Thursday, August 24, 2006

Part Nine

“Fuel is going to be an issue. We need Patrick to stay out longer but he is growing tired.”

Hans’ concern is valid. If his stint starts too early the fuel we put in the bike during his stop, our final planned stop of the race, may not be enough for him to finish. Patrick, exhausted from riding his quickest stint of the entire race, pits early and we begin calculating the inevitable. We’re on the same lap as the other Belgian team, Acropolis Zone Rouge, and only 20 seconds down when Hans exits the pit lane in search of one last position. It is going to be close. In fact, we’re sure we’ll need to bring him in for a splash and dash with only two laps remaining. As the race winds down the teams fill pit wall and we disassemble our timing stand. Anything that is not securely locked inside the garage or bolted to the ground is sure to be stolen when the fans encroach on the track and consume pit lane. The paddock is secure, but everything else needs to be moved inside the garage.

Despite our efforts to get everyone on pit wall Paul and Robert stay at the garage, ready to perform their refueling duties if needed. They’re ready for anything while the rest of us try to signal to Hans that, while pulling wheelies and bouncing off the rev-limiter down the front stretch is cool, it is not entirely necessary given our presumed lack of go-juice. With only minutes to go Zone Rouge has just entered pit lane with a flat tire. The team changes it quickly but we’ve already assumed the position on track. A wave of concerned joy flows through us. Fingers crossed, we watch and wait for the fall of the checker or the sight of Hans pushing the bike toward the pit box in search of fuel.

Hans and I are running errands the day after returning from Assen. We’re leaving that afternoon for Le Mans and we still need to pick up some supplies and drop by Jeff’s office so we can search for an RV to rent for the weekend. It hasn’t been planned in advance; it is just the sort of thing they expect to do a few days before a major race.

“You would not believe the number of calls I am getting, my phone will not stop ringing! Everyone wants to hear about Assen. They read about us on the Internet and now everyone wants to know what happened. For Belgians, this can be very big news!” Hans is elated, if a little annoyed that his cell phone will not stopping ringing. He doesn’t even know every person that is calling him, nor does he realize that he’ll soon hear from a Dutch announcer for ITV that wants to interview him during our weekend at Le Mans.

“Man, everyone is like, ‘Yo, I heard about Assen and wanted to say congratulations… Yo! I heard you finish tweluf, good luck at Le Mans…' but my phone just keeps ringing all morning. It is hard to get work done you know,” Hans pauses, “but I like it!”

“Herman Verboven called, too. He is thinking of loaning us a spare set of quick change equipment for the front of the bike. It would be Ohlins forks and all of the hardware. We just need to get our hands on some sixteen and half inch wheels and we’re set. Man that would be so nice. Can you imagine how fast we could be in the pits?”

Indeed, the number of people stepping forward to offer their help and congratulations is stunning. I’ve never known a person that can draw people in so easily, and without even trying or expecting the assistance.

“I also had a call from my Dad, so we’re going to try and get in and out while he’s gone on errands. He’s a bit upset with me. He yells at me, ‘This is too much with the racing! You are away from work too long.’ And I have trouble explaining it to him.”

The mood changes briefly but Hans is not one to be brought down for long. What amazes me is that someone competing for a world championship even has these sorts of problems. Here’s a guy running a private race effort that can give the big dogs a run for their money, and he’s getting grief from his father for a few extra days off.

“I guess it has been a few weeks since I was doing much work… Maybe I can’t blame him”, but he still follows this with a smile, “Gregk, we took points at Assen!”

If only the fuel lasts. If he has to, we all know that he will push the bike across the line. After 24 hours of racing the checkered flag is finally thrown. According to our watches Hans should be coming by, but we don’t see him. I lean back to check pit entrance…

Actually, it is a miracle we are even able to put fuel in the bike at all. Le Mans mandates the use of their fuel supply and specialized fuel system, which consists of two very large hoses connected to a special filler plate. All the teams must supply their own hoses and, much like everything else that weekend, the system is entirely unique to Le Mans. Having forgotten to bring the hoses with us we were in a bit of a bind on Thursday. With no hoses we were under the impression that we would not even be allowed to practice, let alone qualify or race. In an effort to make ends meet, Patrick, myself and a crew member from another team set to work trying to stuff a 3.25 inch fitting into a 2.5 inch hose. The combined efforts of us, a heat gun, a vice, several large screw drivers and a very large hammer were unable to produce anything that would even begin to pass tech inspection. It was a valiant effort, but an inevitable waste of time and energy.

Jeff had spent most of Thursday and Friday scouring the town of Le Mans for the correct hose, but for all his effort we were still coming up dry. I walked up and down pit lane using broken German, lots of hand signals and a French phrase book to convey my needs, but in the end the search turned up little more than scraps. Just when things were becoming their most bleak, with final qualifying only hours away, Jeff returned from one last trip into Le Mans bearing a miracle. The hoses had arrived by special delivery. Now, the only challenge was actually getting them to work with our improvised quick fill system…

“There he is!” Charlotte screams upon seeing Hans round the final bend. We lean out over the wall, fists pumping as Hans screams past us at triple digit speeds, only a meter from our outstretched arms. The wall of wind and sound slams into us along with the full effect of finishing the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a very respectable 24th position.

“Gregk”, it is late Sunday night and everyone on the team has been awake for nearly 40 hours. The beer has been flowing and we’ve nearly floated our second keg when the team plunges into the next part English, mostly Flemish post race conversation. “Gregk. Congratulations, you have finished your first 24 hours of the Le Mans... Shut up, I know I said it twice..."

"When will you be coming back to see us? Bol D’Or is in Septemer!”


At 12:38 PM, Blogger Mike's Diary said...

Great diary, very similar scenario to myself - perhaps the British team you refer to who invited you to watch is the one I joined earlier this year! I did Albacete, Zolder and Oschersleben with Phase One so have a look at my diary and see what you missed at the later races! I'm still trying to think of some words to describe the team getting a podium in my 3rd ever race, and probably 3rd in the WEC as well!
Let me know if you come over again next year, it would be interesting to meet up and compare notes!
Mike of Mike's Diary at Phase One

At 3:04 AM, Anonymous Sandman said...

nice write up...

Greets from Belgium!! land of Beer and Fries ;)


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