Le Mans through the Lens

The very nature of the world’s greatest endurance race makes it a delight—and a challenge—to photograph

Le Mans through the Lens 1
September 18, 2015

Over the past 25 years I’ve photographed all manner of racing, from Formula One and NASCAR to IndyCar, NHRA, off-road and vintage, but for me nothing quite measures up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This epic struggle of man and machine, held in the ancient French city every June, is in my opinion the greatest automobile race in the world. The more than a quarter million fans who make the pilgrimage to Le Mans contribute mightily to its pageantry. And the absolute best teams and drivers from around the globe make it intensely competitive and incredibly difficult. Victory at Le Mans is something every competitor dreams of, and in many ways photographing this epic race is every bit as satisfying as winning it.

I started photographing Le Mans when Corvette Racing began competing there in 2000, making the 2015 edition my 16th consecutive race. The newness long ago dissipated, but the intense challenges, powerful emotions and sheer delight I experience there have only grown stronger over time.

Sweating the Details

As is typical, my preparation began a year earlier when I was at Le Mans for the 2014 contest. Each year I do a team photo with Corvette Racing, and after so many years shooting the same team and same cars in the same place I challenge myself to do something new. So right after last year’s team shoot wrapped up, I began thinking about a concept for this year. After zeroing in on one, I spent a lot of time thinking about it and visualizing every last detail needed to execute it.

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Over the course of the year, I also spent time on various logistical considerations, such as obtaining a photography credential, shipping my gear and booking travel. It used to be pretty easy to get a photo credential for Le Mans—too easy, in fact, with the result being hundreds of people without any real photography experience getting passes each year. But several years ago the ACO (the body that sanctions the Le Mans race) recognized the risks associated with indiscriminate credentialing and enacted strict new criteria. Among other things, the organization now requires a letter of assignment, copies of published work from the previous year’s race, a copy of the applicant’s national press card and proof of specialized insurance. I submitted my application packet in February, shortly after the process opened.

One of the chief logistical challenges involved with photographing any race, but especially Le Mans, is getting needed equipment there. For obvious reasons I always do my best to avoid entrusting camera gear to the ever-so-gentle baggage handlers at the airport. Airlines expressly assert that they are not responsible for checked photographic equipment—and then do their best to force photographers to check it. And while I do carry insurance for all of my gear (whose value totals around $80K US), it will be of little help if I can’t locate replacement equipment in time for the race. So the best solution is to not trust the airline.

All of my photo equipment, as well as everything else that I bring to Le Mans, is on a written “master” list that I use from one year to the next. Using that, I spun off a list of equipment to ship to France with Corvette Racing. Each year the team ships approximately 112,540 pounds of materials to Le Mans, with about 75,000 pounds going via cargo ship in April and the remainder going airfreight in May. Roughly 90 pounds of the total shipped is my camera gear, and it normally goes by sea in April. The downside of this approach is that whatever goes is obviously unavailable to me in the interim, which has meant making a substantial investment in duplicates of various lenses and other things over the years.

Concurrent with these preparations, I began a dialogue with the ACO to obtain clearance for Corvette Racing’s on-track team-photo shoot. At this point in our relationship, cooperation from the ACO is a given, so it was just a matter of securing permission to use the specific area of the track I wanted, at a time that was least disruptive to the team’s always busy schedule.

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Around this same time I contacted the owners of the home where I stay while in Le Mans, to let them know when to expect me. Over the years I’ve stayed in a couple of hotels and a few private residences, and the latter approach has proved the better choice. Besides costing considerably less, staying in people’s homes has enriched my overall experience at Le Mans, enabling me to improve my somewhat pathetic French-language skills and helping me learn a lot about French culture.

Le Mans or Bust

When June rolled around, I once again consulted my master travel list to help ensure that I didn’t forget to pack anything. As has happened several times in the past, my planning was further complicated by the need to fly to Paris from the F1 event in Montreal on Sunday, rather than from my home in New York a day earlier. The late departure allowed no room for delays or other problems, so naturally one such problem almost materialized. Although the plane taking me to Paris was plenty large enough to accommodate my carry-on, the helpful airline people in Montreal found that it weighed considerably more than the limit, and insisted that I check it for a $260 fee. I said that while I was willing to pay the fee, I was, for the reasons outlined earlier, unwilling to check the bags. Thirty-five minutes later, after speaking with a semi-compassionate supervisor, I was given permission to carry my gear onto the plane with a solemn promise that I wouldn’t concuss any Air France customers while placing it in the overhead bin.

After landing in Paris, I made my way through border security and customs and on to the rental-car center, where I had to cycle through four vehicles before receiving one without any obvious problems. With my faith in the ironclad reliability of French autos renewed, I was on my way to Le Mans.

