A Dream Comes True - Le Mans 2004

Nancy Schilke

Friday was Parade day - a time to chill, take in the ambience and just enjoy. Then we went shopping for needed groceries; once we arrived at the track on Saturday, we would not leave until 8:00 p.m. Sunday night - four hours after the race ended.

Saturday came and the feeling that hit me was, "Wow, I really am here." I was excited beyond words. The first event of the day was the Group C - GTP cars of days gone by. For me this was a very emotional moment as I was a former team scorer for several IMSA teams.

The pre-race activity never slowed down including the "ear of corn" which is the traditional Le Mans start. The ear of corn was the signal for one to run to the car and jump in and go racing. When seatbelts came along and the rule was that they had to wear them, many drivers began racing without the seatbelt.

Finally in the early 70s, polesitter Ickx did not run to his car; he walked. Ickx wanted to make the point about safety and he did. The following year, the drivers had to already be strapped into their cars before the ear of corn signaled the start. Of course, that has since changed and there is one pace lap before the French flag is waved to signal the start of racing. Now the ear symbolizes memory of the past.

After hours of pre-race activities, the race finally began.

Main memories of the 24-hour race?

The big crash due to oil on the track surface near the two-hour mark causing heavy damage to the Champion Racing Audi and the No. 8 Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx. It was not just a case of who was involved for me, a course observer, but noticing that oil was on the track and no oil flag shown prior to the racers entering the impacted area. Other cars also spun.

McNish was knocked unconscious and even though he did wake up and extract himself from the Audi R8, he was indeed groggy. He drove the car to the garage (!) and after being monitored by two Audi doctors, he was sent to the local medical center for observation.

Allan McNish was not allowed to continue driving. This turn of events left veteran and three-time Le Mans winner Frank Biela and rookie Le Mans driver Pierre Kaffer to drive the Audi for the next 22 hours. Theirs was a remarkable accomplishment, racing their hearts out to climb into the top 20, then to the top ten and finally finishing fifth overall and fifth in class.

Champion Racing ended on the podium in what was another major accomplishment after the heavy damage to their Audi. JJ Lehto, Marco Werner and Emmanuelle Pirro were very happy with their third place in this year's Le Mans.

Fast does not equal endurance. A 24-hour race is "endurance" and as fast as Zytek was, they did not have the stamina and the engine gave way 167 laps into the race.

Ferrari versus Corvette. Over the past years, the two marques have challenged one another and at times, one or the other or both had problems. This race marked the first time that both cars from Prodrive Ferrari and Corvette Racing had lots of problems twice around the clock.

First Corvette's No. 63, then Ferrari's No. 65, then the No. 64 Corvette and finally toward the closing hours, the leader, the No. 66 Ferrari stopped off-track. That allowed the trio of Gavin, Magnussen and Olivier Beretta to pass them by and bring the No. 64 Corvette home to GTS victory.

My final memory would be of watching Kristensen as Seiji Ara brought the Audi Sport Japan Team Goh first across the finish line as checkered flags waved. Kristensen finally showed emotions. He had broken the record of consecutive wins that he set last year. More importantly he had just won his sixth of seven [entered] Le Mans 24-hours, tying the Dane for the most wins with Belgian Ickx.

History was made and I was lucky enough to be there. I truly understand Kristensen's comment from the podium: "Thank you very much Jacky, you were right. I am a lucky bastard. I really am." Kristensen said with a huge grin. (c) 2004 Nancy Schilke

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