MMR Blog

Sandy on Assignment:
An American at Le Mans

Posted on July 3, 2013 Comments (5)

Sandy Cotterman, Motorsports Enthusiast

Celebrating the race and its memories.

Celebrating the race and its memories.

Pushing their way onto victory!

Pushing their way onto victory!

Roll every American endurance race event into one and then some... voila, you have the 24 heurs du Mans. The Daytona 24 and Sebring 12 are only training grounds for what to expect at Le Mans! No other racing event in the world matches the frenetic atmosphere and strong nationalism for the drivers, pilots as the French call them, and the team cars they drive.

LMP2 second place winner… a crowd pleaser.

LMP2 second place winner… a crowd pleaser.

The Porsches let everyone know they were back.

The Porsches let everyone know they were back.

I was ecstatic to see so many American drivers and sponsored cars. The official guide boasted 19 American drivers and eight sponsored cars, in addition to foreign sponsored American cars—like one of the Corvettes. I definitely had my favorites and sought out the drivers to let them know. To my delight, I discovered it meant a lot to them.

Patrick Long is one of the first drivers I started following.

Patrick Long is one of the first drivers I started following.

Even during pit stops, the paparazzi where hovering over the Dempsey car.

Even during pit stops, the paparazzi where hovering over the Dempsey car.

On the grid, ready for the start. MMR’s favorite. Car No. 93.

On the grid, ready for the start. MMR’s favorite. Car No. 93.

Tommy Kendall meets Sandy on Assignment for MMR.

Tommy Kendall meets Sandy on Assignment for MMR.

Our MMR favorite Tommy Kendall, driving the No. 93 SRT Viper, was honored by MMR’s interest. Driving the Ferrari GT Pro car No. 71, Olivier Berretta, whom I had met in Monaco, was the first driver I saw and hugged, within minutes of arriving at the track on Wednesday. Two of our youngest American drivers, brothers Jordan and Ricky Taylor, both Corvette drivers, No. 73 and No. 50, were excited to hear a voice from the States. Number 57 had an early crash during practice and, just like Humpty Dumpty, was put back together for Sunday’s race before retiring early. Owner/driver Tracy Krone appeared touched that a fan had noticed his American sponsored Ferrari 458. Patrick Long was his gracious self, asking me if I was having fun! One of my favorite moments was when Patrick Dempsey gave me a huge hug when I shouted out support for our only all-American team. If only I had a photo! What I do have are more photos of the Dempsey/Del Piero Proton sponsored 911 Porsche, car No. 77, than I have baby pictures of my daughter!

Campers show signs of celebration.

Campers show signs of celebration.

Being a two-year veteran of this event, I am anxious to share what I know. The first year can be a logistics nightmare especially with language challenges. Even buying tickets takes some savoir-faire. My first year, I was extremely fortunate to have been taken under the wings of veteran Le Mans goers Tom and John Brady from my Jaguar Club of New England. Having attended for probably 24 years now, the Brady brothers are experts when it comes to camping logistics… of which I still know nothing. With tens of thousands of gentleman campers, knowing the ropes is essential. The Brits are camped out everywhere and they say percentage wise, there are more Danes at Le Mans than still in Denmark for the weekend. Since Tom Kristensen’s brother owns a travel agency, it’s no wonder the count is high and Tom can be found mingling with the campers. Sightseeing among the campsites is a must!

So here is what I do know. Arrive early. My first year, I slid into town Friday evening which only gave me a taste of race day. This year, I arrived on Wednesday which helped me get oriented with Le Stade and the transit system and it was enough time to enjoy three days of free practice, qualifying, and Ferrari Challenge sessions. If you’re flying into Charles De Gaulle, connections on the TGV to Le Mans are convenient and the ride is just under an hour, with Gares Tram stop right there at the train station. The round-trip TGV fare, just under $100, is reasonable in the scheme of things. Purchasing a ten-ride Tram pass for 12 euros saves you a hassle throughout the week. There is enough signage to tell you to ride the Tram to Antares to reach the 24. If you’re camping, you have your own set of logistics!

The Taylor brothers were both driving the American made Corvettes.

My recommendation, if you have the time, is to arrive Sunday for the administrative checks and scrutineering which takes place at the Place de la Republique in the heart of Le Mans beginning at 1:30p.m… something on my list for next year. Each car has been pre-assigned a time for these tech checks so you can watch for your favorites. I loved following TK’s (Tommy Kendall) daily journal; Sunday sounded pretty cool. Sunday is also one of the only times to explore the historic city center.

The crowds on race day at the start-finish line.

The crowds on race day at the start-finish line.

Before going any further, do what I didn’t do until I was on the plane home. Read the Official Program cover to cover. The Program is what gives you detailed timetables of events and locations along with more personalized commentary on the pilots and cars. What I did take the time to do was practically memorized the Entry List booklet and Practical Guide, both invaluable for maneuvering around the track and learning the cars and drivers. Also, consider buying one of the race radios to hear the race. Again, I did not, thinking there would be enough English. It was limited and muddled. I’m eager to try the radio next year. Also, bring a pair of binoculars, noise blocking headphones and hiking shoes. You’ll be walking for miles, most likely in puddles.

