Thursday, August 24, 2006

Part Seven

Now that we’re qualified and work has begun to prepare the bikes for tomorrow's start, the team decides that it is a good time to take a break.
“We know when we must work hard”, Mark and Fred tell me, “but we must also know when enough is enough and we need to take a break. Come, we’ll show you the real Le Mans.”

Walking out from the relative safety of the paddock we make our way under the track and out into the spectator camping areas. Rounding a hill for our first view of the camping area is like stepping onto the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. I can immediately see several piles of wooden pallets, each well over three stories tall. Fans are running to and from these piles collecting wood, presumably for their own bonfires, though we see something even more interesting just a few steps further on. Complete with stools, a bar and a bank of taps, a group of enthusiasts are sitting inside a 4 meter by 3 meter makeshift bar constructed entirely of wooden pallets. Having been warned to leave my camera in the paddock, I am relieved to find that they don’t seem too concerned with our brief presence.

Fred is yelling in my ear and takes my shoulder to direct me and Didier toward a group of what I can only describe as drunken French hooligans, “you hear that? Take a look. They run their bikes up to the rev limiter and then hit the kill switch on and off. Bah! Bah! Bah!”

Sure enough this is the cause of the sound that has been heard all around the track, ever since the fans first started collecting in the camping areas. That was Wednesday night. Everywhere around the camping areas this sound echoes and reverberates off the main grandstand. Elsewhere, fans are running their bikes on the rev limiter and pouring oil into their exhaust pipes, sending massive black clouds of burning oil into the atmosphere around the track. Coupled with the cold, dense April air, the smoke from pallets and bike engines isn’t going anywhere. In fact, on the evening before the race there is already heavy smog hanging over the track, seen in halos around the intense overhead lights positioned around the circuit.

“They will not stop until Sunday night. If we’re lucky, they’ll eventually pass out.”

A few minutes later we come across a massive crowd doing burnouts next to one of the bathrooms. Riders roll past us dragging their feet on the dirt road, kicking up clouds of dust and making navigation with the group tricky. The most important item in my possession is my team pit credential. Without it I will not get back into the paddock, nor leave the camping area where we are beginning to feel just a little trapped.

“The worst part is for the riders” Mark and Paul tell me “during the race their eyes begin to sting from all of the smoke. Those pallets are more than just wood. All the glue and oils hangs in the air and the riders come into the pits red eyed, their eyes full of tears.”

There are 85,000 fans attending the 24 Hour that weekend and most of them will never leave the track for the duration of the race. The stands become somewhat empty in the late hours, but the festivals, parties and noise making will continue until Monday morning when we are packing up to leave. Otherwise, it never ends.

Saturday afternoon Yves grabs me and we run for the main grandstands that overlook the front stretch. We want to see the start of the race from high above and make our way through the crowds to improvise a pair of seats on the stairs between sections. We’re positioned directly over our pit box and can just make out our bike at the tail end of the grid.

With the fan fare beginning, riders have already made their two warm-up laps and are now standing on the opposite side of the front stretch from their race bikes. Standing upright in full gear is hard enough due to the pre-curved nature of suits that allow the rider to be the most comfortable when in a crouched, aggressive position on the bike. Even the boots are built for specific angles. Imagine walking in ski boots and you will get the basic idea. Now, faced with a full sprint across the track, they wait impatiently in the afternoon sun.

With the crowd charged, massive cheers sweeping through the grandstand and a flurry of information spilling over the PA in French, the race was about to begin. In an effort to work the fervid crowd one rider had pretended to walk over to the wall, unzip and relieve some pre-race jitters with a nervous pee. It got a great reaction from the fans and other riders followed suit by prompting organized efforts to start the wave.

At the drop of the green flag the riders sprinted awkwardly across the track and leapt, as best one can when wearing full leathers, onto their bikes, rocketing off in search of a few elusive positions right from the start. Aware that this was a 24 hour event, Jeff was far more nonchalant about the whole thing. We watched, and laughed, as he sauntered across the track and casually threw a leg over the Gixxer. Then, almost if scripted, he was the last to pull away and immediately yanked the bike into a massive wheelie that lasted nearly the full length of the front straight. I should not have been surprised, since earlier in the day Jeff displayed a similar humor toward the morning warm-up.

With the race scheduled to start at 3 o’clock in the afternoon it seemed silly to send the bikes out at 9 A.M. for their final pre-race shakedown. This was the case however, so Patrick and Hans both took a turn on a bike to get things checked out one final time. When Jeff entered the garage wearing the same clothes as the day before we showed a little concern and Hans asked the inevitable.

“Jeff, aren’t you going to take the bike out for a few laps?”

Without saying a word he walked out the front of the pit box and looked up into the grandstand opposite pit lane. Then, turning back to Hans and motioning toward the stands, “Nah, there isn’t enough people in the stands.”

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