215 MPH With Derek Bell

At the 1984 Le Mans I had just received my photography credential and was talking with Bernard Cahier.  The Le Mans Press Officer came over to ask Bernard for recommendations for four or five journalists to get a ride around the circuit in race cars during the afternoon practice session.  Bernard told him I was an American visiting Le Mans for the first time and would be a good candidate.  The Press Officer looked crestfallen.  He obviously wanted Bernard to suggest a major journalist and I was unknown.  None the less he gave me some paperwork and told me to report to an area in the pits, sign the release, collect a helmet and wait.  I was there early and waited with helmet on until the end of the practice session and it was clear I wouldn’t get my ride.  The Press Officer came up and apologized, promising me I would be the first one out next year.  I promised myself I would be at the next Le Mans no matter what.

Right after I checked in at the 1985 Le Mans credential office I bumped into the Press Officer and reminded him of his previous year’s promise in my best French. Actually my French was merely passable but he seemed to appreciate my effort and assured me I would be the first one out.  True to his word a helmet was waiting and after signing the usual “motor racing is dangerous and I do so at my own risk” releases I was set to go.

The sports racing prototype rules have some curiosities based on the tradition that the cars were once fully operational road automobiles.  Even though now they are single purpose racecars the regulations call for a spare tire, a place for a suitcase and a passenger seat.  It is a seat in name only and I was worried that the cockpit was too small and my 6ft 3in frame would not fit. My heart was pounding as a Rothmans Porsche 956 pulled up with Derek Bell at the wheel.  At that point Derek had won Le Mans three times and would go on to two more victories for a total of five.  He also would win the World Sportscar Championship in 1985 and 1986 along with many other accolades.  I was in awe of the man and was stunned to be sitting next to him.

Actually the sitting part was the problem.  The crew members showed me what not to touch and where I could put my weight. I struggled mightily and somehow contorted myself inside.  When I looked over Derek Bell was laughing heartily and said “Now if you take your foot off my clutch we can get underway.”  Mortified I bent and somehow tucked my legs under my seat thinking if we crash I’ll be a neat little ball they can roll into the ambulance.  Finally I was in and the crew closed the door pressing my helmeted head hard against my right shoulder.  I could not have been more uncomfortable but by God I was going to do this.   I freed my arms and held up my camera with flash and asked if it would bother him.  He smiled, said “Not at all” and fired the motor.  I had never been inside a racecar of this sophistication before and was not prepared for the controlled explosions of the engine that filled my whole body with its power pulses.  He selected first gear, let out the clutch and we were off down the pit lane.  I was so excited I fired off a bunch of frames and my friends watching later told me the car looked like a Christmas tree with all the strobe bursts.

If I thought it was thrilling at this point it hadn’t even begun.  When we hit the track he held nothing back and the car accelerated with extraordinary ferocity. We stormed through the Esses and full blast into Tertre Rouge where the G forces would have me bouncing about like a rag doll except for the fact I was wedged solidly into the cabin.  As we accelerated down Les Hunaudières, or what the English call the Mulsanne Straight, I noticed the trees on the side of the road had taken on a unusually distorted quality and we seemed to be rushing down a long narrow tunnel.  The noise was overwhelming and he raised a gloved hand first showing two fingers, then one, then all fingers and thumb.  I couldn’t figure out what he meant until I started repeating: “Two, One, Five.” “Two, One, Five.” ”215”  “OH MY GOD!  I yelled “kilometers?” and he laughed and said “No, Miles Per Hour!”  There were no chicanes at that time so the experience seemed to last for minutes.

I made the last of my exposures.  I had another roll in my vest but there was no way I could physically reload my camera so I turned off the photographer part of my brain and surrendered to the experience. Derek pointed to a place the dash and made a gesture that I should brace myself.  I knew what was going to happen.  We were about to arrive at the Mulsanne corner where he had to brake from 215MPH to around 30-40MPH for a hard right hand turn.  I’d ridden with drivers before and I knew most people were terrified at their late braking.  I was determined to be cool and wait until the last minute to brace myself.  I watched the turn grow closer and figured he’ll slow down soon, but of course he didn’t.  I was screaming “STOP NOW” inside my head, gave up and braced my hand on the dash when finally he hit the brakes.  If the car was stunning in its acceleration it was staggering in its ability to slow down.  The G forces had me nearly on the window.  He downshifted, pulled on the steering wheel and suddenly the car made a right turn and we were accelerating full blast.  We had changed speed and direction so quickly it seemed as if a giant hand had picked us up like a toy car and put us back on the road.

We stormed towards Indianapolis and Arnage, then through the Porsche Curves, Ford Chicanes and suddenly we were pulling into the pit entrance.  I didn’t want it to end, I wanted more laps but we were stationary and he turned of the engine.  The silence was startling. He told me we had gone nearly as fast as he had in qualifying and we hit 215 M.P.H. on the straight before Indianapolis as well as the Mulsanne.  I thanked him for the ride of my life.  When I emerged from the car Paul-Henri told me my eyes were as big as pies and I didn’t stop talking top speed like a maniac for hours.

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