Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My First Le Mans: But Not My Last

The #1 Porsche had the field covered until it broke
I hardly know where to begin writing about my experiences at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year. It was my first Le Mans and my first time in Europe, so this may be my longest blog post ever. There were multiple times during the trip where I would say to myself "I can't believe I am here" but I have the photos to document it! I have been working on and thinking about this trip (some of my friends and family might say I have been obsessing over it, which I can understand) since the end of May last year after meeting and working with two gentlemen from France at the 2016 Indianapolis 500. I bought the plane tickets last November and was all in from that point forward. I told my French friends during Le Mans week that they probably thought I was full of shit and would never actually make it over for the event. But I did, and I dragged my fiance along, and it turned out to be the most epic trip possible with perfect weather every single day and nary a misstep on any of the travel arrangements I had made.

Seeing scrutineering in the heart of Le Mans made it all real
The 24 Hours was the centerpiece of our trip and the race did not disappoint, and although the LMP1 field was slim, the fight for the overall win more than made up for the reduced numbers of the top prototype hybrids. The Toyotas were quickest in practice and started up front, but the Porsches were steady and when the #1 broke, the #2 Porsche was there to take the win even after enduring lengthy repairs of its own. What made it really exciting was the LMP2 Rebellion team taking the overall lead in the #38 car and nearly holding on for the overall win. Not only that, the Aston Martin team made a late charge and a last lap pass to take the LM GTE Pro win over the American Corvette Racing team. I have always loved shooting sports car racing and Le Mans was my second 24 hour race this year, following Daytona in January, so I had a little idea about what I was in for. But reality blew away what I had imagined and it was all done on a wing and prayer since having credentials was not assured until about three weeks before we left Indy for Paris.

The driver's parade was s study in contrasts
I sure hope I get the opportunity to work Le Mans again and I will be working on that. I thoroughly enjoyed everything about the trip, from the planning and booking to the side trips and all the planes, trains and automobiles we used to get around. When the idea was first broached last May, I started doing research into plane fares and calculating a budget. One of my French friends suggested sing Booking.com for hotels and that worked out perfectly. I also used Air BnB for lodging during the race weekend and we ended up in a great home about a kilometer from the main entrance to the circuit. I wanted to be there for the whole week of Le Mans and had to be sure my fiance had time to enjoy Europe and not just get trapped at the racetrack so we decided to go for 17 days, beginning in Paris and ending in Rome. So we flew to Paris Wednesday June 7th, then took a high speed train to Tours, France on Sunday June 11th where we got a rental car for a few days. That allowed us to take a side trip to the Chenonceaux Chateau and I could drive to Le Mans. Ironically, I left my fiance in Tours for two days as I stayed near the racetrack in another French home since the turnaround from Wednesday night qualifying to Thursday morning track activity was so tight. Friday morning June 16th I drove back to Tours, picked up my fiance, returned the rental car and then we hopped a train back to Le Mans so we could go to the driver's parade. We landed in our Air BnB home that night excited to be in the city with the race less than a day away. After the race, we ate dinner in Arnage on Sunday and collapsed into bed since we were set to fly to Venice the next day. so Monday June 19th we took the high speed train back to Paris, then rode a shuttle bus to ORLY Airport and flew EasyJet to Venice. Our stay in Venice was brief but memorable and we took another high speed train Wednesday June 21st to Rome. The next two days we spent in Rome sightseeing at the Vatican, St. Peter's basillica, the Colosseum and the ancient city before we took our return flight to Indy on Saturday June 24th. And just like that the trip was over, but I had about 10,000 images on my cameras and cell phones to memorialize it.

We had to stop at the Le Mans museum and gift shop first!
Our first day in Le Mans was Monday June 12th and we went to the credential office and racetrack first. It was an easy drive from Tours and we found ourselves driving into the City on the Mulsanne straight but going the opposite direction of what would be the normal race traffic. I drove inside the track and found the parking area for my pass and then wound our way downtown to the Place de Republique where the Pesage was underway. This public tech inspection (or scrutineering) was in the heart of Le Mans and hugely popular with race fans who could see the cars up close and get photos of the teams, cars and drivers. I tracked down my French friends who I had not seen since Indianapolis in May of 2016 and we arranged to meet for dinner later that evening. On the way, the GPS in the car I had took us the wrong direction so one of the guys had to come get us at the credential facility and lead us to the restaurant. Afterwards we went out in my rental car and I got to drive on the public roads of the racetrack from Tetra Rouge down the Mulsanne, and through Indianapolis and Arnage corners. I shot video and was absolutely thrilled to have that opportunity.

