Petit Le Mans. For the initiated, few races better represent the passion, the grit, and the skill required to compete in one of the most dangerous sports mankind has ever managed to conjure. Perhaps it’s because of how well this endurance race, or rather, collection of races, represents the racing industry, community, and fandom at large that also makes this annual event held at Road Atlanta Raceway such a worthy representative of what racing means to outsiders, as well.
In plain language, Petit Le Mans is a collection of races held each year at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia, that culminates in a ten-hour marathon of racers in different classes competing simultaneously for different victories. It’s chaotic, intense, beautiful and — to some who aren’t sure what racing is all about — intimidating.
With a French title, exotic cars, and a whole lot of racket, “Petit Le Mans” tends to be misunderstood by those outside the veil as a kind of white-collar monster truck rally; where the multi-million dollar vehicles are the spectacle, and the people, milling about in the pits and throughout Road Atlanta’s expansive grounds, are merely a means of getting the show on the road.
The truth about Petit Le Mans (and racing, for that matter) is that the vehicles may garner the lion’s share of attention from photographers, but just beyond the glossy magazine covers and sponsor-laden bodywork is where you’ll find that racing is an extension of the human condition. These men and women don’t pour their lives and livelihoods into four-wheeled powerhouses because they want to put on a show. They devote themselves to racing like cavemen fashioned spears, like Vikings took to the sea, or like American pioneers ventured West: their passions lie in accomplishment, discovery, and above all else, in victory. For all the money, the science, the expertise, and the space-age technology, racing is — at its most fundamental levels — all about pushing the limits of what we’re capable of. It’s about the triumph of will, adorned in a bright colored, high-horsepowered wrapping.
The cars, the tools, the banners, and the cameras could all disappear and you’d still find these people, lining up next to one another on patches of asphalt in their grocery-getters and minivans, eager to prove to one another that they have what it takes to snatch defeat out of the hands of fate. We tend to think of racing as the pursuit of victory, and, of course, it is to some extent, but in a larger way, racing is about people’s need for a narrative worthy of their life story.
Fielding a car at Petit Le Mans is about chasing more than trophies. It’s about chasing the horizon of your own potential. When the rubber meets the road at an event like this, every member of each team involved knows victory will mean reaching further, holding strong for longer, and pushing through the exhaustion, the pain, the frustrations, and the stress. A victory at Petit Le Mans will certainly bring acclaim and sponsorship deals… but when you zoom out to look at the broader strokes of life, what victory really represents is proof; proof that a life devoted to racing has resulted in an accomplishment few in history can share. Proof that a group of men and women, devoted to a purpose larger than themselves, can equal a sum greater than its parts. Victory is the plot point that changes your life’s narrative from “aspiring warrior” to “warrior king.”
I attended this year’s Petit Le Mans, as I have a number before. In previous years, I wandered Road Atlanta during the event as an employee of a well-known facet of the industry, Skip Barber Racing — a company I worked for before enlisting into the Marine Corps, and eventually found my way back to after I re-joined the civilian ranks. Now, as I strolled through the pits wearing an ironed pair of slacks and a press pass, I found myself missing the fight — and let there be no mistaking it: that’s exactly what a race is. I’ve got seat time behind the wheel of some incredible cars on world renowned tracks, including Road Atlanta and Lime Rock Park, and I can assure you that pushing a vehicle to its limits feels like a fight.
Driving is like ground fighting against the laws of physics. In a very real way, the weakest point in these cars is the bag of water and meat strapped into the driver’s seat. Victory means suffering the exhaustion of that struggle without losing sight of what needs to be done. In less competitive racing, the driver most able to push through the hurt may take home the trophy, but at this level, everyone can.
It takes more than that here. Through the ten grueling hours of competition that is Petit Le Mans, to quote Charles Bukowski, what matters most is how well you walk through the fire.
However, as much as racing relies on the driver, in many ways, races are won and lost by the armies of men and women tasked with building, maintaining, and repairing the vehicles. This is where racing parallels another important part of my life: serving in the Marine Corps. Our cultural idea of racing revolves around the drivers like wars are depicted in films as nothing more than Close Quarters Battle (CQB) between elite operators. The last laps of a race, like the winning shots of a firefight, are the culmination of hours, days, months, or maybe years of effort. When that Marine kicks in the door of a terrorist cell, or that driver crosses the finish line, they aren’t acting alone: they’re the instrument of a collective will — the final piece of a puzzle that was assembled, in large part, by countless support personnel working 18 hours a day for as long as it took to put their operator at the point of conflict — be they driver or trigger-puller — in the position to succeed.
So as the media and the crowd gathered en masse to honor the drivers that, admittedly, earned their accolades on Saturday, I stayed behind. Over in the pits, just a few hundred yards away from the flashbulbs and the speeches, I found myself surrounded by another facet of racing that perfectly mirrors my experiences in the military: the understanding that the accomplishments of the day, no matter how great, only inform the challenges of tomorrow.
Once the champagne bottles run empty and the photographers head home, there’s work to be done. There’s always another race, another challenge… a better story on the horizon, just waiting for the team with enough drive, passion, and funding to snatch it.
Because the finish line is never the destination in racing. The history books are.