at Fenway, the Dawg Pound at Cleveland, the lawn seats anywhere. It's a multi-cultural mosh pit of car fanatics and enthusiastic drunks. Competitions are held nightly for who can be the loudest. Tents cover the landscape like fungi on guano, their colors desaturating to a mushroom-like grayness by the hour.

I construct my tent. One of my shoes will fit inside, if I don't zip the door. It's a 5 minute walk to the Porsche Curves, and the practice session is already underway. The Curves are about 3/4 the way around this epic and fabled track, right as the track leaves the deep woods, returning to what passes for civilization in these parts. A slight slowdown after a high-speed burn down the Mulsannne Straight, through Arnage and Indianapolis corners, back around our way at over 200+ mph.

Night falls bizarrely late this time of year, a reminder how far north Europe actually is. I take a seat on the hillock overlooking the track. An upside-down "PORSCHE" is written red-on-white in the grass beyond the safety barriers.

The sound. Nothing prepares you for the sound. A symphony of combustion, each car playing a part in Maestro Otto's Ode of Automobile. The Aston's deep thunderous baritone joins the Corvette's ripping bass. The Ferraris, toylike in their shrill soprano. The 911s, raspy flat-6 tenors, sound different from the V8s, but are not nearly the oddest sounds on the track. The Toyotas, and wave after wave of LMP 1 and 2 cars, Doppler pass, their shrieking altos setting the melody.

Well, most of them, anyway. The Porsche LMP 1s, with their tiny V4s, sound more like motorcycles than cars, their engine layout incredibly rare in the car world, and no less uncommon here.

But it's the diesel Audis that are the most shocking. Shocking with their near silent and alien-like whine.

Even 100 meters from the track, AudioTool says some of the cars are spiking 107 dB. No sooner have I sat down than a LMP car locks up, and slams into the barrier. Hard. It's easy to tell the car is totaled, but it seems to have given its life to protect its driver, who appears OK.

Thursday

Crowds swarm every square meter of the track and environs. I can't imagine what this place will be like on race day.

The infield is a car show in itself. Left-hand drive Subarus parade next to right-hand drive MG Bs. Skylines and Maseratis. Astons and Austins. BMW and Mercedes seem pedestrian here.

And the Porsches. Everywhere there's Porsches. 911s of every generation. Targas, Cabrios, Turbos and flat-noses. Even a 914, resplendent in its 70's orange.

Friday

The doors to pit lane open, and we unwashed (literally and figuratively) masses flood the track. Crowds 10 deep press against flimsy barriers, straining for a glimpse of the pinnacle of auto development. Crews inside still work feverishly to prepare their machines for tomorrow's multi-thousand mile journey.

Exiting pit lane, the track is open for a few hundred meters. We're able to walk up the hill towards, but not quite to, the Dunlop Bridge. It's pure fantasy being here, standing on this track, this track of history and legend. I reach down and touch it, the asphalt predictably hot under the summer sun. Staggered ahead are white tents, blinding in the light, sheltering former Porsche Le Mans winners. No manufacturer has won Le Mans more times the Porsche, and their return after a 16 year hiatus is one of the many reasons I'm standing here today.

I stand pressed against the last barrier, no more than some tape strung between rebar, and gaze up at the Bridge. Seen so many times on TV and in games, I can only imagine what it would look like not in the open sun, but cramped in a cockpit, behind a visor's shield.

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Geoffrey Morrison

Eve of the Race

Each hour, tension builds as the race looms closer, surely in the minds of the competitors, but seemingly in the minds and actions of the spectators too. Beer cans and bottles litter the pathways and streets. Men of all ages, shapes, and sizes, stagger in packs, trying to outdo one another in volume and bravado. It's jovial, though, none of the football hooliganism here. Ferrari fans taunt Porsche drivers to rev their engines, then cheer wildly when they do. Corvette shirts pulled tight over planetoid beer guts chat knowledgeably about Audi diesels.

It's not all men, either. Women filter in and out of the crowds. The distribution of people is peculiar: many below 15 and above 45, but few in between that aren't working for the track or race teams.

Back at Beausejour, flags flap above tents, like bannermen bivouacked before battle. Many are here to root on their country's drivers, sports heroes back home. Cheers and groans ripple loudly as R/Vs with satellite hookups show a different, even more popular, sporting event, half a world away.

