glowed green in the dark. The guardrail reflectors streamed by like twin
strings of bright pearls. The engine droned, straining against the night air. I
shifted a little in the seat, aware of my sweat-soaked suit. I felt warm,
mellow. Consciousness was a dark hollow of convexity, and the car was
signs mark the approach of the Mulsanne kink, where the road dives to the
right. It isn't as much a turn as a swerve; it can be taken flat out, but only
with perfect timing. Just after the signs the road rises under the car as if
the macadam has drawn a deep breath. This points the nose of the car up, and at
that moment you must initiate the turn while your lights are elevated into the
trees beyond. You turn into the darkness, every lap requiring the faith that
you will do it at the right instant, and that there will be no oil on the
The signs came
up, then were gone behind me in the dark. I felt the road lift under the car
and saw the lights point into the trees. A camber change in the road started
the steering wheel to the right. For one beat, my hands resisted the turning,
then followed it through with a wrist movement of great gentleness, almost a
caress. At such speed the car reacted as if it had glanced off an invisible
wall. With no sense of duration, and with no awareness of having been in the
turn, I was rushing down the ensuing straight on a new heading.
two-thirds along a straight that takes hardly any skill to drive, the Mulsanne
kink is one of the most difficult turns in racing, its difficulty increasing
greatly at night. Even drivers of comparatively slow cars have been killed
instantly by crashes at the kink—this year a French driver died there in a car
with a top speed of little over 150 mph. I have always driven cars much faster
than that, and to see the trees go by at 185 mph or more, just a few feet away,
erases from your mind even the most subconscious trickle of any idea that you
might survive if something went wrong.
In most parts of
a racetrack, even Le Mans, you picture a crash and you imagine you might have a
chance to survive it. You might have to pry yourself out of the car or try to
hold your breath in a fire, but some sort of chance would exist. Having no
chance at all is unusual, and I have always wondered if there wouldn't be a
certain majesty to that millisecond when you knew it was coming, and knew it
with such certitude that you didn't even brace yourself for the struggle, or
wince at the impending pain. I don't know. But I have noticed, leaving the kink
behind, a perceptible tingling, the reawakening of my nerve endings.
After almost a
minute at full speed, braking for the hairpin at the end of the Mulsanne comes
like a period of reentry into a real world. All during the time the car lost
speed, I sat there, oddly weightless, foot hard on the brake pedal, my eyes
watching as the edges of the road came back into focus. The smell was of the
brake pads, acrid and burning. My foot, which has some broken bones in it from
a crash of another time, ached from the effort. Then, as if the energy had been
torn out of it by the braking, the car rounded the hairpin and weakly began to
gather speed toward Arnage.
So it went, the
night and the fatigue combining so that the usual frames of reference gradually
slipped away or became meaningless, leaving me with bright pinpoint vision in
an existence that occupied only the single dimension of speed. Until with no
warning a lap came where I swung the car onto the Mulsanne and knew something
wasn't the same.
Slowly I turned
my head to the left, peering through the window. There on the horizon, a long
crayoned line of deep red signaled the dawn.
Within two laps I
could see faint particles of light through the trees. Soon after that I could
see the other drivers in their cars, shadows in rival cockpits, concentrated
forces that, as I had, had made it through the night. Of course each was a
threat now to my success in the race, but there was still that moment of
kinship, the cheery wave as I went by.
In the pits when
my stint was over there were smiles all around. Want some breakfast? How's it
going? I thought of walking up to the trailer again, but sleep could wait. It
was good to talk to the reporters, who looked fresh after sleeping at their
hotels. The stands were filling with people again.