RACER guest contributor Melissa Eickhoff (foreground LEFT, with Motegi Racing's Jen Horsey), self-described “Motorsports Misfit and Editor-at-Play” was on the ground at this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. While her photo gallery from throughout the week is archived on our Facebook page, Melissa offers her reflections of her first trip to Le Mans below.
Let me open by saying I'm not a race expert…I've just been lucky enough that my career has exposed me to a wide variety of race experiences. From NASCAR at Talladega, to the Baja 1000, to the Race of Champions, I've been to the races either as a fan, insider, participant or working – or in some combination of all of them. It's with this background that I endeavored on my first European race to the legendary 24 Heures du Mans, where naturally, most of us just say Le Mans…
My “reason” for going was to scout for a TV project I'm working on, so I wanted to get the lay of the land and better understand the event and story opportunities. Last-minute plans meant I ended up traveling solo. While making the plane reservation was easy, securing a room is quite another! Having connections helps, and I had a room – but it was 32 miles north of Le Mans. That meant both driving (the easy part), and parking (not so much), which was a nightmare. As that was one of two not so happy, connected moments, I'll expand on that later.
ARRIVAL AND FIRST HOLD-UP
Arriving in France and our hotel was uneventful – even idyllic. I gladly took orders from my GPS during a beautiful drive through the French countryside. The next task was getting the passes.
I was thankful again for friends in high places – they took care of my passes (all access, which, not being an official media type, was pretty cool!). I went to the circuit early Thursday to meet up and get the passes, check in with some new friends and get to work on a game plan. Their advice? Leave. Practice and qualifying isn't until evening and the place is nearly deserted, so they suggested a few chateaux and gardens for sightseeing. Around noontime, I was off.
But, five minutes down the road and yep, I realized I'd left my phone in the credential office. Brilliant. I promptly turned around, programmed the GPS and off I was to retrieve the phone. The funny thing was, I was on the circuit!
I had no idea until I passed under the Rolex bridge, but somehow I wasn't really convinced until I went under a couple more. That was cool – too bad I was driving an Opel Corsa diesel.
Well, the phone wasn't there. So I spent the afternoon generally perturbed, playing the “Find My iPhone” game. Around 6 p.m., whomever found my phone decided to text my friends to let someone know where it was! This was SIX HOURS LATER. I've since learned that is very French.
This meant I was seriously behind to make practice and qualifying, and that led to parking issues. I spent three hours trying to park, and I had zero understanding of it. I do now, but that was miserable.
Still, in hindsight it was not wasted time. What I saw on my parking adventure expanded my view of all that is Le Mans. Somehow, I was directed to the camping area. Wow. Wow. WOW! I drove through, locked my doors, rolled up the windows (safety and stench) and couldn't believe my eyes! It was a sea of dome tents, banners, customized cars, beers (not Budweiser) and hooligans. I likened it to what my imagination thinks a medieval battlefield looks like – tents, scruffy types around campfires, drinking, and open trenches – yes, open trenches.
I didn't stay long enough to see what goes into the open trenches. There's RV camping as well. They have their favorite drivers and teams' banners hanging everywhere, fancy beer can artwork, and they're wearing team gear. It sounds pretty familiar, as I'm not shocked by such behavior in the States or at Le Mans. But as a single girl, alone in an Opel, I didn't park there.
FRIDAY DRIVER'S PARADE
By Friday, you realize Le Mans is about late nights. You don't get over jet lag, and sleep is fleeting. The track is quiet so I set off into the city of Le Mans to look at the old stuff and the parade. My parking luck changed, as this time it was easy and convenient.
I took my time wandering the streets around the cathedral and make my way to the parade start and paddock. It was fun watching people gather at key points, blocking off their viewing areas – the race was in the air. You could feel it. The excitement was building. I listened carefully and took note of the team gear – the bands of fans were from all over Europe – most of Denmark relocated for the weekend.
The access was awesome here. Usually it's difficult to track down drivers at endurance races, even with media access. The circuit is huge, the event is long, and the drivers disciplined and protected to get rest and stay sharp. This is true especially of the Audi drivers (eventual winners Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer, LEFT). So this was going to be my chance to see some friends. The paddock area brought the teams together to stage them for their ride through town.
Then it rained. It started about the time the drivers were ready to go, but they didn't seem to mind. Apparently, it's just part of Le Mans. It was successful for me, too. I got my photos, said my hellos and stayed (somewhat) dry.
The race and the town are so linked, it's hard to imagine one without the other. Sure, other races have their parades but this was different. The old and new, the fans and drivers – the world comes together here…