It's a simple word but that's about all that I can think after June 16th. People continue to ask me over the last few weeks if I've come down from the high yet, and I don't think I've even peaked yet. It still hasn't fully sunk in that, with my teammates Olivier Beretta, Antonio Garcia, and the entire Corvette Racing team, we won our class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans!
When I signed up with Corvette Racing late last year, the one race that I had my eye on was Le Mans. That's the one race I've always said that I want to win and I knew 2011 would be one of my best chances to get that win. It's the biggest sports car race in the world, with the most history, and most prestige. Even just competing at Le Mans is special.
The atmosphere there is incredible.
There are hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, and some of the best drivers and teams in the world.
55 cars invited to compete for their place in history and glory in their respective classes.
The driver's parade on Friday before the race.
The speed of the track is wild. Five times are we easily over 170mph on the track and top speeds in the race were just north of 180mph.
I'd competed at Le Mans twice before. Both years in GT2 (now GTE) in a Panoz Esperante and both years the car didn't make it past 7 or 8 hours into the race. Both of those years just being there and competing was almost enough satisfaction that the end result wasn't that tough to swallow.
This year was different. Chevrolet's 100th anniversary. Corvette Racing's 10th anniversary of their first win at Le Mans (with six more victories after that). Corvette Racing has all but dominated here at Le Mans and they had something to prove this year after having the speed in 2010 but not the luck. We had the luck this time.
This is a big race for Corvette and it shows in the preparation. All of the big efforts have large hospitality suites just outside the paddock where they entertain not only guests and VIP's but in Corvette's case, the whole team and us drivers.
We actually stay right at the race track in the upstairs part of the suite. It's small but there is nothing like the convenience, especially here at Le Mans, of being at the track. It can be a nightmare trying to get to and from the track in the mornings and evenings. Two nights in a row we aren't really done at the track until 1am. Knowing your bed is only 30 second walk from the garage is primo.
Our first on track sessions Wednesday and Thursday went well. The cars were relatively quick and we spent the sessions looking to improve the balance of the car.
We struggled with some entry oversteer throughout the weekend and caught me out a couple times. I had some huge moments in T1 and at the entry to the Porsche Curves, two places that are not slow. That killed some of the confidence, which is huge at Le Mans.
Come race day though, we'd get the car pretty good and I knew once the race got going, that I could find a rhythm and focus on maximizing the speed.
The driver's parade here on Friday is an incredible experience. A route is planned out through the old part of Le Mans, starting at the old Cathedral and looping through the streets and ending back up where you started. People of all ages line the entire route at least 4 or 5 rows deep and often times 10-15 rows deep, on both sides, for a mile, and every one is yelling and screaming at you for whatever you have.
Some teams hop out of the cars at some points and sign autographs and hand out hero cards. We throw beads to the fans which clearly they enjoy.
Olivier,Antonio, and I were also fortunate to be the first to go through the route on our old car lead by Olivier and I's girlfriends in a 1957 Corvette. Pretty amazing experience to be first one's through and have our girlfriends share that with us.
With all of the meetings over, the parade done, and cars prepared, it was time to go racing.
We didn't have the fastest cars. The BMW's were far and away the quickest car but we weren't that far off. We could race well.
I was second in the rotation of drivers and after Olivier's first double stint, I hopped in and started plugging away. The start of the race was all but tame. McNish had his HUGE accident in the Dunlop Curves and everyone was racing pretty hard.
My stint thankfully was much less of a drama. I could settle into a rhythm that was quick and comfortable and just worry about putting in the laps and making no mistakes.
Our first drama of the race was a slow puncture for Antonio at the start of his second stint. Our plan was to double stint which meant running one set of tires for two fuel loads. Since he had to pit for new tires part of the way into his second stint, he would go for another two stints before handing it over to Olivier.
During the safety car period for the accident of the second Audi of Rockenfeller, Olivier was in the car again, and had issues with carbon monoxide poisoning. He had been behind a few cars and at those low speeds the circulation in the car isn't great, and he needed to get out of the car. They rushed back to the suite to come grab me so I could get in the car and get him out. He was dizzy and had a hard time talking coherently and Olivier knew it. He said he felt drunk basically. That was basically it for Olivier for the rest of the race. There was another 10+ hours to go in the race which Antonio and I would split.
Taking over for Olivier and once the safety cars pulled off, I had an awesome time for the next hour running around with Melo in one of the Ferraris. It's amazing the difference in lap times to drive the track with another quick car. My best lap was a high 4:01 or so before and just from running with Melo, instantly my lap times were consistently a second to two seconds a lap quicker, just with the draft.