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Jake Comes into Focus

The Corvettes were scheduled to go through scrutineering on Monday afternoon. Half technical inspection by the ACO and half ceremonial, this takes place on a large plaza called Place de la République in the heart of the city. The process for each entrant concludes with a team photo that’s best shot from a platform provided for the purpose. Naturally there are too many photographers for the limited space on the platform, so it’s always a bit of a scrum until we work things out.

This year I remembered to ask the ACO for a pass that allowed me to park underneath Place de la République during scrutineering. Since I was one of the few with the foresight to do this, I ended up giving several of the Corvette drivers a ride there and then back to the track afterward. Chauffeuring racecar drivers around is a thankless endeavor indeed. Every aspect of my indisputably faultless driving was criticized, and they thought it was downright hilarious when I didn’t know with certainty what kind of a car I was driving. By that point I hadn’t slept in nearly four days—and, as described previously, had cast aside three cars before getting one that fully functioned—so I feel my ignorance was fully justified.

At 8.47 miles in length, the Le Mans circuit ranks among the longest in the world. Most of the track is made up of public roads that wind through several villages, so getting to different photo points is quite a challenge. Each year my pal and Le Mans assistant Darren Maybury and I use rented scooters to get around. In my early years the scooter-rental guy had a fleet of ancient, yet highly dependable, Peugeots. Unfortunately he replaced these several years ago with a fleet of Chinese junkers that tend to be, at best, sporadically operable. This year was no different, with a rash of problems requiring several replacement scooters over four days to sort out. In the end I was provided with a 150cc Peugeot and a promise from scooter-man that next year we’d both get the Peugeots right out of the box.

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After a much needed good night’s sleep, I turned my attention to Tuesday’s major task, the team shoot. Plan A was to utilize both Corvettes and the entire team to form the shape of Jake, the team’s famous skull mascot. If the technical and logistical hurdles posed by this approach couldn’t be overcome, Plan B was to do a conventional team shoot on the start/finish line.

The challenge was to arrange the people and cars to clearly convey the skull’s design, while accounting for the perspective distortion that the camera’s point of view would have. The skull, by its design, is meant to be viewed head-on, but I was unable to get to a high enough position directly above the team and cars to recreate this. Instead, I had to view the people and cars at an elevated angle, then attempt to account for the resulting distortion when laying out the arrangement.

I originally had from 6:30-8:30 p.m. to sort all of this out and get the photo, but on Tuesday afternoon my time window shrank dramatically when someone from the ACO called Pratt & Miller Engineering Director Doug Louth to invite the team management and drivers to a special dinner the ACO was hosting that night at 7:00. The drivers had to be at the track for a 5:00-6:30 p.m. autograph session, then leave almost immediately to get to the 7:00 dinner.

Demoralized but not defeated, we came up with a plan to salvage the shoot. We would do as much of the setup as possible ahead of time, so everything would be exactly where it needed to be and the drivers could be quickly “plugged in” just before I clicked the shutter. Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan, along with Rainer Haug and Bernd Rademacher from George P. Johnson (the marketing company Chevrolet relies on for assistance at Le Mans), helped me measure and mark the ground to guide where the cars and crew should be placed.

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At 4:45, 15 minutes before pit lane was closed for the autograph session, the crew rolled both C7.Rs into position. They then stood where they were directed, I made a few needed adjustments and everyone was dismissed until 6:30. Upon their return, all of the team members assumed their respective positions and we waited for the drivers. They arrived at 6:49, were guided to their spots and by 6:57 we were finished. I was very gratified that the results were exactly what I’d envisioned. I was also grateful to have survived shooting from atop a ladder inside a wooden crate hoisted aloft by a fully extended Manitou lift.

Ready, Set…

Because most of the Le Mans circuit is composed of public roads, the practice and qualifying sessions are held in the evening on Wednesday and Thursday, when closing the roads is less disruptive to the towns they go through. Corvette Racing’s engineers decided to devote Wednesday’s four-hour “free practice” and the opening stages of the two-hour night qualifying session to optimizing the cars’ setups for consistency over full stints. Their plan to run fast laps in the second hour of the 10:00 p.m.-to-midnight session was squelched by a lengthy red-flag period. Toward the end of practice, Ryan Briscoe got an unwelcome surprise when No. 63 lost all electrical power on the far side of the circuit. Once the car was transported back to the paddock, mechanics discovered that the fire-suppression system safety pin had mistakenly come out, automatically cutting all power to the car.

