Going To Le Mans – A Trip Across The Pond – by Chris Hoyt

Going To Le Mans – A Trip Across The Pond – by Chris Hoyt

Attending the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a bucket list item for any endurance/road racing fan, and that’s especially true for many PORSCHE owners. Afterall, for several decades, winning it was the personal property of the PORSCHE factory or a factory-supported team with the marque scoring 19 overall victories in the venerable 917, 935, 956/962 models and more recently the 919.


After hearing the many tales of FCR member and Le Mans guru Jack Williams, the itch just got too much, and Ed Lustgarten and I tossed our hats in the ring and went to the 2023 edition for the first time. It was also the 100th anniversary. We had a blast with Jack as our guide, which I believe was his 21st time attending the world’s greatest race (in my opinion…). So, of course, we had to return for the 2024 race held June 15-16!


You simply can’t prepare yourself for the sheer magnitude of Le Mans. Daytona, Sebring and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta have been on our calendar for years and are unique, but Le Mans is a whole different level. First run in 1923, it has tons of history making it kind of an elder statesman among automotive races along with the Indy 500 or the first grand prix. This year was no different, but luckily, we had some reference points from 2023 that made the second visit easier.


But First, About Tickets

Your first step is to join the ACO as an American Member so you can purchase tickets for the week and parking. As the U.S. ACO membership grows, the ACO in France is starting to give some priority to us when it comes to scoring tickets. We were in Tribune 18 or T18, which is directly across from the pits. T17 & T18 have excellent views and the ACO is expected to give limited priority to U.S. ACO members in the future. American Express is not accepted for tickets, so have the Visa or MasterCard ready and let your bank know that you will be purchasing tickets off a foreign website. Our cards were rejected several times before our ticket sale went through. (Our ticketing experience was pretty frustrating, but it all was eventually corrected to our satisfaction. But that is another story for another time.) For this year and last year, the ACO sold too many damn tickets. And they probably will continue to do so. The crowd was massive at 340,000+ both years and at times unpassable. Check the ACO site for ticketing packages which range from daily to weekly and are priced accordingly.


Base Camp La Suze  

Unfortunately, Jack wasn’t able to make the 2024 trip, so Ed and I were on our own. (Flying to Paris is relatively simple, but the traffic to get out of the city easily rivals New York or L.A., and immigration at CDG was much quicker this time than last year. But that’s also another story for another time.) As we did last year, we picked up a rental car and made the 2-1/2-hour drive to the wonderful little town of La Suze which was barely 10 minutes from the track. Our hotel was the St. Louis owned and operated by the third generation of the Heron family. The son, Silvain, was a wonderful host and the hotel was perfect for our needs. We had met some of Jack’s Brit pals, Phil Rudd and Stuart Evans, last year and they were back for something like their 38th year – many of those spent at Hotel St. Louis! Like a number of other dedicated fans making the trip from the U.K., Phil and Stuart took the ferry across the channel and drove the rest of the way. Taking the “Chunnel” drops you on land too far out of the way, according to them.

 Off To The Track & The Museum  

Once we had settled in for a day, it was time to head to the track to check out the Musée des 24 Heures du Mans. No trip to Le Mans is complete without a visit to this hallowed ground. Inside you will find a circular room filled with rolling plexiglas cases holding every grid in 1/43 scale from 1923 to 2023 sans the war years when no race was held. It’s truly a model collector’s dream. The building is arranged into decades and many of the overall winners are on display. A visit to the always-busy gift store is also a must. Ed and I left a good bit of our Euros there! The vendor village inside the track dwarfs anything I’ve ever seen, and one would need several days and many, many Euros to fully explore its extensive offerings.


The Hot Lap – Do It  

The race uses certain stretches of public roads and one of the most notable is the Mulsanne Straight, which needs no introduction but is no longer straight. Possibly the most famous stretch of asphalt in the world, drivers in the 70s up to the late 80s would regularly reach speeds exceeding 220 mph on this nearly three-mile stretch. The introduction of two chicanes after the 1990 edition reduced the overall achievable top speed but cars today are still capable of 200 mph leading up to and between them. Which brings me to hot laps offered by the PORSCHE Experience Center Le Mans (PECLM). Yes, you can sign up for a lap of the 8-mile course in a Porsche GTS or GT3 with a very experienced driver at the wheel. It’s an unbeatable thrill. Personally, it was the fastest I have ever been in a PORSCHE or any car! One peek at the speedo showed 300 kph which equates to roughly 186 mph. And these cars were straight out of the factory equipped with PDK, street rubber and no mods. I continue to be impressed with the PDK system. It shifts incredibly quickly and is smooth as silk.

