I didn't fully understand the term “fast” until a few weeks ago. Speed has a whole new meaning when you’re standing along a fence just feet away from some of the fastest machines in the world flying by you in the middle of the night. It feels like you’ve taken a shot of adrenalin and you have this uncontrollable urge to move, move, move.
I’m talking about Le Mans; the 24 hour endurance car race in the south of France. And yes, I was in attendance this year. There is some irony here. I work for a company dedicated to cars. We’re insurance, but we’re passionate about all things automotive. And yet I probably know as much about eye surgery as I do about cars. Don’t worry. I’m not on our sales team. So how did I end up going to the most incredible car race in the world? The short answer is, my brother.
To put some of this into perspective, me attending Le Mans with my brother was like him spending Couture Week in Paris. The moment we pulled into Le Mans my brother looked and acted like a child arriving at Disneyland for the first time. All during dinner in town the night before the race, he would jump up and go see the cars in the parking lot or check out the parade happening down the street. Just parking the car at the circuit was exciting for him (as we pulled up in our big, somewhat dented, silver van rental - tres chic.) I might not know engines but I do know what beautiful cars look like and I suddenly found myself falling in love over and over again. It was hard not to. It first happened when a sleek deep metallic red Aston Martin drove by us on our way to dinner. My heart began to race and I couldn’t take my eyes off it until it drove out of sight. What was happening to me? I was getting caught up in the excitement and the energy I could feel all around me.
You know those moments in life where you just feel like there’s a soundtrack playing in the background because you have to just be either dreaming or in a movie? That’s pretty much how it feels the entire time you’re walking around Le Mans. Our passes gave us some pretty unbelievable perks. We had access to the paddock before and during the race, the pit walk, and the 24 hour VIP tent with a balcony overlooking the track.
Walking on to the pit just a few hours before the race, my brother wanted to take pictures of everything and everyone. (I could relate. It’s what I would have been like had I been given backstage access to a Chanel fashion show.) Since I was completely clueless, I had no problem asking for photos with complete strangers. My brother had a permanent smile on his face as we switched places taking pictures of each other with drivers in front of some very cool cars. He would whisper in my ear, “Don’t you know who that is?” The answer was always no, actually making it a ton of fun. After all, I wouldn’t recognize a famous racer if I ran him over with my car. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) So, in my clueless state, I got to talk to some really amazing people (my brother filled me in later) with no stress whatsoever. I can actually feel racing fans hating me a little for being so ignorant of the car world. But Le Mans made me a racing fan. Meeting these people made me their fans. The most incredible racers were the ones in front of their cars, connecting with their fans and even photobombing pictures of my brother with his wife and baby.
Now you can google the facts. How long it’s been around, what teams attended - you wouldn’t need to read some blog for that. But Wikipedia doesn’t talk about what it feels like. For that, you have to be there.
Hours before the race even begins, the air is buzzing with anticipation. I’ve never been to a race before, but the atmosphere felt similar to that of a music festival. Everyone is just in a great mood. It isn’t the same feeling as other sporting events like football or baseball. There aren’t fans cursing or throwing food at people for wearing a different car brand’s shirt. Instead, everyone is a member of the same club and its soul is the passion for cars. The energy in the air is palpable. You know this is special and you feel special just being there.
We went back and forth into the circuit throughout the 24 hours and every time was a completely different experience. But if you ever get a chance to go to Le Mans, go in the middle of the night. My brother and I ventured in at around 2 am and the atmosphere was completely different from the daytime hours. Nearly every spectator was gone. You’re left with the skeleton crew and the teams. We could sit anywhere in the stands because they were empty. We walked right up to the fence of the grand stands where it’s so loud you can’t hear your own thoughts and the cars are going so fast the only reason you know you saw them is because you heard them go by. We walked along the back end of the pits and saw drivers sleeping on golf carts while crews rolled out tires. By the time we left at 5 am, I could close my eyes and tell my brother what kind of car had driven by just by listening to its sound. My brother explained it this way: “Ferraris whizz, Astons purr and Corvettes are loud but Porsches…they scream.” This coming from the man with three Porsches.
I spend a lot, and I mean a lot, of time writing about cars and car people at work. Before I went to Le Mans it was just what I did to make a living. All those car aficionados were strange and quirky. But I get it now. I understand the passion, I feel “the drive” everyone kept talking about. Would I go back? In a heartbeat. Who’s driving?