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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The instruments 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 alive.

Three reflecting 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 track.

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.

Isolated 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 kinkā€”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.

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