My girlfriend and stood behind the fence, watching as each vintage race car sped past us, shaking the fence as they did so. Their engines grew in volume as they came closer, then dropped slightly in volume once they were past us. Red Ferraris, white or silver or red and white or light blue and orange Porsches, yellow or red Lolas, white Chapparals, silver Mercedes-Benzes. My girlfriend's long dark hair blew this way and that in the wind that came from the passing race cars.
It was exhilarating being so close to them. For me, anyway. My girlfriend Reinette didn't seem so thrilled by the experience.
She covered her ears and yelled, “Are they usually that loud, Jules?”
I nodded and yelled, “No mufflers on race cars!”
“Next time I'll bring earplugs!” she yelled.
Maybe next time I should come here alone, I thought. She's probably only here to please me. Given a choice, she'd probably rather be hiking in the woods, watching a sunset or sunrise, or at home, curled up on the sofa in front of a fireplace and reading a book.
“I'm going to the pit lane!” I yelled. “You don't have to come with me if you don't want to!”
“I'll come!” Reinette yelled.
“It's going to be even louder than here!” I yelled.
She sighed. “Wonderful!” she yelled.
The garages along pit lane were busy. Each stopping spot in pit lane was filled with a race car, some already started, some still being worked on by mechanics. The sound of the engines mixed with the smells of oil, gasoline, and smoke was a bit overwhelming. But it made it all the more real. Until today, I thought I'd never get to be so close to the action at a race track, especially not here at Le Mans.
As I'd warned Reinette, it was definitely louder here than at track-side. One of the mechanics saw her covering her ears with her hands and gave her a pair of earplugs. She put them in her ears and then I saw her lips move. Whatever she said was blotted out by the sounds coming from the race car engines. The mechanic smiled and nodded in return.
We walked past most of them until we reached the Porsches. There was one race car outside the garage and a few inside it. Inside, the engine sounds were almost deafening. Reinette yelled to me, suggesting that we go back outside where it was marginally quieter. It was one of the rare times that I agreed with her.
From behind, I almost thought that the race car outside the garage was a mid-960s Porsche race car. Maybe a 906 or 908. Walking along its right side, though, I realized that it was a long-tailed Porsche 917 in the light blue and orange colors of the Gulf-supported races cars of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
A mechanic was sitting inside the 917 and saw me looking the car over. He stepped out of the race car and stood up.
“Visitors aren't usually allowed here!” he yelled to me. “Who let you enter the pit lane?”
“I'm not just a visitor!” I yelled back and showed him my I.D. card.
“Monsieur Voisine!” he said, handing it back to me. “Usually you call before you came. One moment. I will find the team manager and tell him you're here.”
“There's no need,” I said. “I was just --”
But he was already out of earshot.
I sighed. “I was hoping to avoid this. I just wanted to make a quiet visit.”
“Say again?” Reinette yelled.
“I said I was hoping to avoid this!” I yelled. “I just wanted to make a quiet visit!”
“You own a race car team?” she yelled.
“Sort of!” I yelled. “I'm the biggest shareholder, as well as a major donor!”
“Is that why you wanted to come to this race track?” she yelled.
“Partly!” I yelled. “I'm usually too busy to visit here! I try not to miss any races the team participates in!”
The mechanic returned soon after, followed by the team manager. The team manager held out his hand and I shook it.
“Monsieur Voisine!” the yelled. “Normally you call before you visit us!”
“My apologies, Claude!” I yelled. “I just wanted a quick visit and then go back to work!”
“If you like, you can take a lap around the track with me!” Claude yelled. “The race car is almost race-ready now!”
“If it's not too much trouble!” I yelled.
“No trouble at all!” Claude yelled.
Claude handed me a racing helmet. I put it on just as he was putting his on. Reinette backed away. She was no doubt pleased that she didn't have to ride in the race car with me.
I watched as Claude crouched down and sat down on the driver's seat, which was on the right side of the race car. He immediately put on his racing belt. I did the same on the passenger side. Until I sat down inside the 917, I couldn't believe how short the race car really was. It was almost like sitting on the ground.
Claude turned the ignition key and the 12-valve 4.5-liter engine behind us roared into life. He put the car into first gear and stepped on the gas pedal. The 917 gained speed easily and once it left the pit lane, its speed and engine volume increased still further. If it hadn't been for the sound-deadening material on our helmets' interior, we would've been deafened.
Once we were on the Mulsanne Straight, the only regret I had was that this was the modern track layout, not the one that the 917s had originally been designed for more than fifty years ago. Still, the reality of riding inside a 500+ horsepower race car for a lap around the track was far superior to watching race cars doing it on television or in YouTube videos. The lap ended over three minutes later, but it felt much too soon to me.
When we returned to the pit lane, Claude asked, “Would you like to take the wheel for the next lap?”
That felt like letting a little kid loose in a multi-million Euro mansion without any parental supervision. This race car was worth at least several million Euros. One mistaken downshift or upshift could ruin the equally precious engine.
“Are you certain about that?” I replied. “I've never driven a race car before.”
