A Dream Comes True - Le Mans 2004

Nancy Schilke

How could I have turned down several opportunities to attend the world's most prestigious sportscar endurance race? I did just that time and again, this year I did not.

To be able to step to the surface where motor sports history has been made since 1923 was a dream. A major plus was that six-time 24 Heures du Mans winner, the incomparable Jacky Ickx would be present. And factor in that Tom Kristensen, who already broke one of Ickx's records would have the opportunity to tie Ickx for the most wins.

I could not refuse this opportunity, and my French-Canadian friend and business partner convinced me to arrive in Paris early and leave a few days after the race. He knew Paris and we stayed in local hotels on the Left Bank in the artist community.

Our first day was spent with a tour of the city, including the locales where French history had been made, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.

Our first night spent in typical French fashion at an outdoor caf watching the tourists and locals go about their business, and seeing geraniums hanging from balcony rails was a perfect touch. Paris is crowded with narrow "can we actually get the Peugeot down this street?" roads. No one is in a hurry, life is relaxed as families, couples and singles just enjoy long sunlit evenings.

Then on to Le Mans. We would be staying just 5kms from the Arnage Corner. As we approached the exit, I could not wait to see the famed Circuit des "24 Heures". We came to the Mulsanne Straight, a true country road. To place a wheel on the track where great drivers like Derek Bell, Hans Stuck, Woolf Barnato, Henri Pescarolo, Phil Hill and Pedro Rodriguez raced on was awesome.

We pass the two chicanes, always closed to the public, arriving at Indianapolis Curve and Esses and it's easy to see why the name as the Indy curve is a banked left turn. Then on to Arnage Corner, Eric decided to continue instead of turning left. He was enjoying my "wows" and "cools"; we headed to Porsche Curves. Truly, I could not describe my feelings of being where Jaguar, Bentley, Alfa-Romeo, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche teams have traveled at speeds up to 310 km/h.

The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) owns only a portion of the land the track is laid out on. They have the short track - Circuit du Mans - where the Moto GP series and national races are held. It is very strange to drive on the country roads used as a portion of the current 13.650km circuit.

The circuit for the famous and historical Le Mans 24-hour race has changed 12 times since 1923. In early years, the course was 17.262km and ran toward the town of Le Mans. Many of the changes in the circuit were due to changes in the country roads, safety reasons (chicanes on Mulsanne Straight) and changes in the land ownership surrounding the track.

One thing remains constant: This is the site of the world's most classic endurance race. It is home to the 24 Heures du Mans.

Monday and Tuesday were the two scrutineering days. Teams are assigned which day and what time to present their car and drivers. It is a formal event, yet a day to enjoy and relax for many participants. The setting is in downtown Le Mans, paradoxically near a modern "mall" building and a very medieval-style church, the latter an awesome building towering over the nearby homes and local shops. A park where over 40,000 spectators per day came to view the event surrounds the parking lot for scrutineering. When the drivers arrived, they were swarmed by the fans as this is the day they, the fans, can take photos, see the cars up close and get autographs. "This is important to the spectators," said Audi driver Marco Werner. "A day to relax and talk to people."

American Gunnar Jeanette remarked about the crowds and the amount of cars on the small city streets, "Took me 20 minutes to locate a place to park, there are lots of people. This is very special; it is Le Mans!"

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