Anyone with a passing interest in motorsports is familiar with the Donohue name. David Donohue has had success at virtually every level of racing he has entered. Even temperament and an ability to understand the car makes DD a solid racing driver. In this exclusive piece for european car online, Donohue looks back at his participation in the 2002 24 Hours of Le Mans. --Kerry Morse
Le Mans truly is a special place for a driver. And I am not just saying that because I was in the winning car in the GT-2 category my first time there. That win was much more the team's effort and preparation then any driving heroism. In fact, that first win, as great as it is for my resume, was not as personally rewarding as most would think.
Le Mans is a big event for everyone, but the drivers are treated more as heroes there than anywhere in sports-car racing. The race week starts the Saturday or Sunday before because the French make a big deal out of technical inspection (perhaps it allows the scrutineers their time in the lime-light, why not ? It is Le Mans!) And, unlike anywhere else in the world, the drivers must attend this inspection so that all driving equipment and licenses can be inspected, driving histories verified, and headshots taken for the program released later in the week. If your tech time is on Monday, for example, you need to fly Saturday in order to arrive late morning Sunday and be in Le Mans for Monday morning. There are typically two days of inspection, Monday and Tuesday, and each car is given an appointment time to arrive. Incidentally, this appointment time is published in the local newspapers so people can show up to see their favorite cars/team/drivers. Consequently, it turns out to be the first of many "zoos" to be encountered during the week.
I typically do not like hanging around a racetrack and wasting time, so most of the years I did Le Mans, this early arrival was a bittersweet time--I am in France (which sounds great to my friends), but with really nothing to do. This year (2002) was good though. Rick Dole (world famous photographer), Gunnar Jeannette and I traveled up to Normandy to see the D-Day landmarks, museums and cemetery there. It was a very moving experience; one I won't likely forget for a long time.
When I was with ORECA in the Vipers, however, we stayed about an hour from the track, way out in the countryside, in an old modest Chateau. It was very nice, and with teammates like Patrick Huisman, Pedro Lamy, Justin Bell, Marc Duez, Karl Wendlinger and so on, there was a lot of entertainment. Besides their antics, though, there still was not a lot to do. Being idle is not something I have ever been good at.
Back to the race: There is not a lot of track time over the two days of practice/qualifying, Wednesday and Thursday nights. The practices are 7 to 9 p.m., with an hour break, then night practice from 10 to midnight. The night practice starts in the daylight and goes into the darkness (it does not get truly dark until about 10:30 p.m.). This is when the fast times are done, especially on Thursday because the track is finally getting "rubbered in," and it is the coolest temperature with decent visibility. With lap times a little under 4 minutes around the 8.5 miles, it can be difficult for newcomers to learn the circuit because it takes so much time to complete a lap. There are several flat-out fifth- and sixth-gear corners (all better than 170 mph in just about any car) with poor or no visibility. If you don't know what is on the other side of the next corner or hill, you tend not to take it flat-out in sixth. Another track observation I had my first time there: It is the only place where at times you cannot see the end of the straight in front or behind you. You sure better know where you are to be on the correct side of the road, going down the middle doesn't cut it.
For this same reason (a very long lap) it is a great track to drive. Cars reach near terminal velocity five times per lap, there are very high-speed sweepers, S turns, elevation changes, hard-breaking areas, second-gear corners--this place has something to please everyone from the driving point of view. Moreover, it has history.
Friday is yet another day off. The exception here is the driver's parade through downtown Le Mans. Each race car is assigned an antique car for the three drivers to sit in during parade. The object here (for those who have been through this before) is to steal your sign from your assigned antique car (it has the drivers' names on it), and commandeer a car that looks like it will actually be able to complete the parade (kind of symbolic to the race itself). These cars are old, and the parade moves very slowly, so many of the cars typically break down during the parade.
Here again, the drivers are put on pedestals as thousands of people line the streets to cheer them on. It gets very busy, as kids are continuously running up to the cars begging for an autograph, hero card, a hat or glasses, I think they'd rip your driving suit off if you stopped long enough. It's really crazy and you often don't have time to even look up and enjoy the event. I am always surprised the kids aren't run over by the parade cars, its that crowded and chaotic. I really enjoy this but am thankful it is only once a year.