After several days of running around, organizing and shooting various “non race” things, it felt good to finally photograph the Corvettes on track. The prolonged red-flag period and the breakdown of No. 63 were disappointing, but I still managed to get some worthwhile photos of the Corvettes in action. It’s especially helpful to visit some of the difficult-to-reach sections of the track during practice, such as the famed Mulsanne Corner.

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Other than the threat of rain, Thursday’s qualifying practices looked to be routine, but during the first of two sessions things went horribly wrong for Corvette. Going through the Porsche Curves at around 160 mph, the No. 63 car’s throttle stuck open, sending it and driver Jan Magnussen off the track and into the crash wall to the right, then back across the track and into the crash wall to the left. Magnussen’s bell was rung pretty well, but thankfully he suffered no lasting injuries. His car, on the other hand, was too extensively damaged to repair at the track, forcing Chevrolet to withdraw it from the race.

This was not the first time a factory team car was crashed hard at Le Mans, but it was the only time when the damage was too extensive to repair on site. This left everyone, but especially the No. 63 car crew and drivers, emotionally devastated. Every team member devotes such a tremendous amount of time, energy and emotional equity to this one race that not being able to take the green flag is unimaginably difficult.

From the beginning of my work photographing racing, I’ve made an effort to avoid getting too emotionally invested in the outcome. Having said that, I do, of course, want to see Corvette Racing succeed, primarily because it means so much to the crew and drivers, and they are my friends. So after No. 63 was withdrawn I felt tremendous sympathy for the car’s crew and three drivers. I also felt a real sense of loss on my own behalf, because I would not have the satisfaction of photographing that car in this most beautiful of all races.

With no better alternative, we all had to move forward and play the cards we were dealt. The first order of business following No. 63’s crash was to determine what had gone wrong, and then devise a way to keep it from happening again. One look in the damaged Corvette’s foot well, and Crew Chief Dan Binks diagnosed the cause of the crash. Astonishingly, a small rock had made its way into the pedal box and caused the throttle linkage to bind up. The crew immediately got to work on No. 64 and skipped Thursday night’s final qualifying session to “rock proof” that car’s throttle system.

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There is no track action for the competitors on Friday, which gave the Corvette team plenty of time to install No. 64’s race engine and go through the car to make sure nothing had been overlooked. The traditional Grande Parade des Pilotes (drivers’ parade) takes place Friday afternoon. Antique cars carrying the drivers—broken up by marching bands, dancing girls and acrobats—drive a loop in the medieval part of the city while 150,000 fans lining the streets cheer them on. Most of the other photographers dislike shooting the parade, but I quite enjoy it. The pageantry and unbridled enthusiasm of the people beautifully convey the magnitude of this event, and I find that very inspiring.

After the parade my primary goal is to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. There’s no way, in my opinion, to fully experience Le Mans as a working photographer without considerable sleep deprivation. Wednesday and Thursday are particularly difficult because qualifying and practice end at midnight, and by the time I get back, sort through all of the evening’s photos and get a selection uploaded, it’s usually around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.. I aim to get to the track by about 7:00 am each day, so Friday is the final opportunity to recharge my batteries. Since I don’t sleep at all from when I wake up early Saturday morning until after photos are uploaded Sunday night, a good night’s sleep Friday is crucial.

Saturday starts very early, if for no other reason than to secure a spot in the always overbooked media parking lot. The race doesn’t begin until 3:00 p.m., but the time leading up to the green flag passes very quickly. After shooting the 9:00-9:45 a.m. morning warm-up, I photographed a little bit of the Le Mans Legends vintage race for the simple joy it brought. Then I raced back to the paddock to give four youngsters—the daughter of an old pal, her boyfriend and their two buddies—a tour of the Corvette garage. The tour was actually a ruse to get the girl, Janine Pizzimenti, into the No. 64 car so her boyfriend, Nigel Cochran, could surprise her with a marriage proposal. Crew chief Dan Binks agreed to go along with this as long as I first advised Nigel to envision everything he owned “in one pile, on fire.” Only then, said Binks, would the young man understand the gravity of what he was about to undertake.

After the marriage proposal I ate lunch. Just as Friday is the last opportunity for sleep until the race is over, Saturday’s lunch is the final chance to eat a proper meal before the end of the race. Chevrolet has a temporary building erected at Le Mans, and most of the first floor is a commercial-grade kitchen and large dining room where the team eats. The Belgian kitchen crew, led by renowned chef Paul Puissant, prepares a veritable feast three times a day, every day, for the entire week, so we all eat very well in Le Mans when we’re able. Once the race starts however, I don’t stop for anything, including meals.

