As someone who had never been to a car race before, heading out to Le Mans, France was quite the initiation. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, held annually since 1923, is one of the world's biggest races, drawing more than 263,000 spectators this year. Though the race itself only lasts a day (hence the name, natch), the diverse crowd partied all weekend, from qualifying to the drivers parade and long past when the last car crossed the finish line and the trophies were handed out.
Nissan, which had the experimental ZEOD (Zero Emission On Demand Racing Car) on its official racing team as well as 13 other cars on the track, brought me out to take it all in. I did what I swore I'd never do after finishing my last final of college, and pulled an all-nighter for the race. I swear the madness that follows wasn't (only) brought on by sleep deprivation. Here we go.
11:28 a.m. The plan was to start this running diary at 3 p.m., when the race begins, but I just walked away from one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The adrenaline is still rich in my blood, and I’m pretty sure the smile won’t leave my face until I’m back stateside. Like most great things in life, this wasn’t even on the (rigorous) schedule.
One of Nissan’s handlers announced we were going on a hot lap. I had no idea what that meant, but went with it. We hopped on a golf cart, weaved between the throng of fans working their way into Le Mans, and pulled up to 30 or so GT-Rs parked in two rows on the edges of the road. Ah, we’re going to go for a ride on the track. I grabbed a helmet, found the car I was assigned to, and then found out I’d be doing the driving on one of the world’s most famous tracks. Holy shit!
We all pulled up behind an Audi R8 pace car and waited to squeeze in a hot lap between morning races. My heart raced as I sat there. Steve, the Nissan media guy in the passenger seat, briefly explained how to use the triptronics. Finally, we were given the go ahead. I hit the start button and then the gas.
I grabbed a helmet, found the car I was assigned to, and then found out I’d be doing the driving on one of the world’s most famous tracks.
Never had I felt a car move like that. And I wasn’t even flooring it. This was too much excitement for me to even fuss with a simpler version of manual, so I switched to automatic. I took the first turn timidly, and the guy behind me shot forward. I drive my shitty ‘98 Ford Contour like a maniac, so I was surprised how freaked out I was by the GT-R’s power. My heart rate dropped back down, but I still didn’t feel confident in turning all the way up. Steve told me to step it up. I gunned it more and came in hot to the Michelin chicane. I hit the brakes way too late and skidded a bit, rolling over the warning strip. A huge misjudgment, sure, but it let me know what I was working with and gave me the confidence to go through the rest of the course. Coming out of the turn, I finally floored it.
The rest is a blur, and I’m not talking about speed (although I did get the car past 140 mph, a personal record). I was in the zone. The lap was over before I knew it. Some of the Nissan people warned about dire consequences if we took a second lap, but I still considered it. I wasn’t ready for this moment to be over.
1:37 p.m. Great timing. While we we’re waiting to get through the treacherous crowd trying to squeeze through the gate for the grid walk, the Nissan ZEOD is wheeled by on its way to the track. Earlier today, during warmups, it completed the first electric lap at Le Mans. Now it’s on its way to do it in a race—the true historical moment—and give Nissan more information as it prepares to enter an LMP1 car next year.
1:48 p.m. I’ve given up. The passholes are taking a perfect opportunity to show me their French and refuse to let me into the grid walk, despite my wristband telling them to do the opposite. This is a perfect opportunity to talk about how the French have lived up to their difficult reputation in the three days I’ve been here.
When I flew into Paris and finally found my group, I learned our train headed to Le Mans was cancelled because of a strike. Apparently this happens a lot. Apparently they love to pick the optimal times to fuck with travelers. We’ve certainly been fucked with. And we were fucked with more in the hour it took to get a rental car.
Yesterday another passhole didn’t realize one of our crew was asking him in French where we were on the map because he was too busy enjoying telling us he had no idea where we needed to go.
I overheard an Englishman dealing with another passhole earlier today say what is in the running for best quote of the weekend: “All you French know how to do is say no.”
3 p.m. We’re off! I decided to leave my earplugs out when the cars soared across the starting line because I had to hear the true sound and murder my ears just once. Never again.
3:18 p.m. Uh oh. The ZEOD has stopped. Last time I’d looked it was in 26th. Even though it’s not technically competing, this could be a huge disappointment.
