Friday, July 6, 2012

Dreaming in France

Every morning since coming back, I wake up in a state of panic. Fumbling blindly, it isn’t until I find my iPod and hear segments of the race can I believe that it wasn’t just a dream. That it was actually a dream come true. Anyone who loves sports car racing knows the voice of John Hindhaugh. Tom Kristensen may be known as “Mr. Le Mans”, but John is “the voice of Le Mans”. His commentary on the legendary race is, well, legendary itself. I first found the Mecca of his voice during the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was my last weekend in Tallahassee and, instead of socializing with friends or spending time with my cousins, I was locked in my furniture-less room, with only a television, computer, and cat. Now, waking up at 8:30am on a Saturday morning isn’t an easy thing for a college student to do. Waking up at 8:30am on a Saturday morning for the start of the world’s greatest endurance race…much simpler. As the race began, I was entranced by the pictures on the television, but distracted by what was on my computer. Someone on a forum had given a warning. “Speed commentary ok, switch to radiolemans.” I was bewildered. Googling the mysterious recommendation led me to religion. “Listen Live” was actually ahead of the pictures I’d been receiving (only by a few seconds but keep in mind, racing is about the seconds)! John’s quips and witty remarks mixed in with the useful informational tidbits from Paul Truswell put me over the moon! Then Allan McNish crashed. After apologizing profusely to the roommate I’d awoken far too early for a Saturday and what seemed like an eternity of fear over the condition of Allan, I zoned back in to the commentary, which walked me through like a loyal guide dog would a blind owner. I could calm down and enjoy the race, knowing that the broadcasters of would cradle me in their arms and ensure I knew what was happening. 25 hours later, I felt like I’d made friends with all of the pit lane reporters, commentators, and drivers who had made a guest appearance on the show. So it’s easy to see why I jumped at the opportunity to go to a race with my dad last year. We drove from our cottage, just a stone’s throw away from no where, down to Lime Rock, Connecticut. The whole drive, Dad had to listen to me gushing on about how cool it would be to meet the John Hindhaugh. He pointed out that we’d met years before in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Yeah, Dad,” I said, “But that was before I knew who he was!” And the gushing continued. When we arrived at the hotel in Lime Rock, a car pulled up next to us. Guess who got out. Guess who we went to dinner with. Fast forward to January. I’m working for a company that handles the press fleets for 32 manufacturers. When I get my daily schedule, I notice a new name on it. A VIP flying into Orlando for the 24 Hours of Daytona. Needless to say, I delivered that car. Dad had told me that John and his wonderful wife, Eve, would be coming across the pond to work the race. I sent them tweet after tweet (the only real mode of communication accessible at the time), begging them to come down and stay with us post-race. When I left them a BMW X5, a special note (with plenty more pleading) was specially placed under the visor. The note had our address. They gave in and drove south. It hadn’t even been half an hour passed their arrival before John got down to business. “Have you ever thought about being a pit reporter?” Seriously, my heart skipped a beat. Had I thought about it? I’d dreamed about it! Consider this for a second: I’m the daughter of a racecar driver and an Emmy winning news anchor. Dreamed about it? I was bred for it! John started talking about how he had discussed with Eve the possibility of training me to be the eyes and ears in the pits. I went to sleep that night, dreaming on interviewing Dindo Capello, Allan McNish, and Tom Kristensen. Skip ahead another few months. It’s early morning again, this time, in California. The Long Beach Grand Prix beckons and the steady flow of ALMS crew trickles downstairs to get rides to the track. I was having a lovely conversation with Mr. Charles Dressing when, you guessed it, John Hindhaugh walks up to me and nudges the bottom of my foot. “What are you doing in June?” he asked. “Nothing!” I replied, without missing a beat. Charles started laughing and said, “It’s the best thing in the world, going to Le Mans!” For the next two months, all my mom would talk about was how I needed to practice stand-ups, make up, and camera presence. I told her not to worry John said he wanted to find out if my broadcasting career would be based in nature or nurture. She kept panicking. I gave into the make up part, letting her take me to a professional to actually buy *shudder* mascara. Hate to tell you, Mom, but looks aren’t