15 May 2014

The Le Mans Start

I never ran across the track to hop in a race car at Le Mans. The organizer’s excuse was, “We do not choooose to invite women.” So my Le Mans starts were elsewhere. Sebring expressed no such scruples, so the slap-slap of my sneakers began seven 12-hour races there.

No qualifying then. Cars lined up according to engine size, the largest leading. They were angled in front of the pits with the drivers on foot across the track. At flag fall we ran to leap inside or wrestle with doors or somehow gain entrance, fire up and plunge into the dusty maelstrom before us.

But really what difference could a dash on foot make in a car race that went on for hours? Well, Porsche positioned its ignition key on the left side of the steering wheel so a driver could light up the engine with his left hand while his right was choosing a gear. And Stirling Moss, extremely swift afoot, had a practiced starting ritual. He firmly believed it was critical to burst free of the madding crowd when even a small shunt could ruin your day. He was the Le Mans start master.

Others were not so adept. One driver carefully practiced neat leaps into the driver’s seat but was so g-ed up in the actual event he cleared his car, completely sprawling on the ground. At Le Mans, two drivers ended up in the same car. Juan Manuel Fangio once slipped into his car only to have the gear shift lever disappear up his pant leg. Not quite as incapacitating as a long-legged friend of mine who put her foot through the steering wheel.

A lap or two on, as matters settled, on a long straight I would set my knees to the steering wheel, slap around to find my seat belt and fasten it. Everyone else did, too. That necessity hastened the demise of the Le Mans start. Sensibly, but sadly, too. Hey, they were fun.

But speeds were increasing and the simple lap belt was giving way to complicated harnesses. You didn’t get in the car so much as put it on. In 1969 at Le Mans, Jacky Ickx, who was an early activist for safety, strolled across the track to his Ford GT40 (though he did hurry a bit when cars came roaring at him). He carefully buckled himself in as the scene around him cleared of cars.

Nonetheless he won the race. Point taken. The Le Mans start was finished.

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