It's 6 p.m. at Le Mans and I'm standing in the right rear corner of the Orbit Racing pit garage. The temperature, even in the shade, is approaching 90 degrees, and the cacophony of 49 racing engines has me reaching for my earplugs. Two star spangled banners adorn the walls, below which a mechanic sits in slumber. A Nomex balaclava still smothers his face, his hands are gloved and goggles protect his closed eyes.
Such a scene, so early in the race, seems extraordinary, but it's indicative of the pressure of this unique event. "Le Mans makes Daytona look like a club race," said Rob Joy, a mechanic who has taken time out of his job at Porsche North America to help the team. Joy's enthusiasm will be critical to the team's hopes of success. Orbit's garage may be little more than 20 yards away from Team Bentley's, but it's a world away in terms of resources.
While the Bentley pit is decorated with flat screens and immaculate technicians, Orbit's entire operation consists of just 22 people, including the caterers, who have brought tuna and granola to help the Florida-based team "feel at home." Data logging is registered on a pair of laptops operated by a single strategist, Jim Maliki. "You're not allowed telemetry in the GT class," he said, "but we can download engine data during the pit stops."
For a small team such as Orbit, Le Mans isn't a 24-hour race, it's a yearlong obsession. "We started preparing this car emotionally for Le Mans on the morning after last year's event," said Leo Hindery, Orbit's driver and lifeblood. Hindery is the CEO of the Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network, and the team is founded on his financial commitment and the expertise of its owner, Rodger Hawley.
Orbit's second driver, Peter Baron, also manages the teams financial concerns, while the third, Marc Lieb, is on loan from the factory Porsche squad. "The presence of Marc in the team is evidence of Porsche's trust in us," said Hawley. "I can phone the factory anytime." Lieb's pace will also be crucial in a class that's traditionally populated by "gentlemen racers." The German was "disappointed" to qualify the 911 GT3-RS third in class, and moved the car up to second during the first hour of the race.
Hindery, by contrast, spins during his first stint and returns to the pits in fifth place. This proves to be a recurring theme of the race. While Baron is a respectable 6 sec. slower per lap than Lieb, Hindery is 15 sec. adrift.
Does this, I wonder, have a demoralizing effect on the crew? "The drivers make it happen out there," said the crew chief, Matt Bishop. "Marc [Lieb] gives us all a lift, because to see our car running at the front confirms that we've done a good job. But ultimately, it's Leo [Hindery's] deal, so he calls the shots. I'm just glad to see the car running strong and that he's out their enjoying himself." Hawley agreed: "Someone's contribution can't just be related to their track speed."
The Porsche would run strongly throughout the race, save for a pair of punctured radiators, which had to be replaced. The second occurred around mid-morning on Sunday when I found myself back in the Orbit pit. Most of the mechanics had had less than an hour's sleep, but to watch them strip and rebuild the Porsche's nose in a handful of minutes was to observe a closely knit, talented team working in harmony.
By 2 p.m., Orbit is in a comfortable second place, six laps behind the lead 911 and nine laps ahead of the third-place car. Baron admits to "bittersweet" emotions. "Just to be out there with the Bentleys, running with the best of the best is just so cool. It's second place and it's awesome for us in our second year here. But the gap that we're behind is probably what we lost through having two stones through the radiator. It's a case of could have, should have, would have."
As the famous Le Mans clock strikes 4 p.m., I join Baron and Hindery on the pit wall to watch Lieb cross the line. "You dream about this," said Hindery. "There's so much hard work, teamwork and so much luck that I don't think you believe it for a while." A Michelin cap, embroidered with the word "podium" is plonked on his head.
Bizarrely, only the winning team in the GT class is invited to the podium, so the Orbit team misses out on a moment of glory. It's a cruel climax to a fabulous achievement that the drivers will always remember--they've agreed to have their shoulders tattooed with the words, "24 Heures du Mans, 2003, 2nd GT."