as important if you’re on the radio. Anyhow, June arrived and I left. The time I spent with John and Eve, and later Jim Roller and Nick Daman, is a story for another day. Needless to say, I fell head over heels in love with England and was a bit sad to leave, even if it was for Le Mans. The drive down was more picturesque than I ever could have imagined. Every hill we crested, I would proclaim, “This looks like a puzzle!” Beauty surrounded by perfection. When we arrived at the track, John took me on a tour. When our Nissan Pathfinder’s wheels started down the Mulsanne (which functions as a normal road for the other 51 weeks of the year), I almost cried. Driving down towards Indianapolis and Arnage was overwhelming. But what got to me the most was the front straight. Walking up the cement steps toward the bleachers in any empty stadium is eerie. But none more so than a silent Le Mans. I crested the steps and saw, for the first time in reality, the front straight. Every pit garage door was down across the way and not another soul could be heard. No voices, no engines, no tires chirping. Silence at the most prestigious racetrack I’ve ever been to. John and I walked down to where the start-finish line lays. I couldn’t help but to notice the walls separating the bleacher section from the fence near the track are distinctly German. They reminded me so much of those which kept my ancestors prisoner only a few thousand miles from where I stood. That thought was quickly pushed from my mind, however, as we approached an area where even John got emotional. In 1955, more than 80 people died watching this race when two cars collided and were sent, flaming, into the spectators. In those days, there were no fences to catch the debris, no barrier between track and fan. John looked for the plaque and told me he always thinks about those people. We couldn’t find the plaque. What found us, slowly but surely, were the other members of the Radio Le Mans family. John and Eve are definitely the parents. John’s had his praise already but Eve deserves more than I could give in one sitting. She’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in the company of. Eve is wonderful! She’s knowledgeable on every subject we broached but has a true passion for racing. She’s got the mother hen sort of personality: get under her wing and be well protected, but fight against her chicks and she’ll kick some butt. She’s also one of the best chefs but her food is mostly consumed by Nick Daman. Although this will inflate his ego, Nick is HILARIOUS! Very quick witted and obsessed with racing (a common theme you’ll find among the RLM family), he is exactly as he seems on Midweek Motorsport, only more inappropriate. We shared an interesting discussion over a meal when he stole my dessert. I’ll leave it at that. He also knows what questions to ask and how to make an interview into a conversation. Nick, unfortunately, is insecure with his standing as top male in the eyes of the Radio Le Mans following, the Listener’s Collective, ever since young gun Jonny Palmer entered the scene. Jonny, with his boyish good looks and alluring voice, has taken away several of Nick’s followers and earned the nickname “Cabana Boy.” He is, however, quite the English gentleman. (A/N: Nick, I reserve the right to withhold judgment over which RLM man I prefer, sorry) Jonny’s counterbalance in the booth was more often than not Paul Tarsey, a man whom I rarely saw without a smile on his face. Because we had 3 Pauls, they are known by their last names. Tarsey did much of the commentary for the Group C and Aston Martin races, and his eyes lit up when he saw those cars. He felt the emotions of the track as much as I did. But when it comes to old sports cars, Charles “Chuck” Dressing is the only man to trust. Chuck knows everything you could ever want to know. When something during the race would happen, Chuck could tell you if a similar occurrence had ever taken place and, if so, in what year. Chuck works for the American Le Mans Series with both Jim Roller and myself. Jim would be the uncle in the Radio Le Mans family. He and John are like brothers. Jim has wisdom beyond his years, a true professionalism, and a serious love of dogs. He showed me pictures of his 4 dogs proudly, as a mother would her children. Jim has already had a huge influence in my career and was great to work with. He always wanted to listen to what was happening in the pits as well as worry about the goings on in the booth. Like Nick, he has a wicked sense of humour and would more often than not have me laughing over quiet asides. Jim found a new partner for some stints of the race, working with Sam Collins. Sam is a genius. When something broke on a car, Sam could easily break down what happened, why, and how long it should take to fix. He could help explain work happening in