24 heures du Mans 2007
Dawn in Le Mans
Why the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the greatest motor race on Earth and why you will never learn this from Wikipedia alone.
Words and pictures: Peter Orosz
Shadows fall. Shadows fall so blue.
No unfiltered perception other than the lights and sounds of racing cars. Occasionally, we glance at displays for the standings.
We are cruising through deep space.
Eight hours into the race and I will remember every sound forever. The greasy, furious rumble of Corvettes. The mad, vespid scream of Ferraris and the unnerving, vibrating hum of Audis. The Peugeots: jet engines at takeoff.
The darker it gets, the more you can see the flames erupting out of the open exhaust pipes.
The cherry glow of brake discs.
The fluorescent racing numbers on Aston Martins, double-oh seven.
By the Ferris wheel that keeps spinning, people are launched into the atmosphere. Of the past sixty hours, we have been awake for fifty-six, catching four hours of contorted sleep in a car.
And yet still. I cannot remember the last time I felt so alive. The last time there was so little petroleum jelly between the world and my senses.
Headlights. Brake disks. Flames.
Set to a multilayered, glorious noise: repeat.
It is now three forty-five and the race is halfway over.
The hyper-capricious, cloudy day has turned into a brilliant, starlit night. Ninety minutes from the transition between velvetine black and electric rose, to be followed by sunrise at 5:58 a.m.
I type this in the middle of an abandoned parking lot. To my left: an uninhabited arena. I sit crosslegged on ten thousand square feet of asphalt, behind me a thin forest of black pines and in front of me, the Hunaudières straight.
I have no memories of the world before the noise. Of what it felt like when the single most relevant dimension of the world was not made of racing engines revved to a single rpm before crystalline explosions.
Alfred Neubauer once said, before he invented pit signaling, that the racing driver is the loneliest creature in the universe. He could as well be in space, orbiting at unfathomable speeds, knowing nothing of the rest of the world slowed to a crawl.
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
The racing driver is not the only solitary creature in the world: so is everyone watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Disconnected from the results table, the race coalesces into a whole. Classes cease to exist. There are no cars in the lead. None falling behind. What remains is a vast, interconnected, rumbling, pulsating organism.
Time spreads out like ice cream on asphalt.
Le Mans is a war. Harsh searchlight everywhere, guards give random commands in an alien language, like when an hour ago they stepped in front of me on a wide access road and indicated “no trespassing” without further explanation. Before that, I was standing above the black poplars that mark the beginning of the Hunaudières, the hillside muddied into a swamp of trash during the day.
Surrounding this are concrete walls, razor wire, ditches of filthy water, litter, a hastily constructed industrial landscape. But the brain is overwhelmed, it is trying to cope with the fact that hearing has all of a sudden replaced vision as the primary sensory input. The repulsive, rigid surroundings elicit no reaction.
Everywhere and all the time: the noise. Screaming, roaring, whining, howling, machinegunning as the drivers lift off the accelerator. It resonates in my chest. In my knees. In my larynx, too.
They say Le Mans is a pilgrimage. You don’t come and check off the tourist sights on a postcard of some random city. Le Mans demands the whole of you. To take you and devour you, to grind you up and beat you down. This would undoubtedly horrify a sane mind. The grime, the fatigue, the incessant pandemonium.
You have to let go.
Of the desire to be rested, to be cleansed. You have to jump headfirst into this tempest of light and sound, you have to let it rip you up into atoms—quarks, even—so that come Sunday afternoon at three, you can be reborn as something new. In the sudden, maddening silence. It may very well be that Lamborghinis will no longer captivate me. That bald men will grow full heads of hair.
All the while, it is humans who control the racing cars. The Hunaudières used to be a single, three mile long straight. These days, two chicanes slow the pace but speeds still approach two hundred miles an hour. Maintained for hours at a time. Then, after a short rest, the racing drivers go at it again. And again. A winning distance of 3,200 miles—quite usual at the present time—assumes an average speed of over 130 mph. One hundred and ninety feet covered every second.
Repeat 86,400 times.
Le Mans is the center of the universe tonight. The aluminum-titanium heart of Vorsprung, a two hundred decibel melting pot. With a quarter million car nerds for company, I circle like Muslims circle the Kaaba at the Hajj.
Ours, car nerds of the world.
∞ Published on Sunday, June 15th, 2008