We also signed up for a lap at midnight. One of the Hertz PORSCHE 963s took out some metal guard rail just past Dunlop Bridge during night practice, which resulted in repairs and slowed our lap down at the start. Once we passed the repair zone, we quickly got back up to speed and headed down the Mulsanne. If you have ever watched the night part of the race on TV and seen the white dividing stripes on the road whipping past the driver as they go down the Mulsanne, this was the same view I had. A quick note of thanks goes to our hostesses Justine Guenver and Soline Chartier at PECLM. They were our main contacts for setting up the laps and kept us informed all of the way. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime rush!


The Beaches Of Normandy & D-Day

Ed and I made it a point to take a day and drive to Normandy to visit the U.S. cemetery and surrounding area. Neither of us had ever been. It was sobering. I had no idea of the size of the cemetery which holds the remains of nearly 9,500 U.S. soldiers as well as Allied troops who lost their lives on June 6,1944, and in the ensuing days. A memorial museum at the entry with a beautiful reflection pool overlooking the ocean contains artifacts and stories of valor and courage one can only imagine. No wonder it is referred to in the U.S. as “The Greatest Generation.” The grounds are pristine and the tone quiet. While we were walking along the grounds, a small group of teenagers were being a little too loud and all it took was one stern look from a gendarme to immediately quiet them down.


A visit down to the beach brought things into perspective a second time. The incline the soldiers had to tackle was incredibly steep and with German machines guns positioned along the top of the hill firing at will, it had to be like shooting fish in a barrel. Today nice beach houses stand where soldiers had to climb 80 years ago, and an incredible memorial was in the process of being built on the beach as a fitting tribute to all who made the ultimate sacrifice. Additionally, a visit to the Overlord Museum (the invasion was code named “Operation Overlord) is a must, too. There are numerous armored vehicles inside and outside on the surrounding grounds, along with a great many historical artifacts related to the invasion. It’s hard to imagine that this particular area was once a fierce battleground but is now just one of the many beautiful seaside towns and villages dotting the French coast.


The Race 

Race day is similar to Daytona or Sebring but significantly more crowded because they sold too many damn tickets! Be sure to purchase a Grid Walk wristband for access to the front straight to see all of the team cars. A word of caution: it’s packed and pretty tough to get good pictures, unless you stand six feet plus like Ed Lustgarten! The entire front straight is lined with cars as they qualified in each class – Hypercar, LMP2 and LMGT3. With the introduction of the Hypercar category, most of the big manufacturers have come to win, including PORSCHE, Ferrari, Cadillac, Ford, Toyota, Lamborghini, BMW, and hometown favorite Peugeot, along with some newbies such as Alpine and Isotta Fraschini.  For the second year in a row, American muscle was well represented with the Ford Mustang making its presence known as it rumbled down the front straight powered by its loud and distinct sounding V8. And strangely enough, it was called the GT3. I wonder if PORSCHE will have something to say to the folks at the blue oval about that!


Pre-race festivities got the crowd pumped up and included team presentations, the customary French Mirage flyover and French Army rappelers coming down from helicopters. Le Mans has a 4pm start but darkness doesn’t hit until around 10pm so we got to see a good bit of racing in the daylight. In addition to a grid walk pass, ACO members can purchase entry to an exclusive viewing area called La Chapelle, which is located at the Dunlop Bridge. It’s a fairly large area with plenty of seating, TV screens, access to the rise at the bridge, nice bathrooms, and decent food and drink. This year was a little rainy, so it was great to be able to get out of the weather. The La Chapelle wristband also gets you into the “Georges Durand” complex directly behind the T17 & T18 stands where there are more food options and nice restrooms. Durand is credited as the founder of the race.


Unfortunately, the race did not go as planned for the Penske PORSCHE team or the other 963s entered as the #50 Ferrari 499 took the overall win for a second consecutive victory for the boys from Maranello. The PORSCHE 963s did show improvement from last year but still lack the speed to keep up with and stay ahead of the Ferrari 499s. On several occasions, the 963s exited the pits well ahead of the 499s but were quickly caught and passed. It could have been the difference in the driver line-ups, but I think it’s more likely mechanical. The factory will have to wait another year for number 20. In the meantime, it’s back to the drawing board for PORSCHE and as we all know, once they get it right, the others will be racing for second place.


Bucket List Item Checked Off

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the “Holy Grail” for endurance racing fans just like Monaco is to F1 or Indy is to U.S. open wheel racing. It’s really one of the greatest environments in motor racing and is, in my opinion, the greatest race of all. It’s a bit of a ding to the budget so if you are thinking about going, start saving now for flights, tickets, and all of those mementos your friends will want you to buy for them! Le Mans is a bucket list item that we plan to check off as many times as possible.


No story about Le Mans is complete without a “shout out” to fellow FCR member Jack Williams. He took Ed and I under his wing and “showed us the ropes,” which enabled us to enjoy the 2024 24 Hours of Le Mans like seasoned veterans. Ed and I will be back in 2025 and we look forward to Jack joining us again.

Posted in , ,