the garage from vague descriptions and translate engineer speak into English. Much like Sam and myself, another rookie to the team was Jeremy Shaw. Jeremy’s hardly a rookie, however. When interviewing in the pits, Jeremy would want to keep asking questions, not satisfied until he got to the bottom. He, too, was hard-pressed to be seen without a smile, something hard to do while working for 2 companies at the same time! He had double the shifts but gave every segment double the effort. The other two gentlemen in the pits were Joe Bradley and Bruce Jones. I’d probably get in trouble with John for calling Joe a “gentleman”. The way the two of them joke, you’d think they’d grown up together. Oh wait, they sort of did! What’s really funny is listening to the two of them talk together. They share the same dialect, both coming from Sunderland. People commonly confuse them on air so Eve split them up this year. Joe’s finest moment of the weekend came not at the track, however. On Friday night, the whole team had gathered at the house I was staying at, with the Trotins. Patrick Trotin, who is the patron of the house, had told us that we could watch the England football match after the France match. So we all sat patiently on the couch, watching the French game. About 30 seconds after it ended, Joe asked what channel was the England match on. Patrick calmly picked up the tv guide and said, “Uh-oh.” A little color was lost from Joe’s face. “What is it?” Patrick looked up at him. “It is on a channel we do not get. Impossible.” The rest of Joe’s color fled. He started panicking, asking if I could find the match on my computer for us to watch or if we could drive back to the track before it started. Then, very controlled, Patrick said, “Kidding.” And Joe jumped on him. We were all roaring with laughter, all except Joe, who was pretending to beat the tar out of Patrick. Bruce Jones is not quite as feisty as Joe, but he’s just as energetic. Taller than most French doorways, Bruce literally stands out. Easy to find in the pits, he makes it from end to end in few strides! He is a delightful conversationalist, and has a voice for midnight radio. Bruce knows almost as much about racing as Mr. Paul Truswell. The second of our Pauls is a human computer. He records about every useful piece of information (and a lot that qualify as “excess”), knowing who has done how many laps since their last pit stop/driver change/drink refill. Ask Truswell a question and there’s no doubt you’ll get a correct answer. If it’s not an answer you want but rather a delicious cup of tea or perhaps to watch “X-Men: First Class”, there’s only one person to turn to. Our final Paul Dunk, “Dunkie” (pronounced “dOUnkey” by our gracious hostess, Mina Trotin) wins the award for coming from the Collective into stardom! He wanted to learn how to do everything and, basically, did. Dunkie would help change the batteries for the pit reporters, set up radio antennae in the rain and 6 stories in the air, get Charles something he could drink, or even just keep people company. Dunkie is brilliant. Only one man, however, has brilliance written into his name. Some say Brilliant Bob could have made the show “LOST” end after only 2 days because he would have built a new plane out of coconuts and bananas. Others say Brilliant Bob could’ve used only two wires and a spare bolt to build Sputnik. All we know is that he’s, well, Brilliant! Any little issue, Bob would quietly mull over and suggest a logical solution within minutes. Driver of the Nissan LCV, Bob enjoyed nice sleeping quarters during the race but worked like a MANIAC for the week before. Bob had the help of Carl for the first couple of days, but Carl had to return home early. We also had Dave to help out behind the scenes and keep the chaos relatively controlled. He took Dunkie under his wing and, melded with Bob, created a mini-progeny. Our London based team, along with Carl, included Tim, one of the celebrated voices of Midweek Motorsport, and Toby. They kept the show running from headquarters. The team member who made herself stand out the most, as all the team would agree, was Dolly Z. Llama. Not much is known about Dolly. She will not reveal when, where, and if she was born. Dolly was brought to the track as a weather llama. The concept was simple: if she’s standing, no rain. Concepts do not always come to fruition and, unfortunately, Charles Dressing would not allow Dolly to lay down. In any case, Dolly jumped up every time she saw a Ferrari, unable to hide her favoritism toward the manufacturer. She quickly developed a rapport with both teams and some sponsors, and her tour around the track caused much chatter. Dolly was contacted for comment on the story; she declined but would admit that the week she spent at Le Mans was “the best of One’s life…so far.” Over the course of the