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…
RACE DAY AND START
I made sure to get to bed early the night before, with work to do in the morning plus carpooling to the track. I was at the track around 7:30 a.m. for a race that starts at 3 p.m. and goes 24 hours. I really love staying up for the duration of endurance races, but this schedule was leaving me to question how that would work out.
First on my agenda was Mazda's press conference to announce its new Le Mans LMP2 engine program. That went well. Then I was off to solidify my race action: finding my buddies, evaluating hospitality options, and wandering around. I found my friends from Motegi Racing – Jody, Jose and Jen – who were all with the AF Corse team.
AF Corse was a busy place as they had four cars entered in the race. We decided to watch the start of the race on the TVs in their garage itself, so we could see the action and hear the cars. There's nothing that sounds like it (or lack thereof, with the Audis).
I was surprised with how easygoing the garage was, as I expected everyone to get the boot. It resembled the pits/garage at Daytona's 24 hours. Every team does it differently, of course, Audi is completely shut off, but from what I could see the rest of the teams were pretty chill. I was in and out of a few garages and hospitality during the course of the race. I really enjoyed the action of pulling the car into the garage, although I know the team didn't. Watching the cars pit from the garage is always a treat and the teams were patient with the guests.
After the first hour, you ask, “What's next?” Where to watch? An attempt to reach the nether regions of the circuit didn't work, so the next option was hanging out in a couple more garages and hospitality. The first was Stefan Johansson (Gulf Racing Middle East) and his lovely girlfriend, Mecca, in their hospitality, but a TV was always nearby. Next up was back to AF Corse with Brian Vickers after his first ever stint racing here, and witnessing his debrief.
Shopping thereafter meant I spent too many euros on Steve McQueen-style Gulf gear, and I also stopped by Vanessa's (catering) to catch up and meet with my Mazda friends. Later, another new friend – Jules – welcomed me into Krohn Racing's suite, which was a total treat. The perfect and comfortable view also afforded a chance to see Audi, which was a couple garages down as well.
MORE RACING, AND MORE EXPLORING
You have to be careful because being in the paddock and hospitality can shield you from what the race really is about – the fans. I'm fascinated by how the rest of the fans entertain themselves at such a long race. I admittedly have my own interesting options but even so, I wanted more – Le Mans is all about MORE.
More shopping featured a very different quality, quantity and presentation than at races in the U.S. The layout of the shops was airy – not crowded. It was intermixed with corporate kiosks. The place that drove it home for me was the Rolex shop. Your typical “official race gear” wasn't so typical. The quality was better and the designs cleaner – to me, here's where European sensibilities came into play. It's usually an easy task for me to pass on race souvenirs. This time, the pocket book is hurting and my family is happier.
While the food and drink options were different, people's behavior after drinking wasn't so much. Having a large bar just for wine and cheese was fairly refreshing, as was the security to sweep in and reign in the drunks. The French have their food preferences – they like baked goods and bring them to the races.
At the midway, there's so much more than the iconic Ferris wheel. It also had multiple rides and games. The walk wasn't too bad from the paddock – a quick dive through the tunnel and you're there. The crowds were much smaller than I expected. I thought we'd have to fight our way there and stand in some nasty Disneyland or Indiana Jones-type queue. Nope. We walked right up for the tickets and got in line for a grand total of maybe 10 minutes. Maybe we picked a good time but, even so, a longer wait is very much worth it…
This year I rode the Ferris wheel at Daytona's Rolex 24. What a bummer that was. The line was long, the loading/unloading a joke and the ride was short. The views are there, of course, but when you get maybe five seconds to enjoy it, the overall impression is, boo.
Le Mans knows its Ferris wheel. It's a big one and you get to go round a couple times and with lots of stops to watch the race and take photos. You look right down the front stretch into the pits and the entrance to the pits. Racing happens there. At dusk and getting darker, the lights of the action were amazing, as were the lights of the circuit. With that in mind, I'd like to officially suggest London Eye-type hospitality suites.
NIGHT BACK INTO DAY
After dark, the place comes alive again. As the light fades, you feel a lull come over the place – a drain of sorts. Maybe it's the long day taking its toll, the adrenaline high crashing a bit. Whatever the case, after dark comes a new energy. Not renewed – new. It takes a different kind of fan to take on the night-time challenge.
I took it on until about 1:30 a.m. when my carpool buddy left. I hopped in the ride and went to the hotel for a few hours' sleep and a shower. Sounds innocent enough but when I went back to the track for sunrise, I felt pretty guilty when I saw my friends who had hung in there all night long. They didn't have a choice. My guilt is tempered with knowing I've done my time – at the Baja 1000 and Daytona 24 – I've kept my eyes open.
Morning comes and even with my sleep I'm struggling to keep my eyes open. No Red Bull Energy Station in sight. I go for a walk.
I followed the track from the grandstands through to the Dunlop bridge. The place was deserted, and that shocked me. I expected fewer people but we're talking almost no one. Daytona and Baja aren't like that, as there's always a crowd around.
What I did see is the remnants of the night before. I was all “CSI” about it, too. Here's where U.S. and European fans diverge a bit. I saw almost as many wine and champagne bottles as beer bottles. All I could think of is the nasty hangovers that were being nursed that day. The lack of people now was making sense to me. I did see a couple folks who had obviously stayed all night – obvious is all I will say. It took hours for the place to repopulate – it was mid-morning before it started to look like a race crowd.
I wandered into the grandstands up high and jealously watched the helicopters go up for quick tours of the circuit [next year!]. The stands were filling up and getting lively again. But it was a slow build, with the crowds and the energy. Maybe they are better at pacing themselves – they know when to say when? Whatever the case, they brought the place to the frenzy it's known for in another epic Audi finish.
In the end, I learned that the 24 Heures du Mans is everything it is hyped up to be. Not one moment has been wasted or disappointing. I came away with a crazy amount of stories – only a few here, and unforgettable moments. In jest, I thought if all the world were race fans, we'd be a happier world.
It goes without saying that common interests unite us. And racing does that, too. Race fans are race fans – no matter the geography. But it goes beyond sharing a passion. Somehow, a race culture has evolved that isn't so different across the ocean.
Now if only we can get the language bit ironed out…
A BRIEF POSTSCRIPT
One last random thought – the Audi car sound. You don't hear it but you know they're coming. It's like a dog whistle for humans or something. You can't say its audible but you do hear it or maybe feel it. Cool.