Out on the circuit, Cale finds that he can eat up some of the cars. "Hell, I had to back off to keep from running right over some Porsches," he says later. But then it happens.
He had just swung boldly out of the hairpin turn after the Mulsanne Straight and was picking up speed again, headed into a twisty section toward Arnage Corner. "On the first left-hand turn, the brakes went real mushy," he says. "And in the next turn, they went zero. I didn't have any brakes at all."
Like any NASCAR veteran, Cale looked immediately for a soft spot to spin it out. There was a fine, grassy patch just off the track ahead. But, unhappily, it was crowded with spectators, and there were a couple of race marshals there as well. Cale recalls that an image instantly froze on his mind: the spectators were chewing on those long, thin loaves of bread and drinking red wine from bottles without labels. And with the fat, 20-inch-wide tires on the Camaro, there was no way he could spin it on the track to scrub off speed. "I tried everything," he says. "I tried grabbin' gears [translation: downshifting like crazy]. But, no. And I sure couldn't wipe out all those people. So I just aimed her toward the guardrail and slammed her in."
The car slammed in, all right, driving its nose in almost up to the windshield and pulling a few guardrail supports right up out of the ground. Cale unhooked himself and climbed out. And, in a probably illegal gesture, some spectators threw him a rope. Cale tied it to the back of the Camaro. About 15 of them tugged and heaved, spit on their hands and tugged some more. No way.
Back in the pits far up the track, the crewmen paced around, fretting. Cale was long overdue. It got to be 4:25 p.m. and nobody knew what had happened; for all the speed of the race, word travels slowly at Le Mans. And if he had crashed, under the rules they couldn't go out to help him, not even to yank his car free. If the driver could somehow get the car around to his home pit again, they would be permitted to build practically a whole new car if necessary, but the driver had to get there on his own. Then, finally, the report came: Cale was all right, he was just fine. But the car was an awful lot squattier than when it had left. A tow truck was winching it out from under the guardrail.
Well, uh, damn. End of race. End of the mighty thunder. They had run one hour out of 24—52:54.3 minutes, to be exact. Thirteen laps. The Camaro was the second car out of the race. Tex Powell sat on the toolbox and looked down at his greasy hands, then around at the crew. His eyes were red from lack of sleep. "Y'know," he said, "I been so busy all week with the car that I haven't even had time to send any postcards to the folks back home. Why don't someone here run out to one of them stands in the infield and get us all some postcards."
SUNDAY MORNING, June 14
Cale finishes stuffing the last red and white Winston Cup garment bag into the Peugeot. Betty Jo and the girls are crisp and fresh, as befits Southern ladies. Madame Launay stands watching; she is struggling to maintain her austere look, but regality is obviously tough this morning. And then little B.J. approaches and takes her hand and says, "We want to thank yew for bein' so nice, ma'am." And that does it: Madame Launay impulsively bends down and hugs and kisses the girls.
Off at Le Mans, over in the next valley, the race is still going on. It already has been marred by two deaths—a driver's and a race marshal's—and at the end, only 21 of the 55 cars that started will finish. The race will ultimately be won by a Porsche, of course, a 936 driven by Belgium's Jacky Ickx, with Britain's Derek Bell, each of whom had won the race before; this will be Ickx's fifth victory. They will average 125.30 mph, covering 2,997.5 miles. Not a record, and a slightly slower speed than the Camaro ran—when it was running.
"But that's racin'," Cale says.
He has maintained his composure through it all. After his crash, when Cale had made it back to the Camaro compound, it had taken a worried Betty Jo several more minutes to get to him from her seat in the stands through the dense infield crowd. By then, he had his driver's uniform pulled down to his waist and his arms were folded across his thick chest. He had been standing alone, looking bemusedly at the wrecked car.