week, I would learn more than school ever taught me. Who the big-wigs are at various teams. What to look for to report on during a pit stop. Always try and find someone to interview. Be calm, have fun, and sound like you really want to be there. But mostly, I’d learn where I feel most at home in this world. There is nothing, NOTHING that comes close to standing in the pits during a race. You’re the first to know what’s going on with a team, the first one to see a damaged car coming back in for mending, the first to talk to a driver when he gets out of the car after driving for nearly 3 hours. The emotions of the rest of the racetrack do not even come close to those in the pits. Down there, it’s exhilarating, exhausting, and ever hopeful about the outcome of the race. My first stint of the race came right as Dumas got out of his car and began imitating the Hulk, as he ripped pieces of the body away. Audi wasn’t my end, however, so I had some time to breathe. Like the nose of the number 3 Audi, that time was also ripped away quickly. The biggest crash of the race, Anthony Davidson’s, came right as I walked down to Toyota to find out how things were going for them. Eve had warned that this race would be “initiation by fire” and “throwing me in at the deep end.” I doubt they’d ever guessed I’d have my first big debut as all Hell broke loose. Oh boy. My nerves got the best of me and my first stint left me a bit shaken. When the shift was over, I handed off and went for some comfort food and sleep. It’s nearly impossible to sleep when you know the thing you’ve dreamed about seeing your entire life is taking place about 50 yards away and, with eyes closed, you can’t see it. How I managed an hour and a half of shut eye, I’ll never know. When I woke up, my first thought was “cold.” Even in a fire suit with jeans on underneath, I was FREEZING! During my warm up lap up and down pit lane to get the gist of what was happening, I was waved over by James Walker, driver of the 66 JMW Ferrari. “Are you cold?” he asked, perplexed. My response to him, that I used countless times during the week, “I’m a Florida girl.” He told me he could see me shivering from across the garage. Oops! But the cold faded away…or at least my consciousness of it as the action picked up. I found my groove at night and became much more relaxed. When the Audi of Marcel Fassler (who would later win the race) ran rogue and was damaged, I was two feet from its fin to give a report on the severity. Shortly there after and with much thanks to Martin Pass, I was the first to snag Dr. Ulrich for an interview regarding the situation. Things ran much more smoothly and, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was doing something I could be good at! By the time my third shift came around, I was rearing to get back in to the pits. It went entirely too quickly. I stood, with about 30 minutes left in my stint, on the pit wall and just took a minute to soak it all in. Across from me, separated by only the track, were thousands of people who would have given a kidney to stand where I was. Between us were engines with tons of horsepower, soaring passed. Behind me were exhausted teams, working as fast as they could to try and get their car back on track. And the smells! Rubber and gasoline, enthusiasm and hope. Completely overwhelming. It was then, I cried. But there were still cars on track and work to be done. In to the pits came the number 61 Ferrari. I had to find out his story. When the race started, I got goosebumps. Watching the cars come out of Ford Chicane to take the green flag from mere meters away. Even now, I get emotional. What got to me even more was the last lap. When all of the flaggers, every volunteer came out with a flag in each hand, to salute the winner, it became too much. These brave men and women kept the drivers safe for 24 hours. They are the ones who deserve praise, enough of which they’ll never receive. And by walking out on to the track and doing what so many have done before them, that’s what made it feel historical. That’s what all the old pictures show. That’s what made it feel like the 80th running, connected to all those that came before. And that’s when I realized it was all over. A wave of sadness overcame me. All of these people, my Radio Le Mans family, I wouldn’t see for a year. I would have given everything to have been pinched and discover that the race had not yet been run. About 3 seconds after the checkered flag fell, I began thinking about the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans and how to come back.


  1. Great read as always Shea! Judging by the story, it appears that you had rather a cheerful time perhaps?
    I will be there with 2 others next year (likely as spectators). I'm giving you fair warning, so plenty of time to set it up....dinner with RLM team mandatory!