Tommy Kendall Le Mans Diary

Tommy Kendall for SRTTommy Kendall piloted the No. 93 SRT Viper GTS-R last weekend in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He is teamed with Kuno Wittmer and Jonathan Bomarito and made his second start in the event.

This is a four-part series as Kendall provides a behind-the-scenes look at Le Mans through the driver's eyes.

Part 1

I’ve been in Europe two weeks. I got here for the test (June 9) and we went through that. Didn’t get a lot of running in but we learned some stuff. After that, we had six days off. I went to Paris, met up with my wife, and had a great time taking in the sights. Really enjoyed myself; that city is something else. We rented the little Velib’ bikes that you can pick up and drop off all over the city and spent the day seeing the sights.

Then I crossed the channel to England for two days to film some SPEED Test Drive footage and then back to Paris for a day. Once we got here, there’s not a lot going on but it’s actually nice. Some of the guys are a little crazy, feeling cabin fever. I’ve actually enjoyed it, getting settled. We’ve got these little cabins here, they’re like a mobile home. They’re brand new, kind of IKEA-style inside, three bedrooms. Each car has its own cabin. It’s close quarters but fun. Life around Dominik Farnbacher is like traveling with the circus. He is just one of a kind in a purely positive way—just a total free spirit and fun to be around. That’s been great.

The buildup for this race is remarkable. It’s such a big event; it’s our version of the Indy 500 the way it’s stretched out. Some people, it might make ‘em crazy but I think the pageantry adds to the meaning. Everything is bigger.

Tech inspection as an event is bigger than a lot of races I’ve been involved in. There are probably 30,000 fans there for the two days. Not only do they have programs that you sign but a lot of ‘em have made their own autograph books, hand-lined, with your name filled in ahead of time with a space to sign.

And it’s a real tech inspection. Your paperwork has to be exactly right. If the wording is flipped, you get refused. I mean, it’s very, very official and so there’s some stress involved.

The payoff is when you get through tech and you do the team photo. A lot of time goes into how we are going to line up the cars, line up the people. Those photos are you’re memento, a keepsake. That, to me, summed up more than a year of total dedication and commitment by a ton of people to get to this point.

On Tuesday, we had an autograph session at the track and then team photos on the circuit last night. When I woke up Wednesday morning, I was happy that we were going to finally do something other than take pictures and get inspected. It was time to burn some high-test racing gasoline and hear some engines.

Rain put a little damper on Wednesday’s practice but we got in some quality track time.

The schedule here just underscores how different this event is. The first on track activity Wednesday was at 4:00 p.m. The first on track activity Thursday was at 7:00 p.m. It’s almost like you never have to get off U.S. time. The whole jetlag issue where you can’t fall asleep at night and you don’t want to get up in the morning actually works in your favor if you stay on it. You force yourself to try to get on it because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do but it would really behoove you to stay up late every night. Race day, we’ll be at the track early but the race doesn’t start until three o’clock.

Again, the schedule is just so odd. We were on the track four to eight Wednesday and then 10 to midnight. That’s the night session, even though it’s not even dark yet at 10. Race day Saturday is literally the day after the shortest night of the year so there’s probably about five hours of total darkness, which is nice.

We had practice seven to nine and 10 to 12 Thursday night. There’s absolutely nothing on track on Friday. That’s when the parade takes place downtown. I’m looking forward to it as well.

There was a lot of nervous energy in the driver briefing today. Like I said, a lot of work has gone into this, a lot of anticipation. Now, the real work starts. We’ve got a lot to do. A lot of these teams have been coming year after year after year and I’m sure even they are a little bit nervous but it’s a little more automatic for them in terms of what’s going on and what to expect and so forth. We’re just trying to make sure we’ve thought of everything that can happen and have plans in place and be prepared. Now it’s doing what we do—race.

Based on the data we gather during the June 9 test session, Kuno (Wittmer, a teammate) flew back to Canada with Matt (Bejnarowicz), the engineer on the 93 car, to work on some things we thought would improve performance.

Straightaway speed is really, really important here. They tried some things that they thought would work but they didn’t. They kept working and discovered some things they hadn’t thought of before that did work. We’re anxious to find out if what they found correlates as well on the track as it did during their test.

Until tomorrow, have a great day.

