24-hour French auto race is no place like home

Our "we're not in Kansas any more" moment came just before midnight on Saturday, last June 14, as we were leaving the 24-hour auto race for the night.

We were in Le Mans, France, driving a manual-transmission Citroen Xsara Picasso (a snazzy French minivan). And although I wasn't on the racetrack, manuevering my car required superior driving skills.

Only a few streetlights and car headlights illuminate the scene. No one tried to separate the cars and people. Off to the right, the lights of a Ferris wheel were going around and around; above the tunnel we passed through, racing cars roared by, accelerating toward 150 mph.

As the crowd parted for a few seconds, I eased the clutch out so we could get up a ramp without stalling the engine or rolling back into the couple standing behind us.

"It's not like Oshkosh," says my wife, Darlene, recalling our trips to the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture — "the world's biggest air show" — in Oshkosh, Wis. There, friendly police and volunteers keep cars and pedestrians apart; it's all very orderly.

The French, it seems, have a more laissez faire attitude about details such as crowd control.

The idea of foreign travel is to not only experience those "we're not in Kansas any more" moments, but also to become, at least for a while, part of another country's unique culture. Otherwise, why bother leaving the USA?

Get your motor runnin'

Auto racing is international, and people around the world, including in the USA, watch Le Mans — which takes place this year June 12-13 — on television. But it doesn't replace being there — the sounds, the smells, the day's heat and the night's coolness and most everyone around you speaking French or British-accented English.

And while the USA has a 24-hour sports car race at Daytona International Speedway in Florida each winter, that event doesn't have the history, prestige or ambiance of Le Mans.

The Automobile Club de l'Ouest staged the first Le Mans 24-hour race in 1923, and it has run every year —except for 1936, when Depression-era strikes paralyzed France, and from 1940 through 1948 during World War II and its aftermath.

Le Mans has a tradition of welcoming Americans. Donald Panoz, founder of the American Le Mans Series of races, was grand marshal last year; his duties included waving the French flag to start the race.

This year, the USA will have "home town" teams to cheer for on race day. The Audi from ADT Champion Team of Pompano Beach, Fla., will be a contender for the overall victory, and two factory team Corvettes will be racing to win the class for cars more like those you see on the highway. They are among the nine U.S. teams invited to race this year.

The need for speed

The race cars roaring overhead as Darlene and I were leaving Saturday night had just passed the start-finish line. They were beginning another trip around an 8.48-mile circuit consisting mostly of regular, two-lane roads — yes, they are closed for the race.

The fastest cars, such as the Bentleys that finished first and second, hit speeds just a little above 200 mph on the Mulsanne Straight. During the rest of the year this straightaway is part of French National Route 138 from Le Mans to the village of Mulsanne and on south to the city of Tours. Before and after race week you can drive on it. Just don't get try to drive like the professionals, French police are reported to be cracking down on speeding all around the nation this year.

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