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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)


Over a year ago I posted about my new Cayman and mentioned I had a ride with Derek Bell in a 962 at the 24 hours of Le Mans. I promised details but when I started to write I realized the story was the tip of a much larger iceberg. I have a large archive of racing pictures I took when I photographed Formula One and Le Mans from 1982-85. Except for a few pictures published at the time most haven’t seen the light of day in years. Since my post here I’ve been scanning Kodachromes and working on stories. Sorry its taken so long but it has been a lot of work. My blog: poeticsofspeed has been online for a few days. It would be great if you checked it out when you have a chance.

Thanks



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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Really cool stuff.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
At the time I rode with Derek Bell at Le Mans I was uncertain about whether it was in a 956 or 962 Porsche. Both models are visually very similar and were present at the 1985 Le Mans. New-Man Joest Racing, the eventual winners, had 956s. Rothmans, the factory team for whom Bell was driving, were shown on the entry lists with 962s. So I assumed my ride, the T car #111, must be a 962.

A few days ago while researching another photograph I came across an amazing website Racing Sports Cars - Home Page. They state: “A primary focus is to create a huge photo archive containing all major national and international sports car races and to collect views of every single car in the field.” It is a fantastic effort and resource. On the 1985 Le Mans page I found the record of car #111 with its data. It was a Porsche 956 chassis 009, a T car driven only in practice by Hans-Joachim Stuck, Derek Bell, Vern Schuppan and Al Holbert. Its best lap was 3:19.720 (the best Rothmans 962 had a 3:14.800).

Now I finally have confirmation I was in a 956 and with its chassis number I was able to determine the car was a real warrior with one the best records of all the 956s. With Derek Bell and Stefan Bellof driving, 956-009 won seven World Championship 1000 Kilometers races and the title for Stefan Bellof in 1984. I am awestruck I rode in his Championship winning car.

956.009 finished well in several other races and eventually was shipped as a T car to four more. According to the 962.com registry 009 was acquired in 2004 by a Porsche Dealership in Reading England. I knew none of these details until two days ago. I thought the ride was amazing enough and now I am astounded to learn I was in a racecar with such an important history.

I've updated the post changing 962 to 956.

This photograph is of a model Porsche 956 I bought at Le Mans in 1985 right after my ride. For 26 years I’ve always had it nearby. Its currently sitting on a little shelf in my studio about 10 feet away from where I’m writing.
 

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Great photos. Thanks for the personal reflection. Derek Bell is one of my heroes. He's told a personal anecdote about an F1 world champion coming over once to meet him. He was a bit surprised the driver wanted to see him, & Bell said, 'but you're a world champion!' He said, 'but you've won LeMans multiple times.' Paraphrased, but a great story.

John
 

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fantastic story and fantastic blog. I just read Poeticsfspeed from beginning to end (or is that end to beginning?) and wanted it to last forever. Great pics, great stories and truly riveting insight into your experience 'inside the ropes' of racing.

Definitely makes me want to attend more racing events!

Thank you so much for sharing, looking forward to any additional material you post.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
Cromagnon,

Thanks so much for your comments.

I’ve tried to structure Poeticsofspeed.com with a lot of layers and complexity so when someone explores it they are rewarded. Hopefully it reads well both backwards and forwards.

Its a major compliment to learn you read everything on the blog and enjoyed it so much. I’ve had my racing pictures and experiences filed away for a long time and its great to finally share them and have them appreciated.

Here's a picture of the 956 #111 sitting in the pits. It is posted on the blog but I thought it would be appropriate in this thread.
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
I'm very proud to share some exciting news. The December issue of Panorama, the PCA magazine, has a 12 page feature "24+30" with my photographs and an article I wrote about my experiences at the 1984/85 24 hours of Le Mans. Many thanks to Pete Stout, Richard M. Baron and the staff at Panorama for making this possible.
 
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