Great light Wednesday between Mulsanne and Indianapolis corners
My fiance and I took our road trip to Chenonceaux the next day and then on Wednesday I headed to Le Mans to get down to business. I had to hit a photo meeting before I could go shoot in order to get updated on the safety rules which were quite a bit different than what I normally see in the USA. My French friends are the Le Mans experts through their company Vision Sport Agency, and while I had been studying the track map for months, I had no idea how to get from Point A to Point B. They had me tag along with another experienced Frenchman who took me to all the right locations for the first four hour practice session and the lighting was just perfect everyplace we went. He couldn't speak much English and I couldn't speak much French but we managed to communicate through the common language of racing photography. They let me borrow a 500 mm lens and I was in another world for that practice session. There are places photographers may go at Le Mans where it is just you, a three-tiered guardrail, the woods and the track so you really must pay attention and it was eerie at times to think how close the danger was with no catch fencing between me and the cars. But I loved it.

Night qualifying was spectacular from the center island
That first track day also included a night qualifying session between 10 pm and midnight and I got another thrill: the guys let me borrow a firesuit and helmet and work the pit lane during that session. The Le Mans pits are unlike anything else I have ever experienced so I was a little overwhelmed at first, but then I remembered lessons I learned long ago: keep them in front of you and don't turn your back on the cars. That was especially important since the LMP1 prototypes were hybrids and they would whistle silently into their pit stalls and you wouldn't even hear them coming. The Le Mans pit lane has a center island area where the engineers sit with their computer monitors adjacent to the racetrack where it is also possible to shoot. And because we have to have helmets and firesuits, you can walk back and forth across the pit lane and around the cars while they are pitting. So I walked the island all the way to the other end of the pits and crossed back to the pit stalls and walked the other direction so the traffic came toward me. I did that routine twice during the session and got the chance to experiment with available light and second curtain flash in ways I never had before. It was an amazing experience but my adventure for that day didn't stop there as I had trouble finding my host home in the dark that night, but the hostess waited up for me and offered me bread and cheese while we tried to communicate.

There's something special about night racing that I have come to love
Thursday June 15 was a very long day at the track with early sessions, the Road to Le Mans series and WEC Le Mans qualifying that ran until midnight again. I went to several new shooting locations and added to my steps total with more big numbers, and then was left to my own devices for the night qualifying session. I experimented with some longer exposures and went to the esses that lead onto the main straightaway. At that location I was also able to see the cars under heavy braking and get some nice shots of cars trailing each other through that series of corners. At the end of that day, I went back to my host home and got a few hours of sleep before heading back to Tours the next morning to get my fiance and bid our farewells to our BnB hostess there. I was so excited to get back to Tours and tell my fiance about my experiences and hear about her days on her won, and then we had a train to catch back to Le Mans.

After walking the grid, I went up towards the Dunlop Bridge for the start
Friday June 16th we were together in Le Mans at last and got picked up at the train station by one of our French friends so we grabbed a leisurely lunch downtown and then had fun with the driver's parade which started after 5:00 p.m. and ran until about 7:30. The contrast between old and new in downtown Le Mans was striking and then we were ready for race day. The funny thing was, I needed to do laundry! So our Air BnB hosts took us to a laundromat race morning and then we packed up our stuff and walked to the Circuit. I had purchased an ACO Club membership for my fiance so we found where she needed to go and then went into the Vision Sport Agency office to get ready to go to work. We agreed to meet at the ACO Club facility at midnight so I could walk her back to our Air BnB home and grab a couple hours of sleep. I was back at the circuit at 5:00 a.m. and headed immediately for the area of the Dunlop Bridge as I had an image in my mind I wanted to try and get.

Sunrise came around 6:00 a.m. 
Sunrise at Le Mans is an iconic image and although I am happy with what I got, it was not quite what I had envisioned so I want another crack at it. That will have to wait for my next trip to Le Mans and I know there will be one. That Sunday morning sky was still way better than what we had at Daytona this year at the Rolex 24 Hours where it was pouring rain at dawn. From Wednesday through Sunday, I was struck on more than one occasion just how awesome it was to even be there, trackside at Le Mans, after dreaming about going to that race for years and seeing the work of other photographers year after year.  The theme for the 85th Le Mans was "Mythique" and I certainly experienced that feeling as I watched the race unfold, and the Toyotas dropped out, then the #1 Porsche failed with a huge lead, and the GTE battle went to the last lap. There was no big controversy this year and I shot several thousand images over the course of the week so I had a lot of editing to do once the race was over. We had a plane to catch the next day to Venice so the editing would have to wait, but I was already thinking about the next time I could come to Le Mans as we ate our post race meal in Arnage. Our Air BnB host picked us up after dinner and took us back out on the racetrack as the public roads were re-opened just hours after the checkered flag flew, a perfect bookend to the way our Le Mans week began.

There's so much more I could write about my first Le Mans experience, but for now I will try to let my photos tell more of the story. Here are links to my galleries from the week:

Post race Victory Lane celebrations were absolutely joyous
Morning light at Le Mans was magical
Of course I had to go to Indianapolis Corner for photos
Shooting in the woods between Mulsanne and Indianapolis was unbelievable

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