In a previous post I’ve already taken a look at the actual Le Mans event itself, however what goes on off the track is almost as famous as what happens on it. With tens of thousands of car nuts all in the same place for a week, you can be assured that it’s a pretty good time, particularly on the Friday.
Because an event on the scale of the 24hr only happens once a year there is nowhere near enough beds for the fans who come, and most of those few beds are occupied by teams and race officials at hideous expense. Unless you want to stay an hour or more from the circuit, camping is the only option. Camping at Le Mans has become as much of a tradition as the race itself, with fans driving from all over Europe and proudly pitching their tents next to their pride and joy.
Driving the nicest possible car and then camping beside it seems to be the British thing to do. One Porsche driver mentioned to me that he’d had a conversation with a French Ferrari owner, who’d said “I never understand you Brits. You drive your $150,000 cars here, and then get some sort of joy from sleeping in a $20 tent in the rain”.
Modern Aston’s, Porsche’s and Ferrari’s were commonplace, and you needed something really special to stand out. I’ve heard stories of things like several genuine GT40’s in campsites in previous years, but unfortunately I didn’t witness anything like that this year.
For some, camping is arguably more important than the race itself. Grand meals, halls, stereo systems, disco lighting, large cooking fires, wading pools, racing simulators, televisions, fridges and even best camping toilet are all part of the deal. I swear there were some people in our campsite who didn’t even see any racing.
These guys from London bring this bus every year, and camp in exactly the same spot. Late into the night the bus is the epicenter of the party, with loud music and strobe lighting emanating from it at all hours.
My favorite car from our campsite was this 1972 Porsche 911 RSR replica, which the owner had driven 900 miles from Scotland with his young son for the event – straight pipes and all. The Jagermeister sticker job is specially for Le Mans, and is another tradition – stickering your car up for the trip.
Another tradition just as well known is that of Mad Friday. On the Friday of Le Mans there’s no on-track action, so it’s become a bit of a tradition that everyone sits on the side of the roads around the circuit, drinking and watching the cars drive past. In some areas the ‘spectators’ will stop the cars, and cheer for a rev or a burnout. As it turns out, my campground – Bleu Sud, was right alongside the most famous stretch of road for this in the whole area.
To spice things up a little bit, a few people started stopping the cars and giving them some space in the slow moving traffic. If you gave it a rev or did a small chirpy, you’d get a big cheer from the crowd. If you didn’t, you’d get squirted with the water pistols.
The guy in this Laguna was attempting to play it cool. Hip hop pumping loud, sunglasses on, windows down. He didn’t even stop when asked, so as you would expect he received about 3 water pistols worth through his open windows.
He was not happy about that, so stopped his car in the middle of the road and got out to start a punch up. He was just about to take his first swing when he noticed about 15 blokes coming in from all angles to defend the water pistol-er. He moved on pretty quickly.
At this point it was all good fun. Even if you didn’t want to do a burnout, a bit of a rev kept the crowds happy and wasn’t too much to ask. Everybody knows what Mad Friday is like, and everybody knows this stretch of road is notorious. World famous, even. So if you ended up here unknowingly, you’ve only got yourself to blame – most of the guys in our campsite just organized it so they didn’t have to take their cars out on Mad Friday. And it was only if you blatantly ignored the crowd that you got water pistoled anyway.
As the crowd grew, security arrived to try and control the situation. But the funny thing is there was absolutely nothing they could do – they weren’t allowed to physically touch anyone so all they could do was watch. They tried to control it by allowing only one direction to flow through the crowd at a time.
The crowd were starting to get more vicious in their demands for a good burnout, and were delivering much more water to those who wouldn’t. After about half an hour the security team realised there was nothing they could do, so hurriedly packed into their vans and left.
It got to the stage where bucket loads of water were being thrown on anyone who drove past with an open window. The crowd would go wild if someone managed to lob a water balloon through a window or sunroof.
These guys are obvious Le Mans veterans and came prepared with a smoke machine that was somehow connected to the throttle of this old Granada limo. They passed through about 3 times, and each time they would stop, smoke out the crowd and then disappear quietly before anyone noticed.
It’s a terrible photo because I was laughing so much, but the biggest cheer of all was reserved for the guy who strapped fireworks to his helmet and then rode through the crowd as they went off in the sky above.
Eventually as people got drunker, the crowd dynamics changed and the enthusiasts left. It wasn’t light hearted fun anymore, it was now pure madness. Motorbikes were doing wheelies everywhere, and someone let off a smoke bomb.
Behind me at the other end of the road was another 10 vans and lines of riot police just standing, watching. Without any fuss and without uttering a word, the Police killed four hours of fun in the space of about five minutes. It was beautiful to watch. I guess the French know a thing or two about controlling unruly groups.
A few of the more hardy attempted to make their stand, but just like that, Mad Friday was over. It’s without a doubt one of the craziest things in motorsport I’ve witnessed, if not one of the craziest things full stop. And this wouldn’t really happen anywhere except Le Mans.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles