Story and photographs by Ulrich Kniep
I admit it. Obsessed with the adrenaline high of car racing, my first experience was with the 1000 km at Germany’s Nuerburgring in what seems like a century ago. I was hooked and my passion, absolute zeal continues today many years later. I have traveled the country, even parts of Europe watching and eventually racing my own Datsun until there wasn’t any more time or money for the “hobby.”
From Brands Hatch to Spa, Monza, Formula One, and IMSA, I’ve driven and flown to races to see crushing victory and heartbreaking defeat, walking miles and miles of tracks, breathing in the black exhaust fumes at countless early races, watching accidents unfold in horror, listening to the deafening roar of the engines for hours, but never, ever had I been to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, the oldest endurance race in the history of car racing. Until last year when my dream was realized.
A 24-hour endurance race is different from any other kind of race. And Le Mans is in a class by itself. For those who’ve never been to the Circuit de la Sarthe just the extent of the track and surrounding area is monstrous. Overwhelming to the uninitiated, the area is close to nine miles in scope. Wow! Here I caution: do not visit the race unless you’ve done the research or know somebody who has experienced Le Mans.
I did mine but only with unbelievable assistance from two friends. It was fortunate that I met Spanish photojournalist Daniel Munarriz months prior to the race through an old friend of mine, Michael Keyser, winner of the 1976 12 hours of Sebring and past competitor at Le Mans. Daniel's professional experience at Le Mans as well as Michael's expertise were my lifeline. I could not be more thankful to these professionals and their two friends who went out of their way to ensure I would benefit from their years of collective knowledge. And, benefit I did. I couldn't have done it without them.
Tours and packages are available for Le Mans that add a level of comfort and sense of security for the first-time spectator, but they are expensive. I opted to backpack and the flight from Newark to Paris took only eight hours; everything went smoothly, including renting a car at Orly Airport for the 75-mile drive to the town of Le Mans.
Arriving at the Epinnette campground late Monday evening I wasn't sure what to expect. To my surprise, the security guard at the entrance guided me to assigned parking spot #35. Few other campers were yet there so it was very quiet. On Tuesday several mobile toilets, shower facilities and generators were put in place including hot water showers. Unbelievable. This is what you normally don’t see at endurance races. I have seen some pretty bad things at Sebring and Daytona.
Epinnette is at the heart of the circuit and close to the tramway. It's a newer site and was impressive. Reserve early since many of the camps book early. I waited too long and was fortunate to find a camp anywhere to include parking.
By Wednesday all major roads to and inside the circuit were re-directed. With over a 100,000-spectator capacity at Le Mans, organized chaos works as it should. Quite well. Life was about to get very interesting. Unlike Sebring or Watkins Glenn where you go from one viewing area to another, Le Mans is separated by areas with special parking passes – connected by public roads.
The entire event is more than exhausting, but also exhilarating. Even though you’re walking so much that your numbed feet no longer feel attached to the body –it makes absolutely no difference. One keeps going, driven by an unrelenting desire to see more of this incredible race event. You sleep for a few hours at a time- if that.
Night practice on Wednesday and qualifying Thursday night. Don't just come for the race. The pre-race qualifications set the tone for the actual race. Viewing areas providing excellent vantage points include the Arnage, Mulsanne, Terte Rouge and Indianapolis. Reaching speeds from 220 up to 240 miles an hour on public roads, Le Mans pushes the limits of man, and, machine. As though it weren't good enough, life was about to get even better yet!
Race Day: Through Michael Keyser we were invited to the club de Pilots, courtesy of Gerald Larousse, two-time victor at the 24 hours of Le Mans. The hospitality and generous welcome by Mr. Larousse was a welcome respite. It was truly a privilege to be there with members of old F1-guard of drivers. We watched the start of the race from the terrace with drink in hand. What could be better? The experience was a virtual reality for me.
The Race: As we all know, the Toyota team entered three cars with an excellent driver lineup, taking every precaution not to repeat 2016, when they lost the race at the last lap due to turbo issues. They were incredibly, blazingly fast during practice and night qualifying. Ultimately, Katayama drove the lap that set the fastest qualifying time Thursday night.
With Toyota on the front row, there was palatable hope of taking the fight to the Porsches. The story almost ended before it began when the Toyotas encountered numerous mechanical problems. They were never really in the race. Sure, the Porsches had their own mechanical gremlins to deal with and they won almost by default. But they won. My buddy Dani, said that, “Porsche winning will be a problem for the future of LMP1.” How right he was! Porsche announced within weeks after the race that they closing the entire program.
In my mind, it wasn’t the Porsche win that made the race special. It was all surrealistically special, but the real story, at least for me, was the Jackie Chang team. Who could forget that last hour of the race between the Corvettes and the Aston Martins. If someone could write a thriller about two race cars attempting to kill each other this would be the perfect story.
It was at the end of this race when you could really feel and see that each car had their strong fan base. It was an incredible moment. ACO, WEC, kudos to all of you an event so fantastic, so huge, and so well-organized. Ah, that old obsession. And, at Le Mans, I was not alone in my fixation. Thank you for the experience!
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