In late October 2014, I returned to VIRginia International Raceway (VIR) after a six year absence. VIR is one of my favorite tracks and I’m not sure what had kept me away.
My assigned student turned out to be Ayesha Chaudhary, whom you know as Fast Driver Mom (FDM). I drive an 83 911SC and she has an 85 Carrera, so the cars and driving techniques were a good fit for both. FDM really liked my car since it had all the goodies needed for the track, albeit still street legal. During the weekend, FDM asked me the significance of my # 26.
I have long held a passion for the history of Porsche at LeMans. In fact, the last time Porsche won the overall victory at LeMans in 1998, I was there to witness it!
It was, coincidently, the 50th Anniversary of A.G. Porsche, and the winning car was a Porsche GT1 with Alan McNish as the lead driver. Porsche entered two GT1s that year and they claimed podium at first and second, a historic win: “Doppelsieg fur Porsche”. McNish drove car #26. My wife, Mary, and I visited Paris, the Loire Valley and, of course, LeMans during our first French adventure. Mary is a good sport about my Porsche addiction, and we both remained awake for 22 hours! So, although we fell soundly asleep for 18 hours afterward, we were there, cheering on for McNish to pass the crippled Toyota at Arnage corner, and claim victory for Porsche.
In June of 2011 Porsche announced that it would, again, compete for the overall win after a 13 year absence. I felt I had to be at LeMans for the debut of the Porsche 919 in 2014, and began planning early. Having the experience in 1998 was invaluable in making 2014 a near-flawless experience. This time, I planned to attend the race with two close Porsche friends (Jimmy and David) first, and then meet Mary and our daughter and granddaughter in Paris. Rebecca, my granddaughter, had just completed her third year of high school French and I was thrilled to offer her this cultural immersion experience.
The serious planning started in August 2013, seeking lodging for three guys. The City of LeMans and the surrounding area were booked solid: Serious race fans come yearly and book their rooms annually. The British come en-masse: 60,000 plus fans driving across the English Channel and camping out at the track for a week of partying. (The British invasion is a story in itself.) For strategic reasons I wanted to be west or northwest of LeMans.
Bingo! I found a “panoramic” room (meaning it could sleep 3) at the Hotel de Paris in Laval, about 50 miles west of the track. The trip would be less than an hour. Laval is a historic and scenic river town off the beaten path for tourists and sounded like a great place to stay. The next item was finding airfares, which are always costly in June. I kept looking for that sweet time when the tickets would be at their cheapest. No such luck. I finally I pulled the trigger with Air Canada stopping over in Montreal. It turned out to be a great airline experience compared to the American carriers.
I knew, from past experience, that grandstand tickets for LeMans are very difficult to get especially those with the best views. During the 24 hour race, most of your time is spent wandering around the circuit, you do need a seat for the start of the race and in case of inclement weather. The grandstands are called “tribunes” and are covered.
The 24 Hours of LeMans is run by the French Auto Club of the West (the ACO) whose ticketing policies are inscrutable, and often insider advantage is needed. Research indicated sales began in early December but no specific date was given, so I checked the ACO website repeatedly. I lucked out again, catching the opening days, and purchased high level seats in my first choice: the Panorama Tribune.
Panorama is adjacent to the Dunlop Bridge with views from the start-finish straight through to Tertre Rouge. Placed in front of the Dunlop Curves, you can see down the hill beyond the bridge to the Esses of the Forest. I also bought the general admission tickets and parking at the same time. I knew, from my trip back in1998, to buy parking at the Rouge parking lot which is five minutes from the entrance near the Dunlop Bridge.
The LeMans Circuit is 14 km long (8.5 miles) but only a portion is open for spectators. The viewing areas stretch from the Porsche Curves to Tertre Rouge corner, a distance of about three miles. The entire 3.5 mile Mulsanne straight is off limits to spectators, as is the run from the Mulsanne corner to the Indianapolis corner. There are separate viewing enclosures at Mulsanne and the Indianapolis/Arnage complex.
From the main spectator area, you drive to the Villages of Arnage or Mulsanne to get to the enclosures. The local roads are not well marked and it’s tricky navigation, especially at night.
Due to unexpected snow days in the winter of 2013-4, Rebecca’s school delayed summer break by three days. To avoid her missing final exams, the girls departure was pushed back.
Unexpectedly, we guys got three extra days in Europe. Et voila! Road trip to Germany!
We drove to Stuttgart hoping to visit the Porsche Museum and factory. Ordinarily these are booked months in advance, but the PCA National Office factory liaison office were instrumental in arranging our impromptu visit the Tuesday after LeMans. We even squeezed in a tour of the Mercedes Museum and a cruise along the Rhine into our “bonus” Germany sojourn.
I had eight days of destinations in my trusty Garmin, ready to navigate the highways and back roads. All the pieces were in place. We couldn’t wait to start our journey, which I promoted as the ultimate “bucket list” trip.
Parts 2 and 3: Five days at LeMans, and French side trips.
Part 4: The German Adventure.