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.