Colin Braun Can Still Smell, Feel, Taste The 2007 Race At Le Mans
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
June 16 had turned into June 17 that weekend back in 2007. Day had turned to night, then, night back to day. Clear skies had turned to cloudy and then the clouds spilled out rain – not the kind of rains which spoil picnics, but the kind which inspires Michener novels.
But whether in the car or in the pits or in the infield somewhere trying to grab a quick nap, Colin Braun was not checking his watch. He was 18 years old and he was quite literally, living the dream.
Braun was at 24 Hours of Le Mans to drive and sleep deprivation, cold food and the constant, deafening drone of unmuffled horsepower were only heightening the fun factor.
“I never really watched the clock,” Braun said. “I had so much fun driving that car and being in that race that I never really wanted it to end.”
The 2009 24-hour race at Le Mans will be run this weekend. Braun will not be there.
Instead, he will be in south-central Michigan where his current gig, driving for Roush Fenway Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, is competing. He will be there hoping to give Jack Roush, owner of his Con-way Freight Ford F-150, his 50th victory in the series.
But the race in Michigan is not a twice-around-the-clock deal. There will be breaks between and qualifying and driver meetings and sponsorship obligations and the race. During many of those breaks – and especially after the race – Braun will be doing what he did as a kid growing up in Texas on Le Mans weekend. He’ll be camping out in front of a television watching what has to be the most romantic race in the world.
“Going back every year that I can remember,” Braun said this week, “I remember sitting on that couch watching.”
Braun sometimes watched with his father. And sometimes, he just simply watched his father as dad was a racing engineer who had cars competing at Le Mans.
Of course Braun, who began racing karts at about the same age as he began watching TV, had thoughts about a driving career. But driving Le Mans – blowing through the rolling, green French countryside through darkness and often that rain that seems to shroud everything in soft focus – was too much to even think about.
“When I was a little kid, it seemed like such a far-off, distant kind of race, you know?” Braun said. “It was like some place where you could not even go to. Watching it on television was almost like watching something from outer space, you know? It was like totally make-believe.”
It became real-believe when Braun was 18. That’s when Tracy Krohn, the owner of the Krohn Racing team on which Braun won the Brumos 250 at Daytona International Speedway in 2006, approached him with the idea of doing Sebring and Le Mans in ’07.
Braun’s answer: “Absolutely.”
So off they, along with third driver Nic Jonsson, went.
The car would be the Risi-Krohn Ferrari 430GT. They would drive in the GT2 class.
It didn’t take long for the measure of the moment to smack young Braun in his fuzz-less face.
“Walking out to see the car before the start of the race, that impressed me,” Braun said. “You walk out of the garage area, and they got all the big grandstands on top of the garage and then they have that like opposing like bleacher complex. All the people and all the fans and it was just so wild walking out of the garage area an hour or two before the race and seeing all the fans blowing horns and the flags and all the different colors.
“And then, to walk out on the grid,” Braun said, words coming out increasingly faster, “and try to make your way through all the crowd and all the people that were standing there looking at the cars and knowing that in an hour or two they we’re all going past pit road here, racing for 24 hours and that there are 400,000 people that go to this event over the 24-hour period. It was just such an awe-inspiring moment.
“That’s when it hit me. That’s when it was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing this. I’m actually in this rece. I’m actually driving this car and we’re going to be racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.”
Then it started.
Krohn was in the driver’s seat for the first stint. And Braun, he was into the race heart and soul.
“As soon as the race started and as soon cars starting going by and lap 1 clicked away, then I was totally into race mode,” he said. “I feel bad saying it, but at that moment, it was just another race we were trying to win.”
Braun waited his turn. Not nervous, certainly there was no fear.
After Krohn drove, it was Jonsson’s turn. Then, in came the Ferrari, out came Jonnson and out onto the most storied road course in the world went the teen-ager, the former couch jockey, from Ovalo.
“It was just total concentration,” Braun said of The Moment. “Up to that point, I think I had only done eight or nine laps around that race track. I was still trying to figure out where my lines were, where my braking points were, where my apexes were. I was still trying to figure out how to drive that race track at that point.
“It’s such a big race track and it has so many different corners and it seems like it’s always changing, always different. It seems it would start to rain in one corner and be dry in another corner and there would be gravel down in another and oil down in another. Something was different every time you went around there.”
Some drivers dread rain at Le Mans. Not, apparently, those who are too young to know better.
“I just kept doing my deal,” he said.
And the night?
That, he said, was mostly “cool”. Which was good as Braun put in more night work than day work at Le Mans.
“The strangest thing for me was leaving the pit road,” he said, “going out for the first time at night. At a place like Daytona, the whole infield is lit. You can drive around Daytona with your lights off. But you go to Le Mans and they have these little portable lights set up in every corner. They are little free-standing lights that are pointed at the race track.
“I remember coming out of the Porsche Curve and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, there’s a prototype right behind me and he’s going to pass me at any second.’ And he never did, never did, never did and I get out of the next corner and there are those two lights again. Finally, I figured out it was not a prototype car behind me, it was those portable lights they have set up and when you leave the corner it looks like two headlights pointing at you.”
So through the night and the French countryside Braun drove. Actual prototypes whizzed past him, competitors began to drop out, his team began to move up.
Braun enjoyed almost every minute of it. Almost.
“It’s such a long race track that you kind of get the feeling of almost loneliness out there. You know nobody can see you the whole time, you know nobody can talk to you on the radio the whole time. At Daytona, you got your spotter and he can talk to you all the way around the racetrack. At Le Mans, you get out there at the far end of the race track, it’s like if something happens, they’re not going to know. It’s going to be up to me to deal with the French officials and the French corner-workers and all those people. You get out there and you get the feeling of loneliness.”
As day broke and the race headed toward a conclusion, Braun began to realize that he and his team had a terrific shot at a podium finish. The rain was coming down like “in a monsoon” Braun remembers.
His car was running second and the hope was that the front-running Porsche would have some kind of trouble.
That didn’t happen. But when the checkered flag finally came out, it did so with Braun and the bunch from Krohn Racing in second place in GT2.
There is nothing remotely like crossing the finish line at Le Mans. After the race ends, spectators flood onto the track and storm the podium.
Braun and team headed toward the building from where they will take to the podium for post-race honors ceremonies.
He remembers when his group was called to the podium.
“Walking out on that little stage they have set up, over looking all the crowds of people and the grandstands, that was a scene that I had seen so many times on TV when I was a little kid and that is one of the coolest things in all of racing, I thought. To walk out there and see it with my own eyes, looking over all the people, never thought I would see that with my own eyes.”
But wait, there’s more. Syrupy-sweetness more.
“It was Fathers Day that day. I remember my mom, my dad, my brother, they all came to the race,” Braun said. “I walked off the podium and my dad was standing right there. So I gave him the trophy that we got for finishing second.
“He was thrilled. He had run that race quite a few times before with Ferrari when they ran those 333 SP cars and he never had great success there. For me to be able to come there and finish second on my first time, I remember what he said to me.”
“He said this isn’t always that easy. I’ll never forget that,” Braun said.
Braun has not forgotten much of anything about Le Mans 2007.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org