Knowing camping wasn’t an option, I scoured the Internet for B&B’s a year prior to the event. Like everyone else who returns year after year, I’m now on the list! So if Le Mans is in your sights for 2014, start your search now! Tickets for the event are put out for sale in November on the official ACO (Automobile Club de L’Ouest) website. I discovered that anyone could purchase an ACO membership, which gives significant discounts to tickets and the privilege to enjoy the two lounge areas, for lack of a better word. Conveniently located to the grandstands and Dunlop bridge, these centers are a great haven to escape the noise and catch an occasional replay on television and also pick up the hour-by-hour printed time sheets or snacks and a beer. I considered this nominal annual membership the best bargain at Le Mans!

You never know who you will see on Pitwalk.

You never know who you will see on Pitwalk.

Ticket choices will depend upon your budget. A general admission ticket is required by all, but grandstand seating is optional. I highly recommend it, especially covered stands since it always rains at the 24! Even though I wandered around, having a grandstand ticket allowed me access to a seat… and this access is heavily monitored so no sneaking in. I opted for a first time pitwalk pass, which for me was golden. It afforded me the opportunity to walk the paddock, see the drivers, and avoid the crowds. Also, once cars started retiring during the race, it was interesting to watch them transported and laid to rest in the fenced-in paddock area. It’s your call, since the pitwalk is pretty pricey. Again, it’s all relative.

The train got me into Le Mans around noon on Wednesday, my Day One, in time to watch some race practices. You can wander the stands and sit anywhere you like these first couple of days, so enjoy! If you want souvenirs or tee shirts, this is the day to get them, while inventory is high. An official pin is a must… a tip I was given by the guys.

The very first person I met, walking through the entry gates, was Kevin Cantwell, who put so much meaning into my Le Mans adventure. Kevin, a native Britt has been coming to Le Mans for the past 13 years, not only to enjoy the races, but also to coordinate over 350 scouts and 50 leaders representing the Scouts et Guides de France. Guests of the ACO for the past 62 years, it was the Scouts who were first on the scene during the terrible crash in 1955 and will never be forgotten. In return for their campsite just inside the entrance, all meals, and race entry tickets, the Scouts are the behind the scenes workers distributing hourly time sheets to ACO sites, picking up trash Saturday night in the grandstands and assisting handicapped fans to special viewing areas. Several British scouts join the French for this three-day weekend of Christian fellowship and camaraderie. Thousands of race fans walk by their campsite every year, but, I doubt many realize the bond that exists between the ACO and the Scouts. It was touching to learn it myself.

On Thursday, I managed to tear away from the racing and visit Le Musee des 24 Heures, the newly renovated museum within the circuit. It’s a hidden gem with so much history, it’s hard to begin to describe. I loved seeing the Silk Cut Jaguar driven by Andy Wallace. It had been a thrill talking with Andy about that race a couple of years ago when he was at Sebring. To see the car was pretty special. As part of the 90-year celebration, there was another special exhibit in the Village showcasing Le Mans winning cars. Saturday, before the start of the 24, the vintage race cars did a few laps around the track!

There are many opportunities to see the cars and the drivers up close during the week.

There are many opportunities to see the cars and the drivers up close during the week.

Friday at Le Mans is a unique parade day in the Center of Le Mans. Again, I was very lucky to find myself in the front row at the start. Tommy’s journal and my photos tell it all.

Another unique opportunity to get up close to the cars is Saturday mid-morning. Don’t ask me how but I found myself again on the front line watching the cars being pushed onto the grid. Had I been any closer, my toes would have been run over!

The clock keeps ticking as the cars line up after a delay.

The clock keeps ticking as the cars line up after a delay.

Everyone has his or her own way of watching the race. For me, I followed my American drivers plus Olivier. Cars 93, 77, and 71 captured most of my attention. I ran for hourly time sheets to confirm what I was seeing on the big classification monitor. At the end of the day, there was every type of statistic recorded. I had discovered what I’d call a find from where to watch the dusk and night racing... the glass front restaurant to the right of the pits. Just like in Monaco, I was perched about 60 feet above the track with a phenomenal view of pit exits and safety car starts. Le Panoramic takes reservations and again, a splurge well worth the expense. Before start time on Saturday, you have several days to discover where you would like to stand and watch some of the race. Scope it out early.

A rare sight… the final resting place for all the cars.

A rare sight… the final resting place for all the cars.

I know all of us in attendance will remember the moment we learned of Allan Simonsen’s death. The flag of Denmark hung at half-mast and the final podium celebrations were missing some of the special traditions. There were no gold confetti showers. The magnums of Champagne stood in their places, still corked. All signs of restrained celebrations and respect for this tragedy.

Le Mans is the best-kept secret from Americans… and it shouldn’t be. I ran into Don Panoz and he agreed. Where are the American fans? With a little planning you too can live another adventure on your motorsports bucket list. I can’t be the only one waving a 5-foot American flag in the grandstands. Come join me next year!