I have no idea what to expect tomorrow.

Saturday

If anyone slept, I'd be surprised. Fireworks, random, close, and loud, cracked like mortars in the night's brief darkness. The party has been going for days, and has yet to reach its apex.

There's a clear direction to the crowds, now, as 3pm approaches. I get to the track early, searching for the perfect spot. Some other 100,000 or so people have had the same idea. A man blathers away in French on the PA in an oddly disconcerting conversational tone.

We're all pressed in, hot and squinting in the stands, as Also sprach Zarathustra blasts from the speakers. No more standing starts, despite this race giving one type its name. Instead, a lap behind the pace car, then a flag of green and a crack of combustion.

And so begins the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

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Geoffrey Morrison

3pm - 24 Hours to Go

The stands slowly empty, everyone filing out to find the best spot. It takes the fastest cars, the LMP 1s, just over 3 minutes to cover the 8.5-mile track, so there's no need to wait long in any one place. So I continue my search for great photos.

Suddenly, a violent downpour. Everyone dashes for the trees. Half the track is wet, the other dry, a dangerous combination. Predictably, there's trouble on the track, and we lose one of the Audis.

Night Descends - 18 Hours to Go

The world is disintegrating. Trash piling everywhere. Once merely dirty bathrooms have devolved into unearthly caves of putrid perfidy.

And still the dust. High beams and flashlights invoke palpable cones of specular gray.

Somewhere there's a race going on. You can hear it. You can always hear it.

Darkness - 15 hours to Go

Life has become a caffeine-soaked blur of noise and lights.

I fade with the sun, the previous night's co-conspirators of noisy German neighbors and vengeful Earth have worn me down. The 12 miles I walked today don't help. I slam half a dozen 33cl Coke cans in what will surely be a vain attempt to remain conscious.

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Geoffrey Morrison

11 Hours to Go

All the Coke has done is given the world a quivering vibrancy that does nothing to for my weariness. I'm convinced I've left my doors unlocked, the lights on, and every outstanding project suddenly needs to be worked on RIGHT NOW or I'll lose all my jobs.

I find that the back seat of a Nissan Micra is not the most uncomfortable place I've ever slept.

I lose consciousness to the sound of mechanized thunder.

Into the Dawn - 9 Hours to Go

My alarm wakes after 90 minutes of something no one would rightfully call sleep. I espouse a string of virulent curses.

Dawn cuts a hard light on unimaginable carnage. Trash bins vomit their effluvium. Coffee cups, beer cups and bottles of indeterminate origin litter the landscape like a toxic morning dew. The race continues.

In the deep night, the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of the #7 Toyota indeed stopped. Audi's cunning strategy of driving slower than their opponents seems to be working again. The Porsche stays steady, not winning, but not losing either.

Race day disintegrates rapidly after sunup into a poorly controlled chaos teetering on the verge of anarchy. Thousands of cars, mopeds, bikes, and people, swarm every millimeter of track and field.

The Final Stretch - 4 Hours to Go

I stagger from place to place, still looking for the best photos. Since the race began I've walked more than a marathon.

I finally decide to take the bus down to Arnage and Mulsanne, two iconic corners at the far end of the track. It takes over an hour for a bus to arrive. On board, I hear that Porsche has taken the lead. Counting forward, I'm worried I'll be trapped at the wrong end of the track by typical French efficiency. I shoot photos from the bus, remain on board, and ride it back.

But there's nothing my proximity can do. In quick succession, the 919s are out of the race. An incredible showing for an entirely new team and a new car with new technology.

Audi wins again, deservedly so. Le Mans is nothing if not a race of consistency.

As the race ends, the exodus begins. 262,000 attempt to flee into the French countryside, creating a traffic jam the likes of which I haven't seen since I left Los Angeles.

I hobble back to Beausejour, beyond weary. I stand at the entrance, and can feel the party atmosphere abating. Tents collapse, canopies retract, grills get stored. The energy is gone. Gone with the thousands of cars and people down these gray dirt roads. Gone with the cooldown that follows any intense event. Perhaps some here will go to the next race in the season. Or perhaps, like me, this is the race. The ultimate competition. The ultimate event. A once yearly spectacle of fury and sound that has no equal.

Unsure if I'll experience anything like this again, I start towards my campsite.

The echoes of engines in my ear, I am swallowed by the dust.