3:43 p.m. Just got the news. The ZEOD is done. A gearbox failure. There won’t be an electric race lap at Le Mans today. History will have to wait.
3:51 p.m. We just calculated the straightaway speed for an LMP1 on the Mulsanne straight: 207 mph. I peaked 60 mph slower today and felt like a god.
3:55 p.m. A couple of the LMP1s narrowly dodged a struggling GT. Steve Millen, who won his class at Le Mans 20 years ago in a Nissan 300ZX Turbo and is now sitting next to me, is blown away by how close it was. I follow his lead and act impressed.
4:26 p.m. The rain begins, appropriately on our way to the Michelin tent to discuss the different tires used in the race. The forecast was the talk of our group yesterday when the chance of rain was projected at 80 percent. This morning it dropped down to 30 percent, but obviously not low enough.
And it doesn’t take long for the weather to become a major factor. The #3 Audi takes itself out, as well as the #8 Toyota. The Toyota eventually pulls away, but the Audi is still sitting.
4:45 p.m. Wolfgang Reip, the sole driver to drive the ZEOD before it was retired says, "shit happens," when we walk into the room to interview him. He seems to be taking early exit well. Although it helps that he got to drive the ZEOD for its electric lap in practice.
"We can already be happy with what we've done on the electric side," he said, "which was the biggest technical challenge. It's just unfortunate. [The input shaft breaking] is something we've never had before, and then it happens two times in three days. Why? It's probably a problem from the supplier. The part snapped in two pieces. It's like it has been cut by a machine. It's completely perfect."
5:29 p.m. We finally make it to Michelin’s home base. I’ve just learned the company leases the 7,000 tires it brought to Le Mans for the racing teams and chases down every last one when they’ve been replaced. The charred rubber is still highly confidential technology that will eventually be applied to tires on the road.
6:42 p.m. Patrick Dempsey makes an appearance on the TV broadcast, marking the third time I’ve seen him today. The first time I could have given him a wicked shoulder check. The second I saw three selfie hunters go in for the kill in the time it took McDreamy to walk 15 feet.
7:22 p.m. We’re headed for a helicopter ride. Our preparation would never fly in America. A brief pat-down, a 30-second rundown of what will happen when we hop in, and that’s all we need apparently. Another thing that wouldn’t fly in America: we’re right next to an airstrip. An active one. A plane just took off maybe 100 yards away. It feels like ‘Nam as the choppers constantly shuttle people around the track.
I score the front seat next to the pilot. We get a phenomenal view as we go 1.25 times around the track and are blown away by the leading #7 Toyota. It’s clearly the best car out there. The race is its to lose.
9:43 p.m. Headed towards Mulsanne, I’m leaving the main area by the start/finish line for the first time today. When we arrive the crowd is a bit wackier and a lot more French. Speaking of the former I present:
10:17 p.m. I've noticed one of the automotive journalists with me smile every time one of the Corvettes passes by. They have the most satisfying scream of all the cars here at Le Mans. They sound like the MGM lion roaring through million-watt speakers. They're also a perfect metaphor for America's place in the world. The Corvettes aren't the best cars at Le Mans, but they are the loudest.
10:41 p.m. More wackiness: this “sheriff” obligated to “protect and perve.”
11:23 p.m. We’re back at the main stands and it’s just now dark. There are more people walking around than during the day, many of them drunk. I’ve been a bit worried about the prospects of staying up all night, but this seems like it will hold my attention.
11:40 p.m. First Red Bull of the night, and I’m off to walk around the track.
The Corvettes have the most satisfying scream of all the cars here at Le Mans. They sound like the MGM lion roaring through million-watt speakers.
11:59 p.m. I find a massive crowd watching the Italy-England World Cup game. I squeeze in next to a group of drunk English hooligans—that’s redundant—whose songs only catch on with themselves. One guy starts chanting “Eng-a-land. Eng-a-land. Eng-a-land” without his buddies joining him. “Alright then. Just me. Eng-a-land. Eng-a-land. Eng-a-land.”
12:29 a.m. I post up near past the Dunlop bridge to catch the brake discs glow red. When the driver brakes hard enough they light up like the one ring to rule them all when it’s thrown into fire. (Here's what it looks like.)
12:37 a.m. I find another, even larger viewing party for the soccer game. Italy is up 1-0 and just as I’m wondering who scored and how the hooligans reacted, Sturridge buries in off the bounce a perfectly placed cross from Rooney.
