Le Mans: It's a place as well as a race

June 12, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Le Mans, France -- England's Derek Bell faithfully returns to Le Mans, France, every June.

For 24 years he has come to this city in the Loire Valley.

Today, he looks me in the eye, and in his very British accent, tells me quite frankly:

"I come for the affairs."

I blink.

"When I've finished, there have been times when I've needed intravenous drips in my arm and massages to bring back the circulation in my legs and my neck," he says.

And then Derek Bell laughs. What he is talking about is his love affair, his unquenched desire for the 24 hours of Le Mans, an endurance race he has won five times, and the people who come here to watch it.

Mr. Bell, a 53-year-old blond with intense, steel blue eyes, has flirtations with fans from inside his race car during the race.

"It is absolutely astonishing," says Mr. Bell, who will drive here again next weekend in a Gulf-Kremer-Porsche. "We go howling along at 160 mph and the people are there. You can actually see the people.

"Not their faces, but clumps of color and they wave and you wave back and flash your lights and you get to know them. You see them to your left and your right and you see their animation.

"They're leaning over the fences from their houses or perched on unlikely banks and they're waving, always waving. Every time. For hours. And if you don't wave back, you sense how offended they are and they move off."

And then another group comes and a new affair begins.

At night, of course, they disappear. But in their place comes a new romance.

Flash bulbs sparkle all along the route from Le Mans to the smaller towns of Mulsanne and Arnage and back. The carnival lights of Ferris wheels, of cheap thrill shows and bumper-car rides from the track-side fair come into view just before the curve known as the Tertre Rouge. The drivers look up into the sky and see the Goodyear blimp lighted up like Times Square, displaying the car numbers and names of the men leading each of the four classes in the field of competition.

"As the night goes on, though, it becomes very personal," says Mr. Bell. "You are going down the straight at 235-245 and it is just you, the lights on the --board and the soft noise from the engine. You hold the wheel as if it was a lover and you are totally wrapped up in her and in what you are doing together. You are silently coaxing her to give just a little more.

"You don't have that, that feeling, that relationship anywhere else in the world."

If not for this race, which will run Saturday and next Sunday, and the fascination so many have for it, Le Mans probably would be ignored by tourists.

It is surrounded by beautiful places. By the castle-filled Loire Valley, by Normandy and Brittany.

A crossroad on the highway to all those places, Le Mans, halfway between Paris and Nantes, often gets passed by.

;/ Yet for those who stop there are pleasures.

Sights to see

In June, of course, there is the race on the 8.5-mile track just south of town that includes city streets and country roads. But visitors here can also find several small jewels to fill an afternoon.

First there is the Cathedral of St. Jean, something of an architectural marvel. It is huge and dark and wondrous. Built over five centuries, beginning in the 11th, it is Romanesque and Gothic, and inside the support pillars appear so tall as to stretch from earth all the way to heaven.

And then there is Le Mans' old town.

It sits on a hill above the hustle of the main city. The Cathedral of St. Julien towers over the enclave of small, 14th- and 15th-century houses and a quiet square.

Because the old town is not the center of what is now modern Le Mans, it is not overrun with souvenir shops -- or maybe it's not overrun with souvenir shops because it's not overrun with tourists.

Some of the houses date to the 11th century. The cold-gray Gallo-Roman walls which surround the old town -- and may well be what keeps it from tumbling into the Sarthe River -- are the best preserved in Europe. They are amazing, given the date of their construction, between A.D. 280 and 310.

The quiet old city stands in sharp contrast to the Le Mans of the 1990s and its international endurance race, which is, in truth, more than just a race.

It is 71 years of tradition and history. And it is personal, for drivers, the town and the fans, who swell the 151,000 community by more than 300,000 during race week.

"When I was just a kid, we'd take the train here," says Marc Sonnery, who grew up outside Paris, now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but can't resist the urge to come back for the race. "It was always magic. The Germans party, the English, 20,000 to 30,000 of them, wave their flags all night. You find people sleeping in the most amazing places. And the most amazing things happen.

"I remember one race, [six-time winner] Jacky Ickx lost the race in the pits because a fireman walked slowly in front of his car and he had to stop and wait. He lost by a quarter mile."

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