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Withdrawal, Thoughts On Not Being There

Charles Dressing was not at Le Mans this year, owing to other commitments that kept him on the other side of the Atlantic. Inevitably, however, his thoughts during Le Mans week were with his many friends who were there. Here’s his somewhat belated reflection on Missing Le Mans.

Waiting in baggage retrieval at Bradley Airport in Connecticut was the usual airport tedium. As I had been awake and on the move since 4am I drifted off into a pleasant twilight version of travellers sleep. That was the moment when Jim Roller (our TV producer and the other American accent of Radio Le Mans) said, “You picked the right one to miss.” Some wake up call.

But he was right. The pictures from Le Mans were chilling: the drivers side of the Aston’s roof crushed. This was something some of us had seen before and we knew what was coming. It took the ACO a while to make the formal announcement and John Hindhaugh did it perfectly: he simply read the ACO release word for word.

The last time I had such bad news was long ago at the original St Petersburg, Florida street circuit. My old pal and confederate Jim Fitzgerald (Fitzy to his friends and accomplices), Paul Newman’s Nissan Trans-Am teammate, hit one of the four-ton concrete barriers that defined the first turn. His Z Car stopped instantly. It was Jim Roller who told me the bad news that day, too. I remember his words, “Bad news from the hospital. I’m sorry.”

And so off from Hartford and the long drive to Lime Rock.

Grand-Am’s crowded June/July television schedule amplified the relentless tug of age. It’s a cocktail that kept me on the wrong side of the Atlantic this June.

The last time I missed La Ronde Infernale I had a doctor’s excuse. Lots of doctors.

Every June it’s the Norman invasion in reverse (without the seasick horses). I enjoy being part of the southbound trans-Channel fun every June; it usually makes me think of 1944 and the agonizing hours when the English-speaking democracies visited la belle republique to turn on the lights again, all over Europe.

There’s a pleasing whiff of homecoming about Le Mans. It’s a sort of class reunion with old friends and colleagues and the peculiar social grammar of Le Mans that no other motorsport event seems to have. Travelling to Le Mans in the company of Britons allows a peek at the true character of the event.

As the Hindhaughs left the door open for 2014, the decision to stay home in 2013 was cushioned a bit. That is, until Thursday’s first practice for the historic cars from 1949 through 1965. (Sigh. My favorites. Sorry, Group C fans.)

Porsche is slated to return next year. A big bonus because my brief tenure at Radio Le Mans never touched the ‘Porsche Years’. I envy Hindy whose first Le Mans was 1989, the year of Peter Sauber’s thunderous Mercedes-powered Silver Arrows: the last year before the chicanes, the year of the big speeds: 253.5 mph on the N-road to Tours! Makes everything else seem a bit pale and flaccid.

That’s the thought when author Brian Laban (the man who wrote the book on Le Mans – if you don’t have one, good luck finding a copy, it’s out of print) asks, ‘If you had a time machine, what Le Mans year would you visit?’ Indeed.

The Audi years are my frame of first person reference: a decade of high-calorie excellence. Everything else is video tape, black & white, two-dimensional; still images or grainy films of the Fifties and Sixties when everything changed. Happily, the character of the 24 Hours seems to have remained faithful and constant.

I really don’t require Brian’s time machine. The ACO has thoughtfully provided one. Admission: six euros. A trip to the museum at the circuit’s main entrance is mandatory. I’ve gotten pretty good at escaping from the museum in a sort of fiscal order. Last year I eased out of the shop for just under 100 euros, a new personal best. But when the ACO modified, cleaned and modernized The Village a few years ago, something seemed to go slightly haywire. The new village’s open spaces, the modern buildings and the more stylish shops left a mild yearning for the chaotic intimacy of the old Village.

But I will miss our domestic hosts, the Trotins, and their lavish and salubrious Sunday evening RLM team dinner at their home in Change. Every year after we have washed off the grime of les vingt-quatre heures (more like 31 hours actually), we all sit on the Trotin’s porch with some of their neighbors and dine on a collection of yummy French goodies that always makes me consider buying real estate in the Loire. It’s idyllic and very French and there’s even a small lake on their property that invites me for a stroll just before dusk.

That’s another thing that makes Le Mans so utterly charming; the French solstice seems unwilling to surrender to night. The daylight lingers, finally retreating, grudgingly, like a small child that doesn’t want to go to bed. The American race driver and author Sam Posey wrote of the phenomenon years ago in Road & Track magazine when he was driving a Renault-powered Mirage for Harley Cluxton, saying that at Le Mans there was ‘light in the shadows’.

On Sunday morning the reverse is true. It’s a good time not to have access to a mirror. I always feel sorry for my TV colleagues who have been prowling the pits all night and, by dawn, have to stand in front of the camera again. But the new sun seems to refresh all hands and bring an air of optimism. It’s not at all like the 24 Hours of Daytona where the long winter night is usually cold and sharp. In late January the emotion of Daytona is gray – it’s always gray – dawn is simply relief. Night is when the real racing happens.

Unlike our 24-hour Florida grind, at Le Mans the whole course isn’t visible. At Daytona one can perch on the roof and see the whole thing; it’s like watching the innards of a big machine at work. The sounds of Daytona ricochet off the tower and flood the infield. At Le Mans, even the stealthy Audi R18 makes noise as it sweeps past the tribune leaving an aural wake like a science fiction sound effect from the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. It’s an especially eerie sound early Sunday morning when a lone R18 slices by, displacing the air crowded into the space between the pits and the tribune. But the massive scale of the pit straight seems to slow even rocket ships like the mighty R18.

To see the viscera of Le Mans, find a way to Indianapolis and watch the cars appear out of the fast right before the turn that got its name from the bricks that paved it before the war. Their speed is so great it’s as if they’re beamed down from another planet. Then they’re gone; up the road to Arnage so fast it seems impossible that they can slow for the ancient 90 degree right that’s been part of the circuit since my countryman Jimmy Murphy took his Duesenberg straight-eight to victory in the 1921 Grand Prix de l’ACF.

Arnage looks slow on the TV monitors. I envy the marshals who are so close that they can feel the aero-concussion when the cars blast by. Le Mans speeds are a problem we don’t have at Daytona. The ‘bus stop’ chicane before the east banking came courtesy of the bike racers who were having bad rear tire troubles. A pal of mine who has been shooting the 24 Hours of Daytona for Road & Track magazine since the Sixties admitted that before the chicane was installed he sometimes held his breath (involuntarily) when the 917s and the 512s slashed past headed east at Le Mans-velocities.

The only problem staying home was sitting watching everyone else have fun on Speed TV. So here’s the drill: Speed TV video with Radio Le Mans on the internet: straining – longing – to hear the echo of Bruno Vandestick’s voice bouncing down the pit straight behind the sound of the engines. Hearing Bruno’s voice (always with echo) makes it official. I always grin the first time I hear his voice each June.

This year I had my evening meal as Le Mans’ sun set. By midnight in Florida it was daylight again in France. It seemed unnatural that it would all be over by mid-morning Sunday. By midday I’ll be longing for the drive to Change and the evening with the Trotins and their neighbors, and vowing to go back next year when Porsche returns to the pointy end of the grid.

Monday morning is Channel Dash day; my favorite ambulatory concours d’elegance. The run to the Channel – I refuse to call it la Manche – is a seat for the second-best motorsport event in Europe. What a fine parade. I’ll miss that, too. But, hopefully, just for another year when I can turn my back and my mind on the insistent details of the real world for two glorious weeks and wallow in the delicious isolation of Le Mans’ all-consuming demi-monde. And hopefully, in 2014, we all get to go home.

Charles Dressing