At the 24-hours of Le Mans, in 1952, a driver by the name of Pierre Levegh drove for 23 straight hours — even though the team had a driver who could have replaced him — such was the tenacity of this gutsy French racer. When it appeared that victory was all but assured, a fatigue-induced, clumsy gearshift caused his engine to falter as the race entered its final hour.
There is nothing like piloting a 200-mph racecar in the depths of darkness at three in the morning. The tiredness makes you numb, but the pure, raw adrenaline somehow maintains your body's functionality. It becomes a mental war rather than a battle with other drivers. It's a war that appears will break you before you can break it. In every 24-hour race I have competed in one thing has been etched into my brain:
And yet despite that, just days after the race is complete, regardless of result, the urge rises and bubbles and, once again, you receive a sharp, violent bite by the bug of endurance racing. Next year can't come soon enough.
It's like a marathon runner, or an IRONMAN triathlete that relishes in the pain and suffering associated with a grueling event. A 24-hour race for a racecar driver is no different. Sure, nowadays we have three to four drivers to share the duties and there's a limit on how much driving one can do. But don't for one second let that fool you into thinking that the racers can rest between stints.
If you are competing for a large team you may afford the luxury of a motorhome for the weekend, but the adrenaline rushing through your veins and the never-ending roar of engines prevent any meaningful rest from occurring. Even when you lay down your head and close your eyes, the dreaded thought of the thump on your motorhome door, as your handler lets you know it is time to get suited and booted, is enough to leave your mind racing and heart pumping. You get NO sleep in a 24-hour race.
And it isn't just 24 hours. For a 3:00 pm start time, you will likely rise around 8:30 am to satisfy your sponsor assignments. And when the race finishes the following day at 3:00 pm, you will have another few hours of obligations before any rest is granted.
Eating and drinking is also a challenge. As the tiredness engulfs during the night, you must continue fueling your body. After all, driving a high-powered racecar is a physical endeavor greater than most truly appreciate, and you are manhandling the machine for up to three hours at a time. You must devour carbs and electrolytes at a point where your body wants to shut down. Drivers will weigh themselves before and after a stint, and usually lose multiple pounds in a mere few hours. That weight must be regained by the time you jump back into the car, or you risk serious dehydration and calorie deficiencies. And if that happens, despite all the will in the world, the body WILL shut down.
I know this first hand. In 2009 I was racing alongside Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti in the Daytona 24 hours. I had the flu all week and by race morning I was still unwell.
As the race progressed into the night I could no longer eat or drink. Anything I did ingest was immediately returned by my displeased stomach. Dario was nursing an injured leg from a crash in NASCAR, just a week or so earlier, and at about 10:00 am he could no longer continue. I was called to pit lane and told I had a three-hour stint awaiting me, before handing it over to Scott to complete the race. As I was being informed of this I was deluged with feelings of dizziness, and my head felt fluffy and vague.
I jumped in and began running. After just a handful of laps I knew I was in serious trouble. I had nothing left. Nothing at all. The next few hours were a blur. I honestly don't know how I survived them. Fortunately for me, we were on our own lap in P5, a number of laps down from the top four after suffering a brake issue in the night. So all I had to do was circulate and keep the car off the wall. I dropped my pace and simply did what was required to consolidate our position. And that alone took everything I had.
Once I finally received word that we would be pitting for a driver change, I succumbed and was helped from the car. One thing ran through my head, and one thing only. "Never again!"
Twenty-four hours of hell, err, I mean fun, is out there and attainable for any amateur racer. You have magnificent events, such as the 25-Hours of Thunderhill, and I highly recommend you give a race such as this a try. Although honestly, without the professional luxuries to aid in keeping the drivers as comfortable as possible, it could be a real killer. Literally.
It will likely be the most horrendous 24 hours of your life, but take comfort in the fact that in the ensuing days your brain forgets just how bad it really was. Then you sign up for another and elicit the horrors once again. But like Pierre Levegh driving 23 hours straight, the challenge and lure is simply too much to withstand.
Only a fool would voluntarily engage in such an ordeal. But the line intervening a fool and a hero is thinner than you might think.
About the author: @Alex_Lloyd began racing in the U.S. in 2006. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2007. He's competed in the Daytona 24-hour twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times — placing fourth in 2010. The native of MADchester, UK began racing karts at age 8, open-wheel race cars at 16 and finished second to Formula One World Champion - and close friend - Lewis Hamilton, in the 2003 British Formula Renault Championship, followed by a stint representing Great Britain in A1GP and winning races in Formula 3000. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Samantha (also from England) and three young "Hoosier" children. He also enjoys racing in triathlons and is rather partial to good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.
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