Why The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Is The Greatest Race on Earth

Le Mans cannot be properly broadcast or liveblogged: you have to be there. I was there in 2007, and I wrote this at the halfway point of the race — at 4 AM by the Mulsanne Straight.

Into the night. Shadows fall. Shadows fall so blue.

No unfiltered perception other than the lights and sounds of racing cars. Occasionally, we glance at displays for the standings.

We are cruising through deep space.

Why The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Is The Greatest Race on Earth

Eight hours into the race and I will remember every sound forever. The greasy, furious rumble of Corvettes. The mad, vespid scream of Ferraris, and the unnerving, vibrating hum of Audis. The Peugeots: jet engines at takeoff.

The darker it gets, the more you can see the flames erupting out of the open exhaust pipes.

The cherry glow of brake discs.

The fluorescent racing numbers on Aston Martins, double-oh seven.

By the Ferris wheel that keeps spinning into the night, people are launched into the atmosphere. Of the past sixty hours, I have been awake for fifty-six, catching four hours of contorted sleep in a car.

Why The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Is The Greatest Race on Earth

I cannot remember the last time I felt so alive. The last time there was so little petroleum jelly between the world and my senses.

Headlights. Brake discs. Flames. Rear lights. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Set to a multilayered, glorious noise: repeat.

It is now 3:45 AM, and the race is halfway over.

Why The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Is The Greatest Race on Earth

The hyper-capricious, cloudy day has turned into a brilliant, starlit night. Ninety minutes from the transition between velvetine black and electric rose, to be followed by sunrise at 5:58 AM.

I type this in the middle of an abandoned parking lot. To my left: an uninhabited arena. I sit crosslegged on ten thousand square feet of asphalt, behind me a thin forest of black pines and in front of me, the Mulsanne Straight.

And a thick blanket everywhere, like marmalade swallowing a wasp: the noise.

I have no memories of the world before the noise. Of what it felt like when the single most relevant dimension of the world was not made of racing engines revved to remarkable heights.

Alfred Neubauer once said, before he invented pit signaling, that the racing driver is the loneliest creature in the universe. He could as well be in space, orbiting at unfathomable speeds, knowing nothing of the rest of the world slowed to a crawl.

Can you hear me, Major Tom?

The racing driver is not the only solitary creature in the world — so is everyone in attendance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Disconnected from the results table, the race coalesces into a whole. Classes cease to exist. There are no cars in the lead. None falling behind. What remains is a vast, interconnected, rumbling, pulsating organism.

Time spreads out like ice cream on asphalt.

Why The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Is The Greatest Race on Earth

Le Mans is a war. Harsh searchlight everywhere, guards giving random commands in an alien language, like when they stepped in front of me an hour ago on a wide access road and indicated no trespassing without further explanation. Before that, I was standing above the black poplars that mark the beginning of the Mulsanne, the hillside muddied into a swamp of trash during the day.

Surrounding this are concrete walls, razor wire, ditches of filthy water, litter, a hastily constructed industrial landscape. But the brain is overwhelmed, it is trying to cope with the fact that hearing has all of a sudden replaced vision as the primary source of sensory input. The repulsive, rigid surroundings elicit no reaction.

Why The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Is The Greatest Race on Earth

Everywhere and all the time: the noise. Screaming, roaring, whining, howling, machinegunning as the drivers lift off the accelerator. It resonates in my chest. In my knees. In my larynx, too.

Le Mans is a pilgrimage. You don’t come and check off the tourist sights on a postcard of some random city. Le Mans demands the whole of you. To take you and devour you, to grind you up and beat you down. This would undoubtedly horrify a sane mind. The grime, the fatigue, the incessant pandemonium.

You have to let go.

Why The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Is The Greatest Race on Earth

Of the desire to be rested, to be cleansed. You have to jump headfirst into this tempest of light and sound, you have to let it rip you up into atoms—quarks, even—so that come Sunday afternoon at three, you can be reborn as something new. In the sudden, maddening silence. It may very well be that Lamborghinis will no longer captivate me.

Why The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Is The Greatest Race on Earth

All the while, it is humans who control the racing cars. The Mulsanne used to be a single, three-mile straight. These days, two chicanes slow the pace, but speeds still approach 200 mph. Maintained for hours at a time. Then, after a short rest, the racing drivers go at it again. And again. A winning distance of 3200 miles—quite usual at the present time—assumes an average speed of over 130 mph. 190 feet covered every second.

Repeat 86,400 times.

Le Mans is the center of the universe tonight. The aluminum-titanium heart of Vorsprung, a two hundred decibel melting pot. With a quarter-million car nerds for company, I circle La Sarthe like Muslims circle the Kaaba at the Hajj.

Le Mans is ours. Ours, car nerds of the world. Ours.

Photo Credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images (top), Zsolt Csikós (second from top, third from bottom) and the author (all the rest)