A Rookie’s Guide For Surviving Le Mans

Spencer Pumpelly, Seith Neiman and Darren Law teamed together for the 2011 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Pumpelly was a rookie at Le Mans, learning a lot that he plans to bring back this year. (ALMS Photo)
Spencer Pumpelly, Seith Neiman and Darren Law teamed together for the 2011 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Pumpelly was a rookie at Le Mans, learning a lot that he plans to bring back this year. (ALMS Photo)

LE MANS, France – While the American Le Mans Series has a long record of success at Le Mans with its teams and drivers, some ALMS representatives will partake in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time this year.

This year’s rookie class includes Conquest Endurance’s David Heinemeier-Hanson (driving for Oak Racing), Level 5 Motorsports’ Luis Diaz, Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor, NGT Motorsports’ Sean Edwards and GTC competitor Bret Curtis.

Who better to share some words of wisdom for these Le Mans first-timers than Spencer Pumpelly, a Le Mans sophomore, and Tommy Milner, who took home his first Le Mans win last year.

Pumpelly and Milner agree: The sagest advice for a Le Mans rookie is to give yourself the time to absorb the event.

“I was told repeatedly by the guys who had been before that the most important thing was to take it all in,” said, Pumpelly, who will drive a Porsche 911 GT3 RSR for Flying Lizard Motorsports. “It is such an incredible event that a driver needs to be willing to take his or her mind off of the car and the track every once in a while, and just look around at all the things that make the event unique. The only problem I had following this advice last year was during the driver parade through downtown Le Mans on Friday. Once you head out into the crowd there are so many crazed fans screaming at you from all directions that you can’t possibly take in everything, which is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to going back.”

“Enjoy the atmosphere and enjoy the history,” said Milner, who teams with Oliver Gavin and Richard Westbrook in the No. 74 Corvette Racing Corvette C6 ZR1. “Le Mans is a special circuit and like no other place we race today, really. The camber in the roads and the ruts created from daily traffic… lots of little nuances about the track are totally different from most circuits in the world.”

Those nuances took a long time for Pumpelly to wrap his head around in 2011. The longest track ALMS drivers will face this season is Virginia Int’l Raceway, which is 4.1 miles in length. By comparison, the Le Mans circuit is approximately 8.5 miles (13.629 km).

“The tough part about last year was getting up to speed on such a long track,” Pumpelly recalled. “During a typical ALMS weekend we can do a lap in around a minute and a half, which means that you get to see each turn 20 times in a half-hour session. At Le Mans, the lap is four minutes, so you may only get to drive each turn seven times in the same length session. When the turns are fast like the ones at Le Mans you really need to build speed gradually so you never really feel like you have gotten enough time on the track until well into the race.”

Is there a key to getting comfortable with the legendary circuit? After three Le Mans races, Milner learned staying focused and avoiding distraction comes down to finding a rhythm. It’s advice rookies should take to heart, since it was toward the end of a double stint in changing weather conditions that Milner took the GTE Pro lead for Corvette Racing in 2011. The pass ultimately resulted in a win for Corvette.

“I’ve found, like most places, finding a rhythm to the track is key, especially as you start getting into double and triple stints,” Milner said. “Maintaining that mental focus and clarity around 10 and 11 a.m., when you have so much time to relax and think on the straights is tough as it’s easy for your mind to wander some.”

Knowing what he knows now about Le Mans, Pumpelly has already taken steps to be better prepared when he teams with Seth Neiman and Patrick Pilet in the No. 79 Flying Lizard Porsche. The trio of Neiman, Pumpelly and Darren Law nearly won the GTE Am category last year but suffered a mechanical failure in the closing hours.

“I am adding a few things to my workouts because of the different demands the RSR places on the upper body than the (Porsche) GT3 Cup I am used to in (GT Challenge),” Pumpelly said. “I have a different plan for how I am going to adjust my sleep cycle for the time change, but for the most part I plan to take the same approach as last year. Hopefully this time we can have a strong run like last year that lasts just a few hours longer to get us the win.”

The 80th 24 Hours of Le Mans begins June 16 at 3 p.m. local time, 9 a.m. ET. For updates, check ALMS.com, @ALMSnotes on Twitter and the Series’ official Facebook page.