My first experience at Road Atlanta’s Petit Le Mans nearly killed me. Then again, I should say I nearly killed myself.
Unlike those with some foresight, I had not opted to bring camping equipment or an RV to the annual sports car race, one of their premier endurance races in the U.S. and arguably one of the most prolific in the world.
Because I had no friends interested in attending the race with me and my then girlfriend, now wife, shared about as much interest in four days of racing as I had in sitting nude on a cactus, I went alone. I elected to borrow my mother’s SUV and make my own little slice of home away from home amid the north Georgia mountains surrounded by 2.54-miles of undulating race track. And that is what ultimately nearly brought an end to my life.
Unlike this year, throughout the first weeks of October 2012, low temperatures dipped into the 50’s, and during the week of Petit, the wind seemed constant. This made sleeping in the rear of my mother’s car quite a chilly proposition, so, I decided to close all the windows before nodding off.
Trouble was, I woke sometime later with a splitting headache, nausea and was struggling to catch my breath. While my mother’s 2002 Isuzu Rodeo was absolutely terrible in every other sense, at least it was well insulated — I determined I was suffering from slight carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by my own exhaling. Okay, it could have simply been the massive quantities of beer I drank, but I’m sticking with the CO2 argument.
After leaving the car and walking around in the crisp, fall air for a bit, I felt much better. But that’s not to say I slept very well that night.
With the windows now well open in my makeshift, motorized tent, I was able to easily hear the thousands of Petit attendees drunkenly frolic throughout the night in the parking lot I was stationed in, as well as the dozens of others scattered throughout the massive Road Atlanta complex. Not to mention the fire-lit campsites.
There were plenty of “Woohoos!” shouted with breath reeking of beer, but the most prevalent holler of the night was, “Do a burnout!”
I’m not sure where this man was camping, but he yelled the phrase to each and every single car that passed through the infield. And with attendees showing up to the track from throughout the country during the night, he had plenty of drivers to encourage to burn rubber. And many took him up on the offer.
This made sleeping a bit difficult, but I was absolutely astonished at this man’s persistence. Sometime around 5 a.m., I once again awoke to the yell of “Do a burnout!”
I had to smile.
Just three hours later I was once again woken up, but this time I was greeted with the most wonderful alarm clock I had ever experienced — the sounds of race cars thrashing the course.
I excitedly shook the cobwebs of sleep and rubbed the crust from my eyes and headed to Turn 3, a tight left-hander at the top of an incredibly steep incline where the track levels out only momentarily before darting the cars downhill through the Esses.
It was my first experience at a road race, seeing the cars I most envied dart, dash, and whiz by seemingly just feet from my wide eyes while the sounds of their roaring engines stirred an indescribable euphoria within my soul. As a racing fan, I had found my happy place.
However, life sometimes get in the way of what we want to do most. For me, that included a 6-year absence from Petit Le Mans.
But when I pulled through the gates on Oct. 13 for race day, the magic picked up where it had left off in 2012. My hands were shaking so violently with excitement, it took me some time to attach my press credentials to my lanyard. And as soon as I made the short trek to Turn 1, the giddy, warm sensations of adrenaline and excitement rushed through my veins as the thunderous bellows of the engines and the flashes of brightly colored cars stirred my senses.
Now I will be the first to admit that television is a far better way to consume Petit Le Mans in regards to knowledge of the storylines and all the action. That said, attending the 10-hour race provides an experience that will never be palpable through even the largest of TV screens.
Petit Le Mans is more than a few days of racing, it’s a festival of speed and car culture wrapped in the canvas of a non-stop party.
And it’s not a celebration limited to any race, gender, age or nationality. I heard multiple languages and saw just about every skin color within the human rainbow on the faces of the very old, very young and everyone in between, showing that cars and speed reign supreme over any other cultural aspects on race day.
Before the green flag drops, this diverse crowd flood in the infield and out banks of the track, all pushing for the best vantage point to see their car of choice whiz by, building a perceptible anticipation for the wave of the green flag.
When the flag does fly, the 10-hour blitz to your senses begins. The smells of hot rubber, racing fuel, cheap beer and grilled foods fills your nostrils. The sights of the brightly colored cars race by at such speed your eyeballs begin to feel sore.
And the noise. My God, the noise.
Not only does the sound of the howling engines assault your ears, you can feel it deep within your chest. There’s the buzz from the Fords, the scream of the Porsches the burble of the Corvettes and the bellow of the Cadillacs providing a mechanized symphony.
Continuing the sensory overload is the feeling of tired legs. Watching a Road Atlanta race while sitting at home does not give you the perspective of just how big and hilly the track is. It’s easy to dismiss the climbs of turns 1 and 10 or the sharp descent of The Esses and down to Turn 12 when you see a sports car traverse them in the blink of an eye. But doing the same on foot will leave you sweaty, breathless and with burning legs. I may have thought it ridiculous when I saw so many fans with scooters and golf carts at my first Petit Le Mans, but after a few of these hills and walking the front stretch back and forth, I was asking for rides.
Of course, there is the race itself, and this year’s edition, the 21st annual, did not disappoint. Championships were still up for grabs in the final race of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and after 10 hours of racing, the win in the Prototype class was decided by a pass on the final lap.
While this last-lap pass was evident to those watching the race on TV — frankly I don’t think even the most eagle-eyed fan on the front stretch realized there was a change at the top of the podium — those taking in the race on their couches miss the incredible overall experience Petit provides.
While the celebratory champagne flew in the winner’s circle, smoke from dozens of campfires being put out burned my eyes and my ears were, for the first time in hours, exposed to silence, I wondered what the hell had kept me away from Petit for six years.
I will be back next year. And yes, I will do a burnout.