Part 2

The schedule here is so unique. The first on-track activity Thursday was at 7 p.m.—7-9 and 10-12. That left a lot of free time during the day. I got up early Thursday morning, earlier than normal, but I wanted to get to physio (physiotherapy). We have a masseuse and a holistic physio (physiotherapist) here. He did some measurements and testing and identified some issues pretty common with the changing of food. Luke (masseuse) gave me a deep tissue massage. I call him Edward Scissorhands because it feels like he’s got knives on the ends of his fingers. It was the most painful thing that you would ever do voluntarily but it helped. That’s how I started my day Thursday.

We had some running around to do before practice Thursday, different PR appearances and so forth. Some of the things are obligations but showing up at the unveiling of the new (Viper) GT3-R was a delight. We were as excited to get a look at it as the media covering the event. It’s cool to see the Viper GTS-R cars evolve. (The GT3-R is the latest generation of the Viper GTS-R, designed and developed by Chrysler Group’s SRT – Street and Racing Technology – Motorsports team). It shows how serious they are about this and it’s central to what they’re doing going forward. You can’t fake things on the race track.

I actually came to Le Mans in a Viper in 2006. We were filming a test drive near the Eiffel Tower. We had a permit but it wasn’t exactly for what we were doing. My producers told everyone, ‘Hey, let’s get setup but don’t make it obvious what we’re doing until right before we do it.’ Just as we were getting ready to shoot the scene, these two French policemen wandered up. We couldn’t hide the stuff. We froze. They were so excited to see a Viper, not only did they not bust us but my producer, who has a way with this stuff, convinced them to sort of hold traffic and let us do a big, drift, doughnut circle right under the Eiffel Tower (laughs). As I was doing it, I’m saying ‘We have no permit, we have no permit.’ My point is the French love this car and that was the predecessor. In a short time, the Viper has become a really iconic car, not just in America but especially in Europe because of its success at Le Mans. It’s cool to come back with the GTS-R and see the GT3-R unveiled.

We’ve had a lot of challenges this week at Le Mans but, so far, nothing as difficult as sitting in front of a box of Belgian chocolates that (teammate) Marc Goossens brought and not dive in.

The weather has been an issue all week. Rain ate into our track time on Wednesday and again on Thursday. With the track time that we did get, we probably have as many new questions as we have answers. That’s one of those things you’ve kind of got to go with the flow. For the teams that have run here a lot, it’s difficult to quantify the advantage. In our situation where we’re here for the first time in several years, we have to go on hunches on some of that stuff. They’ve got a bigger book to pull from. The weather has made it a little bit of a challenge for us.

The theme of the week seems to be interrupted practice sessions. It wasn’t the weather; it was cars going off the track. I think it was a case of teams pressing harder to accomplish what they need to get done. I’ve never seen so many cars off the track, one after another. Those delays make it difficult to get a rhythm, but, more important for us, to evaluate two different directions with the car. I’m not sure we have a clear-cut decision but that’s the nature of it. We’ll put our heads together and come up with a direction and go for it.

Practice is complete. We’ve had no issues whatsoever with the cars, drivers. Everyone is doing a good job. The excitement builds. Now, it’s do the final preps and get after it—race.

NOTE: The race starts Saturday at 9 a.m. (EDT) with SPEED providing live coverage of the 24-hour event with only brief interruptions for other motorsport updates.

Part 3

After two days of practice and qualifying Wednesday and Thursday, there was no on-track activity Friday but the day featured an event that’s become a special part of race week—the driver’s parade in downtown Le Mans. I did it once in 2000 but Ryan Dalziel (a teammate on the No. 53 SRT Viper GTS-R) reminded me that even if you’ve done it, you forget how insane it is. Estimates were that well over a hundred thousand fans lined the route for the parade which took probably two hours. We (Jonathan Bomarito, Kuno Wittmer and Kendall) were in a 1927 Renault convertible that had been in the same family for 84 years—the original-owner family.

There’s nothing that prepares you for the parade, nothing. It’s electric. The parade route is lined with barriers. It’s just a cacophony of yelling, screaming and cheering. Fans have hero cards they want signed. They want goodies. We probably gave out two or three thousand SRT lanyards. We were popular! At one point, the guys from the Saudi Arabian Ferrari team were out of goodies and asked, ‘Do you have anything we can use?’ So the Ferrari guys were handing out SRT lanyards. People were hanging from light posts and balconies; it’s really hard to process. It rained on us a little but we didn’t mind. Neither did the fans.

After the parade, we met up with some of the SRT folks and the guests we have here at a restaurant on the route. We had a nice dinner and then worked our way back to the circuit. It was nice to get to bed reasonably early, get a good night’s sleep in and then up early, earlier than we have been.

