We might as well get this out of the way right off the top: While in Le Mans, France, a small but monumentally drunk Frenchman kissed my beard. There, I said it.
Well, it started as a kiss but, because he had to leap off the ground to reach beard-level and because he was inebriated well beyond the point where human dexterity collapses, it ended up as more of a facial collision—his nose compressing against my cheekbone, our craniums knocking. At least he respected me enough to call me “Chef.”
I let his sloppy-drunk female companion pour herself into the driver’s seat of our racy $200,800 Audi R8 GT for what I thought would be a quick snapshot. I’d relented after only about 20 minutes of him screaming this conversational snippet repeatedly into my ear: “My woman! Audi Sport, Chef! Rmmmm!” Eventually, it became clear that neither the kisser nor his woman had a camera. While he did a stumbling victory lap around the car, she sat askew in the racing seat, staring out with unfocused eyes and a perma-grin.
“Oh my,” said a British bystander, surveying the scene.
Horrified that she might take up residence in our car, I remembered I was carrying my photographer’s high-powered flash in my hand.
We were photographing the car in front of the Ferris wheel near the front straight of Circuit de la Sarthe. It was the night before the 2011 running of the 24-hour race, an event you might recognize as the setting of an old Steve McQueen movie in which all of the characters are mute.
Boom! I blasted her with a shot of white light. Then another. And a third. “Okay!” I announced.
She was either convinced I’d taken her portrait in this lovely automobile or I’d wiped clean her internal hard drive. Whatever, she wormed her way out of the Audi caroming off the doorjamb in three places.
Just then the driver of a be-winged and body-kitted Euro econobox that began life as an Opel or a Fiat, or something else that looks like an Opel or a Fiat, tried to impress by doing a smoky burnout six feet away from the crowd our car had gathered. Instead, he unleashed a stinky cloud of formerly useful clutch material and then slinked away.
My photographer and I decided we should hop into our two-seat, 560-hp de facto camper van and head back to the campground that we were now regretting was our home for the next couple of days.
On the way to our double-wide plot in the Beausejour campground, we encountered a young man, standing roadside with his pants pulled down and arc of glistening urine extending halfway across our lane. We slowed long enough for the stream to subside before passing. When we did, Photographer said, “Dane,” matter of factly. How he knew this young man was Danish, I did not ask. But Photographer had thus far shown an uncanny ability to identify a stranger’s country of origin. I felt momentarily more worldly, since when I see a man peeing into the street in France, I typically assume he’s French, and also I’d sort of forgotten that Danes existed.
Turns out, Photographer had a one-in-10 shot at being right. Ten percent of the tickets for the 24-hour race are sold to Danes, according to race organizers. So the sound we heard about an hour into the next day’s race was that of 25,000 Danes deflating as they watched Allan McNish crash the Audi R18 prototype that was to be shared with the great Dane driver Tom Kristensen. They love Tom Kristensen.
But talk to anyone at or in any way involved with Le Mans and you’ll realize that pretty much everyone there is British. According to race organizers, 77,500 Brits attended. They make up 31 percent of the crowd, a greater percentage than any nationality except the French and, well, the French are sort of there already anyway.
Wander around the 15 separate campgrounds as we did, and you’ll realize why even the organizers stopped bothering to count the camping Brits. A press-relations employee told me, “In 2010, there were a bit more than 30,000 campers. Most of them are British.”
Of course, once you see your 15th Caterham Super 7 or third Morgan Plus 8 parked next to a tent, you get the point. How British is the camping? Well, even the one Renault Alpine we saw there—the only really cool sports car the French have built in just about ever—was driven down by a Brit.
It was this that inspired us to borrow from perennial race-winner Audi the company’s newest and raciest sports car, the R8 GT, and cram it full with two pup tents, two inflatable bedrolls, two sleeping bags, two pillows, two umbrellas, two rolls of toilet paper, a bunch of miniature bananas, one baguette, two windbreakers, camera gear, one cooler (containing as many cans of Kronenbourg 1664 beer as we could fit, three bottles of water, and two cans of energy drink left by the guy from whom we stole the cooler) for the purpose of infield camping. Well, it wasn’t the Caterhams or the Morgans in particular that inspired us but the fact that otherwise sensible and at least reasonably comfortable people regularly drive to Le Mans in their supercars, exotics, freak shows, and kit-car replicas with only the provisions that will fit in various overheated nooks and crannies and pitch a tent next to their Ferrari F40. No kidding. I saw an F40 camper a few years ago. An F40! And a Carrera GT camper. And then they do it again the next year and the year after. And by “people,” I mean “men.” And by “men,” I mean “British men.”
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