LE MANS, France — The first night qualifying session at Le Mans is always my favorite session of the year. To me, running at night is the most profound difference between endurance racing and other forms of motorsport.
All the modern endurance classics, Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans feature some degree of running in darkness. It is at night that many endurance races are won and lost, especially 24-hour races. Of the world’s great twice-around-the-clock races, The Rolex 24 At Daytona features the longest amount of time running in the dark.
At Le Mans the nighttime is different because the race is run during the time of the summer solstice. The actual nighttime running is the shortest of all 24-hour races, only eight hours of darkness this year. But it is a very special eight hours. The air temperature drops and the air dampens; it becomes thick, even heavy. The smells of the night are carried to your nostrils as the exhaust mingles with the campfires and barbeque.
The cars even sound different. At night the car sounds reverberate more through the trees as they head down the Mulsanne straight and then back through the Indianapolis and Arnage corner complexes. Down the Mulsanne the lights of the cars illuminate the edges of the forest, casting ghostly, deep shadows.
Once back from the run through the countryside the drivers are met by the carnival midway that marks the start of the front straight. It is alive with flashing neon and the drum beat of house music mixes with the scream of the engines.
The pits become an oasis of light and the cars take on a special gleam as they come and go with metronomic regularity for fuel, tires and driver changes. As the hours tick by, fatigue starts to set in for the pit crews; the eyes get heavy and fitful sleep creeps in between pit stops.
The focus is on the times and the strategy, and before you know it, the eastern horizon begins the transition from the deep inky black to blue-gray capped by the reddish-yellow glow of dawn. You have reached the new day. You’re almost home! Wait — you’re not because it is Le Mans. If you survive the night, dawn means your race is about to begin in earnest. It’s time to start racing hard. You have some 10 hours to run toward the checkered flag.
You can follow me on [email protected] and hear all the action from the 81st running of The 24 Hours of Le Mans on radiolemans.com.