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The 24-hour race at Le Mans is a monument to the idea that life goes on. It is a French national institution dating back more than half a century, with a quarter of a million devotees turning out every June for a scene that perhaps can be compared only to the Woodstock rock festival. But to the driver, speeding through the night portion of the race in a vehicle that is about as sturdy as an eggshell, with lights as useful at 200 mph as miner's lamps, the idea that life will go on—or that the night will ever end—doesn't seem the least bit assured.
At any time, day or night, Le Mans is an imposing circuit. Its many fast turns permit laps of an extremely high average speed but, because the track is narrow and lined with guardrails, the sensation is of aiming your car down a twisting hallway. A lap is 8.36 miles long and takes you through the rural countryside on the outskirts of the railhead town of Le Mans, 135 miles southwest of Paris. Most of the circuit consists of main roads ordinarily open for public use, and as you rip past fields and farmhouses and occasionally plunge through dense pine forests you are in fact rushing from one small Le Mans suburb to another. Mulsanne is one of these towns. Arnage is another. At racing speeds, however, you rarely notice the scenery.
At night there's almost nothing to see except the road. Cars are no longer recognizable by their shapes or colors; they are just twin dots of light. The few illuminated landmarks that do exist surge at you out of the dark in an endless repetitive sequence. The pits. The carnival at the esses. The caf� that's one-third of the way along the straight leading from Le Mans out to Mulsanne. The rest of the lap becomes abstract; rows of bright reflectors along both sides of the road outline the route clearly but make it look more like a lighted diagram than a race circuit. In this way the night conceals many of the specific hazards of the course, replacing a sense of coming and going from particular danger points with a pervasive uneasiness.
Half of a Le Mans driver's night is spent on the track, the other half trying to get some sleep while his co-driver is out with the car. The more organized teams rent trailers behind the pits as dormitories for their drivers, and in the eight years I have done the race I have always gone to my trailer knowing I must sleep to keep my reflexes working. But sleep has never been easy to come by.
In the darkness of the trailer I see images of the road rushing at me, as if all those laps have been stamped on my mind, a tape loop that cannot be shut off. If I close my eyes, a second later I'm grabbing for the edge of the cot, convinced I'm falling; hours of violent motion in a car have upset my balance. Every year the trailer walls seem thinner, or else the cars are louder, and the roaring is a reminder that my car is out there somewhere. When I am particularly tired I get the idea that the car is still going not so much because the nuts and bolts are right but because the whole team is willing it to run—sheer mind over matter. For me to sleep is to reduce by one the force that keeps the car going.
One year, 1970, I spent my hours in the trailer half convinced I would not live through the night. That was the year it rained for 20 of the 24 hours. Rain is frightening even on a slow track in broad daylight. At night, driving through Le Mans' fast turns and down the long Mulsanne straight, it is terrifying. On the water-soaked track the tires of my Ferrari aquaplaned uncontrollably, the steering wheel sometimes being wrenched back and forth in my hands and sometimes going dead. Seen from the cockpit the rain didn't fall; it came at me horizontally. Drivers usually remain at the wheel for three hours or more during the night, allowing their co-drivers a chance to rest, but in the rain that year the concentration required was so great that no one could stay on the track for more than 90 minutes at a stretch. I made so many trips back to the trailer I lost count. Each time I took with me fresh memories of disaster, of fires burning around the track, wrecked cars crammed against guardrails, shiny slickers of rescue workers visible in the headlights, a flag marshal dead at the chicane.
In 1976 the Le Mans night was different. It was humid, the air hanging heavy and close, promising another day as hot as the one we had just had. But it was clear—no chance of rain. I was driving for the BMW team, and at 1 a.m. I was between stints at the wheel. I was lying on a cot in one of our trailers. It was too hot to close the windows, and the sound of the cars penetrated the trailer at irregular intervals, unusually loud. An hour before, having just completed a long period in the car, I had enjoyed a compulsive, overwhelming need to replace lost liquids and had overdone it, gulping three quarts of mineral water. I felt bloated, and my thick fireproof underwear was hot and sweaty, but I was too tired to pull it off.
In the opposite corner of the trailer, sleeping soundly, was a German girl, hired by BMW as a hostess for our hospitality camper. The previous afternoon she had been a whirlwind of activity as she made sandwiches and served drinks.
"You'd better take it easy if you're planning to be up all night," I had said to her.
"It doesn't matter," she had answered, laughing. "Your cars will break down early." But they hadn't—or rather mine hadn't; the other three BMWs were out.