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…Go

I approach photographing the race with a fairly detailed plan of attack. That plan remains flexible, however, because numerous factors outside of my control, such as the weather, lengthy yellow-flag periods and so on, can change where I want to be, when. In general my goal is to capture the totality of the race as well as each of its key elements, so as to be able to create a comprehensive visual narrative. Photographing the people is as important as shooting the cars. I always want to shoot at least one day and one night pit stop with driver and tire changes, as opposed to just fuel. And night photos are, in my opinion, essential to conveying the essence of endurance racing.

There’s a funny thing about shooting Le Mans at night. Because the circuit is at higher latitude than is most of the United States, the days are longer and the nights are shorter than what we’re accustomed to. In mid-June when the race takes place, twilight in Le Mans ends at 10:41 p.m. and begins at 5:18 a.m., which means there are just a little more than six hours of total darkness. While that may sound like plenty of time, it’s really not when you consider the length of the track and amount of time it takes to move around it. Also, I normally do a mid-race photo upload, which consumes at least an hour of the darkness.

The most beautiful Le Mans photos are often shot at sunrise on Sunday. By then the surviving cars have been racing more than 14 hours, and unless they’ve suffered damage that required new bodywork, they inevitably look hammered. The combination of beautiful dawn light and the filthy, tattered state of the participants is striking.

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While remaining focused on the photography, I also keep an eye on what’s happening in the race. At the mid-point of this year’s 24-hour contest, three LMGTE Pro class cars remained on the lead lap: an Aston Martin, a Ferrari and the No. 64 Corvette. A factory Porsche was still within striking distance, one lap down to the leaders. By hour 16 only the Corvette and Ferrari were on the lead lap, but one Aston Martin and one Porsche were still in the hunt. By the conclusion of the 21st hour, the Aston and Porsche were both out of contention. With less than two hours remaining, it came down to a battle between the C7.R Corvette and AF Corse’s Ferrari 458 Italia, with mere seconds separating the two competitors.

The nature of the race changes dramatically in its closing stages. For the first 22 or so hours, the strategy is to make zero mistakes on the track and in the pits, and go fast enough to stay on the lead lap so you’re there at the end to race. Cars that are pushed too hard in the beginning usually aren’t there at the end, and trouble inevitably finds drivers who take unnecessary chances in the early hours. As the clock winds down, however, cars still in contention must be stressed to their absolute design limits, and drivers have to get ever closer to that fine line separating victory from disaster without crossing over. At this point the teams have done all they can do, and the struggle comes down to a very intense battle between drivers and the cars they command.

After taking over in his final stint, Oliver Gavin went into that mental zone that only champions know and put his Corvette, whose every engine revolution turned in sympathy with his own beating heart, on a relentless trajectory toward the checkered flag. The Corvette Racing veteran soon caught and passed LMGTE Pro class-leading Ferrari pilot Toni Vilander, a two-time Le Mans winner and last year’s FIA WEC LMGTE Pro champion. The Finn struggled mightily to stave off Gavin’s merciless charge, but it proved too much for his 458 Italia, which suffered a gearbox failure that put the fast Ferrari into its garage for repairs that ultimately cost it five laps.

With the race winding down and Corvette No. 64 heading for victory, I had to get into position to capture the checkered flag. In years past I’ve shot the finish from both sides of the track, as well as at both ground level and from atop a building or the grandstands. While it’s always been challenging, the task has gotten considerably more difficult in recent years, particularly when shooting from the drivers’ right. This is because rooftop access has been curtailed, and the ACO has installed tall glass barriers atop the wall that separates pit lane from the front straight.

To ensure that I could get an unobstructed view of the finish line, I carried a ladder—along with three cameras, three lenses, miscellaneous accouterments and my sweaty, stinky, sorry carcass—about three-quarters of a mile from the paddock up to the Dunlop Esses, underneath the track through a tunnel and then back to the finish line on the drivers’ left. Although I’d been awake for some 34 hours, the prospect of a Corvette victory put some wind in my sails.

In a fitting tribute to a team that never gives up, C7.R No. 64 took the checkered at a few minutes past 3:00 p.m. on Sunday to give Corvette Racing its eighth victory at Le Mans. As low as morale had been immediately after the withdrawal of No. 63 on Thursday, the energy, enthusiasm and sheer ecstasy felt by everyone at Corvette Racing, including me, was that much more powerful when the contest was over. Simply stated, every team member executed brilliantly, and the winning Corvette ran flawlessly for the entire 24 hours. This unbeatable combination overwhelmed the competitors from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche, and demonstrated once again why Corvette Racing ranks among the best GT racing teams in the sport’s history. Though physically and emotionally exhausting, it was my privilege to once again be at Le Mans as a member of this magnificent team.

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