“I'll be sitting next to you,” Claude said. “I'll stop you if you try to do something wrong.”
That wasn't much comfort, but I wasn't about to turn down a chance to drive a 917 here at Le Mans.
We changed places and Claude explained how to shift as smoothly as possible. He also warned me of some of the quirks of driving this race car.
I decided to take it easy for this lap. Maybe then Claude would say that that was enough and we should head back to the pit lane.
I put the car into first gear and carefully drove the 917 down pit lane and onto the race track.
Claude let me know when to upshift to second gear, then third gear, then fourth gear.
We were already past the first Dunlop Bridge and heading through the esses before passing under the second Dunlop Bridge.
I didn't feel like I was inside a race car. I felt like I was inside a fighter jet.
The 917 roared onto Mulsanne Straight, speed building faster than I expected. By the time we reached the first chicane, it was probably going somewhere north of 200 miles per hour. I downshifted as quickly as I could, while trying to keep the race car on the track. Once back on the Mulsanne Straight, Claude explained to me that the next chicane was the same, only on the left side of the track.
How could he remain so calm when I was this nervous? Had he been this nervous his first time driving on this track?
With Claude directing me, it was somewhat easy to drive around the race track. Before I knew it we were going through the two chicanes before the start/finish line.
I was ready to slow down and head for the pit lane, but Claude said, “Once more around the track. This time don't be so cautious, Jules. Show me what you can really do. The 917 can handle it. Really it can.”
Maybe the race car could, but myself?
We roared past the pit lane, with Claude pushing me to go faster and deeper into corners than I had during my first lap. The 917 seemed quite happy to do whatever I asked of it. Even when the clouds above us looked darker, as if getting ready to rain, Claude didn't seem to mind.
“If I was training you, we would do laps regardless of the weather or time of day,” he explained as we sped down the Mulsanne Straight for the second time. “If you think this track is scary in its current layout, you're lucky that you never drove on the old Spa Francorchamps track layout. Now that was a scary place. Even the pros in the 1960s and early 1970s weren't exactly calm when they drove on it.”
“You aren't helping calm me down,” I said. “I'm wealthy enough to be able to pay for a 917 just once. But I would probably be too worried and scared to actually drive it. I'd rather leave that to the pros like yourself or keep it in museum.”
It seemed just seconds before we reached the end of the Mulsanne Straight. I shifted down to first gear. I turned right, shifted up again until I reached fourth gear. The rest of the race track sped by in a blur. This time when we reached the two chicanes before the start/finish line, Claude told me to turn onto the pit lane. Relieved, I did so.
When we reached the Porsche section, I slowed to a stop. My breathing slowed down to something approximately normal. My pulse rate took longer to slow down.
“That . . . was . . . amazing,” I said.
“You did it better than I expected, monsieur,” Claude said. “A shame you went into business instead of racing. You could've been a great driver with more practice and experience.”
“You're being much too kind,” I said. “Those three laps showed me that there is a large gap between what you can do and what I can do. Thankfully there are pros like yourself.”
He shrugged. “Another lap while I drive?”
I shook my head. “Three was enough. You helped make a childhood dream come true. When I wake up tomorrow morning, I probably still won't believe this actually happened.”
He smiled. “I'll take a photo of you with my cell phone and email it to you. Then you'll have all the proof you need that it was real.”
I still have that photo, in a wooden frame, sitting on the desk in my office. Sometimes I look at it and try to remember those three laps around Le Mans. The sound of the engine, Claude's calm voice, and the speed that the trees and buildings sped by until they were almost a blur.
Reinette on the other hand decided that one visit to a race track was quite enough. We broke up, amicably, not longer after. We remain good friends. In fact, last Christmas, she mailed me a DVD of the Steve McQueen movie, “Le Mans” and a Christmas card with a Porsche 917 on its front. Inside, she added a postscript to her message: Racing is life. Anything before and after is just waiting. It was what Steve McQueen's character said in the movie. She understood, even if she didn't share in it as much as I did.
Perhaps. Doubtless it would be a long while before I sat inside a race car again, much less drove it around a race track. In the meantime, I was quite happy to let the professionals do the driving while I supported them as best I could. It seemed to work better that way.
By the way, I did get a second Christmas card. From Claude: Still waiting? A particular 917 is also still waiting. Don't wait too long, mon ami. Joyeux Noel.
I looked outside my office at the sprawl of modern Paris. Off in the distance, I could see the Eiffel Tower. How long had I waited before I took the elevator up to the Eiffel Tower's observation deck? Too long. Don't make the same mistake again.
I picked up the phone on my desk and dialed a number in Le Mans.
Claude's voice spoke: “Ici Reynaud. Parlez!”
“Bon soir, Claude,” I said. “Ici Voisine.”
“It'll be good to see you again, monsieur,” he said. “It was longer than I expected.”
“My apologies, mon ami,” I said.
“No apology needed, Jules,” he said. “The car will be ready for you.”
“Merci,” I said.
“De rien,” he said. “Drive safe.”
“I shall,” I said. “Au 'voir.”
“Never good-bye,” he said. “Until next we meet.”