Wednesday 14 October 2015

Graveyard Shift At Le Mans 1974

Recollections of La Sarthe by Michael Keyser 

Michael Keyser
This is written at 2 A.M. on October 10, five days after my 68th birthday. I can’t sleep, so I write. My mind throws me back forty-one years to Le Mans. Same time, different date and place. 

I’d entered my Toad Hall Porsche RSR #73 with co-drivers Paul Blancpain and Milt Minter. I won’t go into details of how it all happened, because there’s no time. Milt is coming in and I’m waiting in the pits. Paul is back in the caravan. Its just stopped raining and the asphalt is beginning to dry.

We had problems early on. I started. The clutch began slipping a few laps in. We had to pull the engine and replace a seal. Now we’re in the hunt, class-wise. It’s my day in the barrel. An old joke. Ask me to tell it some day.

Before I know it, I’m in the car. Belts tightened, I’m off. We have a radio, a Motorola, but it only works sporadically. We ran a line to an antenna on the top of the pits. How I activated the thing I can’t remember. A button on the steering wheel? Regardless, its useless.

Toad Hall Porsche RSR #73
I join the scrum. Cars flash past as I climb through the Dunlop curve, crest the rise under the Dunlop Bridge and dive towards the esses. I do a lap and all seems in order. The engine is pulling strong and the brakes work. The car handles well. What more can you ask? I love my RSR. My small band of brothers in the signaling pits at Mulsanne gives me a thumbs up as I accelerate past. I wave. Fast forward.

I pass the pits and steel myself for the Dunlop Bend. No silly back and forth like now. The car grips the curve and I pop over the rise. A slight stomach in the mouth feeling, then a drop down toward the esses again. I’ve passed a car or two and been passed. On to Tertre Rouge, a slightly off camber right hander. Down the shute and onto the Mulsanne.

Michael Keyser and Milt Minter
I shift into 4th, then 5th and settle in for the long ride. Time to relax, sort of. I pass the restaurant on the left. A blur of faces under umbrellas behind the guard rail. The road is straight but far from flat. The undulations throw me up and down as I approach top speed. Maybe 160.

There’s a breeze that moves me a little to the right when I pass an opening in the trees. So I keep to the left. No cars ahead, but in my mirror I see lights, approaching fast, and the feared right-hand bend is approaching, taken flat out. I pull to the right. You DO NOT want to be on the outside through the bend. Let the fast cars take THAT line. 

Toad Hall Porsche RSR #73

They pass me..1-2-3 in the bend. I refer to my notes 41 years later. It’s a Matra MS670C, a Mirage GR7 and the Martini RSR. ZAP, ZAP, ZAP. They lead me over the hump, now gone, and as they approach Mulsanne corner, dart left and right, hunting and pecking for an advantage. Their problem. I’m down to 2nd and out of Mulsanne. A glance at the signaling pits as the leaders? race into the distance. I pass a small prototype limping along with a problem. Not mine.

Through the first fast sweeper, then on to the second where Jo left us two years ago. I came on the mayhem in another Porsche then, but don’t think of it now. More work to do. Into Indianapolis, then a short squirt to Arnage.

Up through the fast sweeping section to the Porsche curves. In previous years I’d be facing White House. Gone, but not forgotten. Now I really have to pay attention. A series of fast off- camber curves. Better get it right. Then down to the old Ford Chicane. One lap down, how many to go?

But now the fog rolls in.

On the Mulsanne, it comes and goes. One lap it’s there. The next it’s gone. It moves like a white demon up from the banks of the Sarthe. Do I brake and knock off speed or chance it and keep a foot to the floor. Is it twenty feet or five hundred yards? Some laps it hovers twenty feet above, making my speed more pronounced. The next it’s gone. Moved on to the countryside with the sleeping cows, goats, and pigs. I wish I were them, sort of.

Two hours and I’m due to come in. BOX they tell me at Mulsanne. A Matra passes with a scream. I’m ready. Enough, for now. I unbuckle my belts as I come down pit lane. A coffee, a hot crepe and a girlfriend await. The crew is poised, and Paul is there. A tall fellow. Good guy. Seppi’s business partner. Jo was my hero. And Pedro. Two years gone.

A few more stints. In one I make a misstep drifting into the gray and kiss the Armco a glancing blow in the Porsche curves. “They always pick up speed when you hit the grass,” Jackie Oliver once said.  So true. The same as I did two years ago. Déjà vu. You idiot. I limp to the pits with a flat tire and broken wheel. Again we finish, but back in the field. 20th according to the record. 

I’m at the wheel on the last lap. Hey, it’s my car. A line of waving flags from the corner workers. Thanks, I signal back. Is that a tear? Again I’ve cheated death. Some haven’t….

Michael Keyser -

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