We went over many things in our pre-race briefing—eventualities and the rules. For example, if the car breaks down on the course, you can’t go more than 10 meters from the car or the car is disqualified. If a marshal pushes your car, even if they’re trying to help, you’re disqualified.

We also went over changes on what they call logic—where you can basically program what the switches do. An example is our hot start. When the pit lane speed limit is activated, our flasher button becomes our starter button but it’s not hot if there’s pressure in the air jacks. You’re not allowed to crank the car on the air jacks, per the rules. So, the starter is disabled until it senses the pressure going out of the air jacks. At that point, the button becomes active and can start the car. You’re just trying to shave seconds during a pit stop.

There’s a little tool kit in the car with a disposable cell phone. If the in-car radio is not working, we can use the phone to call back to the pits. The reality is it’s unlike Daytona or Sebring where they can ferry parts to you or they can ferry gas to you and you could put it in. There’s basically a circle drawn around the car and if you leave the circle or someone enters the circle, the car is DQ’d. You’ve got to figure out a way to get the car started yourself.

My good friend, the late Jeff Krosnoff, was the overall leader here late in a race several years ago but had a transmission issue. He got out of the car and was able to manually knock the car into gear. He got back to the pits and they finished on the podium.

I can’t speak for all the drivers but anyone who’s worked with me knows I’m not exactly a whiz on the wrench. I rely heavily on customer service, if you will, on the phone to walk through anything. But fingers crossed we won’t need that.

There’s lots of nervous energy—everyone’s excited, everyone wants to do well. After Kuno and I warmed up the cars Saturday morning, I made a quick visit to the physios (Luc and Jos) before going trackside and taking in all the pageantry.

We don’t have the outright speed that we wanted but it’s a 24-hour endurance race. The car is very comfortable and drivable in all conditions. We’re focused on running our race. We’ll try to stay out of the pit box—our first, second and third priority.

The preparation is complete. Now comes the test—a 24-hour test of endurance.

Part 4

We had a lot to learn this year coming to Le Mans with a new car, new team and all that. And I think a lot of us were hoping we would shock ‘em and have a trouble-free run to the podium with both cars (laughs). I guess that’s the eternal optimist in me. It didn’t quite work out like that but we’re going back with an infinite amount of information much more than we arrived with. Every single person in every single role has learned a lot and knows how to do it better next year.

The race itself: there was no major-major problems but lots of little ones. While I was in the car, we had the one issue with the wets (tires) where we didn’t have intermediates so we had to run in the wets or slicks which were treacherous. Then at the end of my stint, we had a tire fail at the end of the back straight, a puncture I’m assuming, right when I went to the brakes at 170-something miles per hour. The car did a huge tank slapper. My eyes must have been as big as saucers. I got it slowed most of the way down but couldn’t quite make the corner and ended up in the gravel trap. They got me out in a hurry. Almost as scary was limping the car, with a flat tire, along that straight to Indianapolis and through the Porsche curves at 10 miles an hour. It tore up the car a little bit but we were able to (make repairs) and go.

When Kuno (Wittmer) was in the car, some hood latches failed and they had to make a stop because the headlights weren’t connected right. My first two stints were rife with issues and didn’t leave a satisfying taste in my mouth in terms of stringing some laps together. But the last stint was different. You’re on the right tires at the right temps. There was a little bit of rain but mostly dry conditions. I was able to string some laps together that I felt good about so that’s a nice taste to leave with.

Then right at the very end of my stint the electric shifter malfunctioned. So Kuno drove it in override mode, which means you have to lift when you shift and you’ve got to use the clutch on the downshifts.

I’ve got to give Kuno and Jonathan (Bomarito) shouts out. Kuno has been an Iron Man. He’s done triple (shifts) after triple and Jonathan has been running great laps as well. I’m proud to be part of the 93 team and proud to be part of the overall SRT Motorsports team and represent Viper.

There’s a lot of wouldas and couldas but we’ll go back, regroup and set our sights forward 364 days.

What is already one of the most difficult races in the world became impossibly more so when Allan Simonsen was killed in an accident on lap 4. Needless to say, it cast a pall over the entire race and added a layer of intensity to what would turn out to be some of the most challenging conditions some had ever seen. I did not know Allen, but racing is a close knit community in spite of the competitive environment, and this hit everyone very close to home. To be able to focus on the job at hand, required compartmentalizing it until after the race, but when the race ended, I was overcome with sadness thinking about him, his girlfriend and infant child he left behind.

It’s was a tremendous experience to be a part of Viper’s return to Le Mans. Thanks for joining me on this incredible ride.

Le Mans SRT