As fate would have it, Friday night, the second most important night of the event--your last chance to get some rest-- is usually spent at some extravagant dinner with sponsors and executives that gets you back to your bed at a ridiculously late hour. The whole week you don't have to adjust to the time change because you sleep late and stay up late...until Saturday, of course. You're up late the night before and have to be at the track at by 6:30 or 7 a.m. to beat the traffic and be there in time for the morning warm-up. Thus, Friday night gives you the same time for sleep that Saturday night does. Great planning there!
Race day the atmosphere becomes electric. On the team side, it is the point at which, cumulatively speaking, probably millions of man-hours are focused, and their die is now cast. You have what you have and there is typically nothing more that can be done to prepare for the race. The crowd is huge and pit lane is jammed with the fortunate few (still numbering in the thousands) who have gotten access. A photograph of all the drivers together is taken, and then still another drivers' parade up the front straight. Eventually the cars are put onto the grid for final inspection by the fans (this is when the Hawaiian Tropic girls are draping themselves on the cars) and eventually they roll out for the recon lap before the pace lap.
The start of the race is always dramatic and for no apparent reason. The race is long and is never (as far as I know) won on the first lap. Still though, big egos prevail at the front of the pack since those drivers know, as a matter of fact, that the World is watching them. There is often a big tire lock-up going into the first turn. For the rest of the field though, it is pretty much a single column start, fairly uneventful.
During the race you work yourself into a rhythm and can truly enjoy the circuit. Because an outing is only 11 to 14 laps (depending on the car; 15 if you're in an Audi), it doesn't get old. On some shorter tracks in the U.S., an outing can be 40 laps, with the same number of cars on the circuit. That gets busy. At Le Mans, there can be times, both in the Viper and in the Panoz, where you do not see another car for a complete lap or more. That's amazing if you stop and think about it.
Depending on the class, it can be a sprint race or a race of attrition. Daytona, I think, is the last race in the world that you cannot go all-out for 24 hours and expect to be there in the end. In the Vipers, the year my car won the class at Le Mans, it was a race of attrition. We started with a conservative pace (for us anyway) and just went slower all race long as our lead was extended. At the end we were more than 1/2 hour ahead of our team car in second who was two hours ahead of third.
When the Corvettes came, however, it was nearly a 24-hour sprint race into the second day (in 2000). Sunday morning I was given the order "go flat-out...but don't crash!" That was rare order before the Vettes showed up. In the Panoz, we didn't have much of a shot at all, but the crew's effort was motivation enough to do the best job you could. We may have been an "also-ran," but I was proud of my team guys, and I mean those who worked their butts off on both the #11 car after the fire and my car during the race. We had more problems than I can even remember now, and watching those guys work on multiple unknown problems was nothing short of amazing. It is just that sort of human drama that makes it so great to participate. We did not get a result this year, but I left feeling proud of being a part of their effort.
There are few top-level 24 hour races in the world today, Le Mans and Daytona being on the top of that list. Both races are incredibly different from a racer's point of view, but all long races are similar in how they draw out the best and the worst in people, teams and especially the cars. Lack of sleep alone can account for much of this, but the demand placed on performance adds a new variable to the human drama equation. In '98 I was fortunate to be in the winning GT-2 Viper. There is no doubt that the team's effort won that race. Since I was new to the team, I did not share in the struggle to get to that winning point, so I think I kind of missed out on the full enjoyment of that win. I actually felt better for the team's win in '99, and my car had broken in the 20th hour. I have not yet won the Rolex 24 (hopefully that will change this year), but my father did back in 1969 with Roger Penske's Lola T-60 Coupe. I have only read about the exploits during this race, but the fact that they had to stop to remove and re-weld an exhaust header (it took better than 1 1/2 hours) is an example of the tenacity needed for this type of racing.
Whether it is Le Mans or Daytona, a 24-hour race is a love-it or hate-it kind of thing. Le Mans is unique in its history and because it is France (which sounds a lot more glamorous than is really is), and it is a track like no other track in the world that I have been on yet.