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96 Hours at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (Pictures)

The oldest and greatest auto racing event is a mind-crushing spectacle of sight and sound. Geoffrey Morrison went for the first time. This is what it's like to attend this race of races.

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Geoffrey Morrison
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Camp!

The start of the race, for me, actually happened on Wednesday, three days before the actual start. My tent (bought two days earlier) and my car (a brilliant Nissan Micra), each seem to be the smallest, by far, of any I can see.

But it's not the what, it's the where. Location, location, location...

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

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Shunt

A 5 minute walk from my campsite are the Porsche Curves. Right as I got there, one of the cars locked up, and crashed into the barriers. The driver was OK. The car was not.

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The long walk in

Unfortunately, getting to the main part of the track is a much longer walk, about 25 minutes. The shuttles seemed to run at random.

Here you can see the grandstands in the distance. All along here were hospitality suites for the various manufactuers.

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The clock...

Here's the iconic clock and bridge thing that doubles as a podium for the winners.

Note all the Audi pace and other type cars. Audi loves this race.

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Down the pits

On Friday, pit lane is opened up, and anyone can gawk, close up, at the cars. This is a few from near the entrance, down towards the exit.

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Crowds and crowds

Sooooo many people. 262,000 on race day, according to Le Mans Radio.

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Popular

The Porsche (here) and Audi garages easily had the most people in front of them. 10-20 people deep, at some points.

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The view in

Ironically, there's not much to see.

I bet you could lift that nose cone with one hand.

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PA by Amar

So what speakers does Le Mans use for PA? Bose, apparently. Well, at least above pit lane.

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Pieces

The ability to swap out damaged parts quickly is vital. Spend 10 minutes in the pits, you lose 3 laps to your competitors. But if they spend 15 minutes, now you're ahead.

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Big V8

Though not quite as epic sounding as the Corvettes, I'd argue the Astons sounded the best of any of the cars. Definitely one of the loudest, too.

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Corvette

Chevy, with the Corvette, is one of the few US manufacturers that still participates in Le Mans.

I would love to see Ford have a go at it again. How cool would that be?

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Taildragger

Some of these cars are just ridiculous. This one doesn't even have an engine.

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Audi

Audi's winning strategy: consistent driving, multiple, reliable, cars.

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Garage 56

Every year there's one entrant that can't win, but is there to show off new technology. Last year it was Nissan's DeltaWing. This year, that same design went a step further, with the ZEOD RC, a 3-cylinder hybrid.

They were able to complete one lap, in practice, on electric power alone. That's pretty amazing.

I was rooting for them to do well, not least because I had driven to Le Mans in a 3cyl Nissan.

Sadly, they had to drop out early on due to a gearbox issue.

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Tiny little engine

Here a Nissan tech works on the ZEOD's engine. At 1.5L, it's one of the smallest engines to power a Le Mans car in decades (as far as I know).

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Back down pit lane

This is from the exit of pit lane, looking back down towards the entrance. Immediately to the left is Garage 56.

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What a view

There was only a small section of track open to us plebes, but what a thrill anyway.

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Up the hill

This is up the hill, away from the start/finish line, up towards Dunlop Bridge. The white tents shelter previous Porsche Le Mans winners.

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Trivia Time

Name that car!

A hit: It's one of the winningest racecar designs in history.

No, it's not a Lancia Stratos.

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936

I had a R/C car of this as a kid. Didn't everyone?

It probably said Ickx on the side, but I don't remember. It was definitely in Martini Racing colors.

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The Bridge

On TV, and even in games, the hill doesn't seem as steep as when you're standing on it.

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Clearing crowds

I spent so much time just wandering around on the track, some of the crowds had cleared and I could get a better view inside the Porsche garage. The 919 has a 2L V4, plus a lot of electric power. A turbo for the engine, and a separate exhaust-driven turbine to create electricity. Craziness.

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919

Surprisingly boxy for something capable of well over 200 mph.

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Ok, ok

Ok, no more 919 pictures. Yes, I know there are 54 other cars in the race.

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ZEOD

Here's another view of the Garage 56 Nissan, the ZEOD. Will this be what Le Mans cars look like in a few years? Maybe.

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The paddock

Here you can see all that goes on behind the garages. Skinny little garages, but they go deep.

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Gentlepeople, start your engines

The opening ceremonies. Repeatedly the PA told those that didn't need to be there to get off the track. It was amusing after a while.

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Skydivers

This was pretty funny. The announcer, in French, said there were skydivers incoming. So those that understood him, looked up and scanned the skies. Everyone else wondered what those people were doing, so they looked up too, as you do, but had clearly no idea why.

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French flies

An indignant French horsefly. Bizarre. Nothing could phase this thing. He was looking at the start line, and no amount of closeup photos, nearby beverage containers, would get him to move. He had his seat for the start and wasn't giving it up, just like the rest of us.

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And they're off!

No more "Le Mans Start" where the drivers run to their cars.

Turns out (shocker!) the drivers weren't buckling themselves in properly, or at all, often until the first service stop (some 10-14 laps into the race). Yeah, that's not safe.

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Track officals

There must be a few hundred of these men and women, stations all around the track to keep an eye on things, maybe help if a car gets beached on the gravel.