1:23 a.m. I’m heading back to the Nissan box to catch the rest of the game. (The race still has 12-plus hours, but the game does not. That’s my justification, and I’m sticking to it.) Most of the staff is English, so I’m sure it’ll be on one of the five screens. Sure enough, it is, and everyone here is glued. Italy is up 2-1 now, and I have an otherwise great conversation with a dejected fan. The English must be used to managing disappointment from their national team.
2:02 a.m. I can’t take it anymore. I need a nap. I lean back in this funky chair and try to tune out the race happening just outside. Remember the race? It’s easy to forget with so much else going on. The closed windows muffle the sound, but not by much.
3:45 a.m. I’m up. I can’t believe I actually slept with race cars roaring by every few seconds. The windows are cracked open now, and I’m pretty sure this has been orchestrated to wake me and the three other people asleep in here. Maybe I’m just paranoid. Maybe I’ve become jaded by the French. One of the few people still working here is also one of the few not falling into the British camp. I down Red Bull #2 and go out for another stroll.
4:20 a.m. It’s dead. Here’s a before and after from when people were watching the World Cup:
4:58 a.m. A group of drunk guys try and steal a Porsche banner and flag. I don’t know if they’re unaware of the security guard watching or just too drunk to care. Either way, all he has to do is wait for them to walk his way and he snatches both prizes from their hands. For a second it looks like he’s going to whack one of them with the flag.
4:58 a.m. A group of drunk guys try and steal a Porsche banner and flag. I don’t know if they’re unaware of the security guard watching or just too drunk to care.
5:07 a.m. Crepes! I can’t help but think of this scene from Talladega Nights.
5:22 a.m. I come back to the box, and the #7 Toyota has stopped and lost the lead after 14 hours. Never thought this would happen. It goes to show what I’ve heard all weekend is true: it takes more than the best car to win at Le Mans. You need a great driver and even better luck (i.e. your car not breaking down).
7:07 a.m. The #2 Audi has lost the lead to... the #1 Audi. With the #2 Audi looking to be out for a while to have its turbocharger replaced, Porsche can take 2nd in its first year back at Le Mans.
An old-school auto journalist said pulling an all-nighter would expose me to the most boring part of the race, but the transition from night to day has been incredibly exciting. When everyone was awake the #7 Toyota was dominating. They'll be shocked by the turnover whenever they wake up.
On the caffeine front, I've just had my first coffee. Fatigue has started to hit me like a chair while hanging out with T.I. and Floyd Mayweather. I can only imagine how the drivers and crew feel. Steve Millen said he never slept between stints, that it was impossible with all the adrenaline.
8:59 a.m. I'm so dead. Coffee #2 is on deck.
9:48 a.m. And coffee #3.
11:21 a.m. The #20 Porsche is now winning, while I'm losing my mind. I'm surprised more people are aren't taking to their seats with the end of the race coming closer, and especially with how exciting this morning has been. Roaming the grounds should be the last thing people are doing. Or maybe I'm just saying this because I don't have the energy to move.
12:38 p.m. Miraculously, and with a little more than two hours to go, the #2 Audi has regained the lead. I never would have guessed this while it sat in the pit for more than 20 minutes. Like college football, the earlier your setback comes, the better.
1:49 p.m. Rough day for Porsche. After the #20 car retired things are looking just as bleak for #14. It hasn't officially retired, but it's never a good sign when the driver gets out of the car. Audi can feel comfortable with a little more than an hour to go. The company also has to be feeling good about its Twitter tag, "#welcomechallenges," in reference to rival Porsche.
2:27 p.m. The weird thing about these endurance races compared to others is how dull the end is. We already know who's going to win. There won't be some mad dash to the finish line. What we're waiting for is really just the celebration.
To prove the results are now a foregone conclusion, Audi has lined up its #2 and #1 cars, which are in first and second, respectively, to cross the finish line together.
3 p.m. No surprises as the race comes to an end. Every team on pit lane is celebrating, regardless of the final order. That proves how much of an accomplishment it is just to finish the race, let alone place.
With no stakes in the race I'm celebrating finally getting back to the hotel to sleep. If I come back next year I won't pull another all-nighter, but it was a great rite of passage for my first time. Au revoir, Le Mans!