SI Vault
Sam Posey
November 15, 1976
Bone-weary and alone, the men who race at Le Mans must hurtle through a night that they fear will never end
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November 15, 1976

Down A Dark Hall At 185 Mph

Bone-weary and alone, the men who race at Le Mans must hurtle through a night that they fear will never end

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As I lay in the trailer I thought back to the start of the race, which seemed a very long time ago. I remembered being on the grid, in all the color and sunlight, posing for pictures in front of the car, clowning with my co-driver to relieve the tension. And I remembered the first lap, racing down the Mulsanne straight, the cars weaving in and out. We all had energy to spare, then.

I got up carefully, so as not to wake the girl, and crossed the compound to the team camper. It was empty, its lights on. I poured some coffee. In the distance I could hear robust German drinking songs coming from a dance hall on the carnival midway beyond the pits. It was almost time for my next turn at the wheel. You could be back home in California, I told myself, lying on the lawn, listening to the Pacific Ocean.

The dark paddock was crowded with the shadowy forms of the transporters. Here and there an oil-streaked car, out of the race, sat lifeless under a tarpaulin. At the concrete steps marking the back entry to the pits, a guard moved out of my way and nodded deferentially. I returned his nod with gravity, caught for a moment by a sense of mission. There was duty still to be done. A race to finish. As I walked up the narrow corridor immediately behind the pits there was a strong smell of racing oil in the air. I was feeling fine.

In the pit the team manager greeted my arrival with indifference, as if I weren't anything other than a mechanism that had come to replace the mechanism currently behind the wheel. I ducked under the refueling hoses that hung from the low ceiling and pulled out my equipment bag. A minute later I was ready, aware of my breathing inside my helmet. Across the track from the pits the grandstand was nearly empty, and in the quiet between the passing of the race cars tinny music played over the public-address system, sounding lonely and vacant. There are very few witnesses to a driver's night stint at Le Mans.

The car came in, suddenly displacing the dark in front of the pits with lights and a cloud of steam. My co-driver emerged, shouting something to me that I couldn't hear, and then I was down in the cockpit struggling with the harnesses. I saw the signal to start the car and in a moment I was moving up the pit lane. Then the lights of the grandstand were gone and there was only the pool of my own lights ahead of me on the track.

The first lap was awkward and disjointed as the new tires, cold and slippery to begin with, began to heat up with the friction of the track. Then they were hot and sticky, and the car was gripping surely and predictably. I drove in a groove that I had developed during my earlier shifts behind the wheel, guiding the car with an economy of physical movement.

The tense effort of the daylight hours soon gave way to reflexive motions and intuitive thoughts. The miles spun off in an endless journey. The lighted Ferris wheel beside the track seemed to turn as if it were geared mysteriously to the cars revolving on the track. And after six or seven laps, I felt the reestablishment of a strange sense of being in a giant orbit around a central point.

On my trips down the 4�-mile-long Mulsanne straight I could feel the power releasing itself through the car as it picked up speed second by second. By a quarter of the way along, the car was established in a snug envelope of air that tugged at its sides, making it dart from side to side like an express train on a rough roadbed. The caf� went by on the left, a sustained flash of warm light seen out of the corner of my eye.

When there were other cars on the straight I would duck into the vacuum behind them for a few seconds before passing. In those moments the view up the straight would be cut off. Full speed, and all I could see was six feet, into the back of the car ahead. The Porsches had turbochargers: their exhausts glowed red with heat, and from under their wheels the passing lines painted on the road came spitting out like tracer bullets.

At other tracks you are still accelerating when it comes time to brake at the end of the straight, but the Mulsanne is so long the car comes to a stage where its power simply cannot push any more air out of its way, and the speed levels off. Terminal velocity. Alone on the straight, that was 185 mph in my BMW, but it became higher, more than 190, when I could tuck into another car's slipstream. The speed produces neither giddiness nor fear, but a sense of a transfer of power, the car's power into my hands and arms.

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