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.

At the end of the race last June, Tom Kristensen of Denmark, Rinaldo Capello of Italy and Guy Smith of England had driven 377 laps in their Bentley for a race average speed of 133.16 mph. They covered 3,197 miles — close to the highway distance from San Diego, Calif., to Portland, Maine — in 24 hours. Don't try this at home.

From 4 p.m. Saturday until 4 p.m. Sunday each race car circles the course with three drivers taking turns, each drives about two hours at a stretch and tries to rest between stints at the wheel. When everything is running well, cars come into the pits for gas, and maybe a tire change, about once each hour.

For a car and its drivers, the day is "the most merciless 24 hours of all," says Derek Bell of England, who co-drove five Le Mans winners between 1975 and 1987.

Each lap takes the cars around 12 named curves, but there really are more. Some need a quick left-right-left flick of the steering wheel, others require a right-left-right flick. Skilled drivers navigate some curves at close to top speed in fifth or sixth gear, but take the sharpest curve at around 50 mph in first or second gear.

It's hard on cars as well as drivers; only 27 of the 49 autos that started the 2003 Le Mans were running at the end.

Taking in the 24-hour show

The race also can be hard on spectators.

Some hang in for the entire race at the circuit, maybe taking a nap now and then. Others watch the first few hours on Saturday, go back to their hotel for at least a litle sleep, and then return Sunday to watch the last few hours or more.

Those who spend the night, or awake early Sunday, can enjoy the "only in France" spectacle of some of today's fastest cars racing into the dawn where Roman legions marched more than 2,000 years ago.

One way to take in the entire 24 hours is to camp at the circuit. Thrill rides at the carnival in the infield and food stands — you probably won't go wrong with the steak-frits— offer opportunities for a quick break.

If you've camped in the infield at an American NASCAR or sports car race you will probably feel right at home, especially if you pitch your tent near British fans, where you can understand at least some of the words to the rowdy songs.

The Brits go to Le Mans "to party hard, with impossible quantities of beer and continuous private fireworks in the camping ground," says Michael Sherrell of Perth, Australia, who camped at the circuit during a 2003 European tour with his wife, Loretta, in a 1949 MG TC, which they shipped from Down Under.

Camping "can get quite exciting towards the end of any evening when skyrockets start going sideways and rousing songs get louder," Sherrell says. "But it's all in good spirits with only a few idiots who go too far. I'd say if you want the full experience of Le Mans, have it in the heart of the main camping area, but be warned, it's not for the faint hearted or for those who like their sleep."

If you're looking for a more upscale experience, you can join the ACO (Automobile Club de l'Ouest), which runs the race. Joining offers ticket discounts, access to a special grandstand and a members-viewing area with a bar and a good view of part of the circuit. Tour companies with race packages also offer special viewing and "hospility" areas with food and drink, at a price.

For the ultimate in upscale viewing — if you're driving an Aston Martin, Ferrari, or other "approved" classic car — is the Marque Park. Here, you'll drive into the circuit via a "traffic-avoiding" entrance and park in an area guarded by closed-circuit television and dogs. You can walk up red-carpet stairs for a drink at the bar to watch the race through full-height windows as you nibble at French cuisine. Stay in a soundproof room right at the track, and sleep soundly knowing hoi polloi aren't leaving sticky fingerprints on your priceless car. Cost? About $3,000.

The regular covered grandstands offer good views of different parts of the circuit, but it's hard to imagine anyone trying to watch 24 hours of racing from those seats. But there are several vantage points along the course where you can start to appreciate the different techniques drivers use to negotiate different kinds of curves.

Shuttle buses offer rides to viewing spots, but to really take in as much as possible, you should be ready to do a lot of walking. And, since the race runs rain or shine, be prepared for whatever the weather brings.

If you don't stay all night, wait until after dark to leave on Saturday. Night racing offers unique sights. Sherrell says: "My favorite place was just before the Dunlop Bridge at night where the front and rear disk brakes light up from red to nearly white" as the drivers slow at the end of a straightaway.

He also enjoyed watching from an area "opposite the brightly lit pits. Again at night this is spectacular with pit stops every few minutes."

Thrills off the racetrack

For those whose spines don't tingle at the sound of a revving car engine, Le Mans still can be a lot of fun.

The "La Grande Parade Des Pilotes" takes place the night before the race. The parade begins near the magnificent St Julien Cathedral, which was built from the 11th to 15th centuries and ranks among the greatest in France.

During the two-hour celebration, you can sip an aperitif at one of the open-air cafes or stroll along the parade route as you window shopping and get a close-up view of the race's nearly 150 drivers, scores of exotic and historic cars, bands from around Europe, majorettes from the Czech Republic, samba dancers from Brazil and — for a touch of home — the Hawaiian Tropic Girls.

After the parade, you could climb the stone steps up the fourth-century Gallo-Roman wall, as Darlene and I did, for dinner at a tiny restaurant named Le Nex Rouge — make a reservation beforehand —. It sits along one of the narrow streets of Vieux Mans, the city's oldest part, which attracts tourists all year and not just during race week.

A traveling companion who is left completely cold by cars could easily skip the race to zip into Paris and back on a high-speed TGV train for a day of shopping or sightseeing, returning in time to join the gearhead for dinner in Vieux Mans.

And while the racing circuit is on the edge of a large city, you don't have to drive far to find yourself in the middle of French farming country, far away in ambience if not distnce, from crowds and fast cars. In fact, the chateau country of the Loire Valley begins just south of Le Mans. A few nights in the Loire Valley or Normandy would be an easy part of a driving trip.

Crossing the finish line

On June 14, 2003, about an hour after escaping the crowd at the circuit, we saw only three or four other cars on the highway going either way as we pulled up at the toll booth at the end of the A 28 Autoroute 15 miles south of Le Mans.

The attractive, well-coiffed attendant was dressed as though to dine at a Paris three-star restaurant when her shift ended.

Her smile, cheerful "Bonsoir," and then "Merci" as we handed over the 1.30 Euro ($1.50 U.S) toll prompted me to say as we pulled away: "What a pleasant exchange. I never expected that at a toll booth."

The moonlit fields of France were beginning to feel like home as we drove south to our hotel.