In my defense…

…I didn’t have time to hot wire it.

Becca Bertok in the No. 12 Panoz LMP car at Le Mans, June 2000

In February of 2000, when I could still strap my feet into a pair of quality hiking boots and get around without too much issue, I attended my first 24 Hours of Daytona to work as a course marshal, where I was stationed at Turn 1 and had a great view of the weekend’s action (more on that later)! I also met a really cool lady named Nancy with whom I shared several mutual friends. Nancy is a VETERAN course marshal who has more hours trackside than anyone I know.  Over the course of the weekend, Nancy discovered that I was completing a secondary degree in French at the University of South Carolina, and that I was functionally fluent…meaning I didn’t know all the colloquial terms used in Paris or Monaco, but I could hold my own and carry on a conversation like any good French-Canadian.

I mean really, if a non-native English speaker came to South Carolina and had to order Hoppin’ John at a local restaurant, do you think he or she would have any idea what it is? No. Hence the term “functionally fluent”…trying to figure out menu items in restaurants is, in my opinion, the most challenging part of any language since entrees and food names are colloquial by nature.

OK, so back to the story: By the time we were packing up to leave Daytona, Nancy asked if I wanted to attend Le Mans with her as a course marshal. She was going with several other American workers, and they could use someone who spoke French.

Well, duh!  Sign me up! At 19 years old, I had yet to own a credit card in my name, but I applied for one, purchased a plane ticket, got a passport on rush, and Voila! A confirmation to attend Le Mans with the Automobile Club de L’Ouest came back confirmed, and I was set!  My parents were always been very supportive of my crazy ideas, and from flying to Los Angeles by myself at the age of 13, to arranging a trip to Le Mans in 3 months’ time, there wasn’t much I wasn’t allowed to attempt.

So in June 2000, I hopped a plane in Atlanta, flew to Paris, then took a train to Le Mans where Nancy had arranged to rent a family’s home for the week of the race. We settled in with the other marshals, enjoyed a couple days of sightseeing (Le Mans is a beautiful, Medieval era town), survived a hair-raising car ride with the father of our host family, and reveled in late night family dinners of Marinated Salmon, thick baguettes, and good White Wine.

Then the festivities began:

I had a couple things at the race that I wanted to accomplish. Randy Pobst, a good friend at the time, had asked me to say hello to his Alex Job Racing teammate, Bruno Lambert, and I was able to find and speak with him at Registration; Le Mans’ version of pre-race tech that is on display for all to see.  I wanted to see the Porsche curves and the Dunlop Bridge; from where I watched an historic Ferrari race, and the film in my classic Canon AE-1 did not properly advance causing all my 250 GTO photos to be lost. Sob!!  And finally, I wanted to say hello to the Panoz guys.  I had spent many Runoffs weeks at Road Atlanta (did you read about the red wave of tire wall detritus?), and after attending their Performance Handling School in 1997 and later the Petit Le Mans, I was a big fan of Panoz.

One of the workers I had travelled with, Jason, wanted to see the Corvettes go through the Registration stations so we headed for the fence nearest the scales.  We watched the Corvette team go through, and Jason got to speak with several of the crew guys.  I was very excited to see that Panoz was up next, so we hung out along the fence while they made their way through.

The Panoz boys would often look up and smile at me, but I had no idea what to say, and neither did they. Finally, I leaned over the fence and said something really flirty and witty like, “Hey guys! Are y’all missing Georgia yet?”  Well that was that.  The crew had been in France for weeks already, and they were excited to here a Southern accent. 🙂  Several of the boys came over and we talked about everyting from the upcoming race to them missing cheeseburgers.  It was fun chatting, but there was a huge crowd and more stations for them to go through so Jason and I wandered off to see other sites before we ended up at the final section of Registration where the team photos were taken.  We took pics of the Corvette team, then Panoz as they posed with their drivers and team principals.

As the guys were pushing the cars out of the photography area, they noticed Jason and I standing at the fence and waved to us.  Next thing I know, the No. 12 was headed our way, and one of the crew guys was coming for me. He lifted me over the fence, and took my camera, handing it to Jason who blessedly knew how to work an old manual camera. Then I was helped into the driver’s seat and well, the photographic evidence exists above. 🙂  It was just that quick.

My absolute favorite part of this photo is the big grins on the faces of the crew guys. To see that they were as excited about me getting to sit in the car and visit with them, as I was, well, that was just the cherry on top!  After Registration, the real race week began with practice, qualifying, etc. so I didn’t see the Panoz boys again that week, but when I got home, I mailed a Thank You card to the team containing a copy of the photograph, so perhaps someone else held on to it too. 🙂

Le Mans is everything you imagine it is. It’s loud, busy, and INSANELY AWESOME!!  I worked along the Mulsanne Straight and, as a marshal, you stand so close to the track that the air sucks at your pants’ legs as the cars go by: 220+ mph punches an awful big hole in the atmosphere!  I slept in my one man tent only yards from the action in the 40 degree night while the cars screamed by, and I slept so soundly that Nancy had to wake me for our morning shift because I didn’t hear the alarm clock tucked in inches from my head that had been going off for 10 minutes. We watched as the Cadillac Northstar LMP burned at the station prior to ours, and I remember those marshals coming down to take our fire bottles and looking around, exasperated, that we did not have more to share. Otherwise, the race was blessedly uneventful. We worked rotating shifts: our American/British crew with one each of a French and Dutch crew, taking turns crossing the track for flags or lights.

The Dutch crew, many of whom I still speak with today will, I hope, be life long friends. They have visited us here in the States several times, and I had the pleasure of working with them again at Petit Le Mans and tagging along to the private race official events when they worked the Formula 1 race at Indy that same year.  Benny, Arjen, Niels, Linda, and GertJan are top shelf, quality folks, and I hope that, someday, I can visit them in Zandvoort and Amsterdam.

There are many, many stories that came from my time at Le Mans, like ending the race with the traditional marshals’ on-track-flag-waving-salute, and I sincerely wish that Steve, MK, and I will be able to attend Le Mans one year as a family.

After the race, I spent two days in Paris before taking a train to visit friends in Munich for a week.  My French served me well, as I had hoped it would when I had chosen it so many years before as the language to know if I was going to be involved in racing. 🙂 That week in Le Mans, I met Don Panoz, Mario Andretti, Dorsey Shroeder, some crazy Dutchmen, and a group of amazing crew guys who were gracious enough to give me a moment worthy of retelling to my grandchildren (may they be a long time coming).


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