We swapped spots for the first half the stint over and over and then I just cruised behind him for the second half until I had to pit for fuel.
I ended up running a triple stint and handed it over to Antonio who would do a triple as well. It meant I could get some sleep.
I was woken up by my Dad, who was at the track for the weekend, and said I needed to get up and get in the car. Olivier had felt much better prior to getting in but once he was on track he didn't feel 100% again.
I hustled down into the pit lane and learned that the #4 Corvette with Magnussen at the wheel had had a big accident. They were leading in GT at that point by about a lap and looked like they had the race pretty well covered. Now it was wide open again.
I got in the car in about 4th or 5th place and by the end of my first stint I had made my way to 2nd. The Ferrari ahead though was up by about a lap and some.
With Olivier out, it was just Antonio and I trading off. Not an easy task at the end of a 24 hour race for sure but it got a lot harder, mentally, when I was starting the last 3+ hour push to the end of the race. And then it rained…
The good news was that the lead Ferrari had trouble. They were running laps about 3 to 4 seconds slower than us on average. At that rate, we would catch them for sure.
The rain though threw a whole new twist. The Ferrari was lacking top speed but in the wet that wasn't as much of a problem. I wanted to keep pushing but it was sprinkling and then not sprinkling. Wet in some areas and some others not. Then it would be completely different the next lap.
Dan Binks, my crew chief, and voice of reason and help throughout the race, was relaying all the important info. Where the LMP cars were and how far back, what the gap was to the Ferrari, etc. The gap was shrinking quick and the rain was falling harder and more unpredictably.
I was taking 4, 5, sometimes 6 seconds out of the Ferrari's lead per lap. I could see him way off in the distance on the Mulsanne and see the gap visually shrinking. I just had to keep the car on the road. In these conditions, even the smallest mistake, braking too late, anything, could send the car spearing off track with the conditions changing so much and still driving on slick tires.
Binks was telling me to slow down. I was the fastest GTE car. His words of info quickly turned into pleading for me to slow down. I wasn't going to put around at 50mph and I wasn't even coming close to running at my normal pace. I was trying my best to read the conditions and change brake points, apex speeds, etc. accordingly.
I braked for Mulsanne Corner and got within a second of the Ferrari. Up the gears and by the second kink, the struggling Ferrari had no option but to let me go by.
The great part about our garage setup is you can watch the whole race from TV screens and we even had an in car video feed that was live the entire race. The bad part about our garage setup is you can watch the entire race live from our car.
I was approaching the first chicane and it was raining harder than the last lap. I braked very early and very gently. Too gently. I was trying to do everything to keep the wheels from locking up and got into the first chicane a bit too hot for the conditions. I was probably at half my normal speed but that was still too fast. I tried to slow more but that only locked the front wheels and killed all control I had in the car. I had to go straight through the chicane and luckily I was able to maneuver around the cones and the huge lip of the curb and keep going.
“Dude! I'm serious as a heart attack right now! YOU NEED TO SLOW DOWN!!!” Shouted Binks to me on the radio. I knew there was a huge crowd watching the same thing he was and everyone telling Binks to tell me to slow down. “I'M GOING AS SLOW AS I CAN. It's really tricky out here right now and I'm doing my ABSOLUTE best to keep this thing on the road.” I continued on for about another two minutes as I ran through the lap just trying to calm everyone in the pits down, who was getting Binks riled up, and even myself.
That little drama aside, everything else went smooth. The rain slowed and then stopped. There was about an hour and thirty minutes to go in the race and it was time for a pit stop. I would have loved to stay in the car, I really would have, but I knew and the team knew, the mental drain I had just been through, passing for the lead, in the wet, with all of the people and everything surrounding the whole event. A quadruple stint at the end is asking for trouble. Antonio was rested and ready to go so he would finish the last hour and thirty minutes of the race. I was bummed and relieved all at the same time.
Antonio would just hammer out the last hour and a half, which felt like three hours, until the clock was at 3:00pm on Sunday afternoon.
Amazing feeling to see it all fall into place like it did at the end, and to be in the car for the pass for the lead under all that pressure and to do it my first year with Corvette Racing.
It's cliché but it's hard to put into words the feeling of achieving something like that. Knowing you've won the race, standing on the podium, looking out at thousands of people to cheer you on, and hearing your national anthem after you've won the greatest sports car race in the world… Amazing.
A week relaxing on vacation in Mallorca with the girlfriend and it was right to the Nurburgring to tackle the 24 Hours of Nurburgring.
I’m not sure how I can top this one!