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Race of Races

Another thing that makes Le Mans so cool is it's basically four different races at the same time: LMP 1 for the top tier teams. LMP 2 for the privateer teams. Then GT Pro and Amateur, which race highly modified sports cars. As fast as a 911 or Ferrari race car is, they're WAY slower than an LMP1 car.

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Standing room

Yeah,  don't do this. I, um, I mean they, were asked to get down.

But the view was great!

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Rain!

Since I live in a place that doesn't have weather, and it was sunny when I left the campsite, I didn't bring any rain gear. I wasn't the only one. So we all took shelter under some trees.

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Viewing

A lot of your time as a spectator at the race is similar to what you'd do at home, i.e. watch a big TV. Except the soundtrack at the race is infinitely better.

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Wet track

It's a rare Le Mans that doesn't have at least some rain.

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Porsche and some Astons

Even in the rain, the LMP cars are faster than even the fastest GT cars.

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#2

Man, that #2 car looks good. I bet it does well. It won't win, though. Audi never does that.

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Wipers

Ever been behind That Guy on the highway, with his huge tires throwing up a rooster tail of spray? How rude.

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Tails

That is some serious spray.

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On your left

Watching the LMP cars pass the GT cars is stressful. They're often going so much faster, and it's not like they can talk to each other.

Or maybe it's just the number of times I try to pass someone in LA and they veer into my lane anyway.

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Porsche Tents

On the other side of the tracks, Porsche has some sort of hospitality tent or something that we're not invited to because we're not cool enough. Fine. I didn't want to go anyway.

Sure looks nice though.

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Labeled correctly

This is meta.

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Looking at you

Did you see me? I was looking right at you. I was the one with my shirt on and a hat.

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Sun sets

I did go to an evening cocktail reception at the MMArena that overlooks Tetre Rouge. It offered a cool view of the track as it headed towards Mulsanne.

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Headed into the woods

The Mulsanne Straight, and the all that comes after it until the Porsche Curves, is basically though the woods, as you can see this Corvette heading towards.

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Safety Car

You don't see cars lined up like this unless it's to follow a safty car.

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Caught it!

This photo took forever to get! I was watching the 919 pass by this one spot, and every time, both cars, would shoot sparks out behind them. There was something about how they were set up, and where they'd be on this section, that they'd bottom out on the track.

Both the Porsches did this, but none of the other cars did.

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Tetre Rouge

Where the cars leave the race track and head out on closed but public roads.

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Night

It doesn't get this dark until after 11pm, and little of the rest of the track is lit.

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Crowds

Look at all these people crowding around to watch the race!

Wait, no, that's not the race. It's some foot-to-ball game on the other side of the world.

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Trash

Everywhere.  And this is just a shot of the people decent enough to put it near a trash can.

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Up the hill agaiin

Through the twisty bits.

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Headlights

The LMP cars have crazy bright white headlights.

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Yellow

See? Here's a GT Ferrari with yellow headlights. Back in the day, all cars in France had to have yellow headlights, but not for about 20 years now.

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Power

This was one of the few spots where you could really see how fast these cars are. They come around the corner in the foreground really slow, and then BOOM they are gone. I don't think I've ever seen anything accelerate that fast before.

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Darkness

Finally, after midnight, it's dark enough to get some night photos. This is yet another way that Le Mans is amazing, racing during the day and night (and day again).

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Tron

One team's Ferrari's had LEDs running up the A pillar, and each car had a different color. Not only did they look awesome, but it made them easy to identify in a sea of like-shaped Ferraris.

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The Chase

Speaking of like-shaped Ferraris...

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Long Exposure

Just to give you an idea. This is the same shot/direction as the last two photos, but with a long timed exposure. Note the trash and sleeping people.

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Heat is light

One of my favorite photos ever. Look at those glowing brake discs!

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Dawn Breaks Over Caravan City

Nestled in behind the Porsche Curves is a sea of campervans.

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As luck would have it

Just the lead Porsche being chased by the #2 Audi.

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Arnage

As you read in the story, I didn't get out of the bus for Arnage and Mulsanne corners, for fear of not making it back to the finish in time. By total luck, I held up my camera to take a picture over the barrier and the #8 Toyota entered the frame just as I pressed the shutter.

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Bummer of bummers

The lead Porsche retires, with less than 2 hours to go. The #14 follows suit shortly thereafter. Apparently it was a rollbar issue.

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Limping home

The #14 heads out for its last lap.

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Winner!

The #2 Audi starts its victory lap.

In what I think is a fine show of sportsmanship (or showmanship), they Audis drove slow enough so that the Porsche could catch up and they all could cross the finish line together.

Or at least that's what I'm telling myself happened.

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Paddock After

In trying to get this shot, of the surviving cars, parked off the track, I missed getting to the trophy ceremony in time to get a good view.

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Look!

See the winners!

Yeah, me either. Should have come down here way earlier. Like, yesterday.

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Open track

After the trophy ceremony, thousands walked the track. Had I not walked nearly 30 miles in the previous 24 hours, I might have joined them.

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Traffic

Just another day in LA traffic. Or I guess here it would be, La Traffique?

Can't believe I just wrote that. I'll see myself out.

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One last thrill

As I followed Google Maps's directions out of Le Mans, it directed me down this nearly empty road.

My sleep-deprived brain thought this:

"Huh, they have some pretty substantial guardrails on this OMG I'M ON THE MULSANNE STRAIGHT."

Done and done. An amazing adventure.

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

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