The Great Race: a Fond Remembrance of Test Drive Le Mans

There’s a moment of tranquility and beauty when you watch the sun rise. The dark of night lifts, bringing forth a new day. It’s a brief moment of quiet as the sky lightens and the world wakes up. Sunrise brings a certain peace and calm, even when it’s rising over a racing circuit packed full of cars thundering around at more than 200 miles per hour.

In the world of racing, there are a few famous endurance races: the Indianapolis 500 is one, and the Paris-Dakar Rally is another. But the most famous is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the annual sports car endurance classic that takes place in France. It is the harshest proving grounds for automobile manufacturers, the ultimate test of man and machine, and a holy site for racing fans worldwide.

As this year’s Le Mans 24 comes up on June 14th and 15th, I can’t help but get excited, and also reflect on the game that allowed me to create my own great race on the Sega Dreamcast: Test Drive Le Mans.

The Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, as I discovered it in Test Drive Le Mans

The Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, as I discovered it in Test Drive Le Mans

For 15-year-old me, it was heaven. I’ve been a car geek forever, and sports cars and Le Mans-style racing have been favorites of mine since before elementary school. The cable TV channel in America then known as Speedvision used to carry the 24 Hours of Le Mans with minimal interruption, and I used to stay up during that mid-June weekend to watch the drivers tackling that 200 mph marathon. I used to go to the annual IMSA GT race as a child and fell in love with Jaguar, and I remember watching in 1999 when the Mercedes-Benz pulled a famous backflip on the Mulsanne straight. For me -- a gaming and car geek in equal parts -- games like Gran Turismo were my paradise. Test Drive Le Mans just took it to another level.

It was a licensed racing game with dozens of real-life racing cars and a handful of real circuits, too. And while those races were fun, they were simply appetizers before the main event. In the game, you could try the full 24 Hours of Le Mans, taking on more than 20 other AI cars to survive the challenges of the twice-around-the-clock race. And it wasn’t just driving the circuit for 24 hours, either: your tires wore out and fuel levels would demand pit stops, the clock passed time accurately so you experienced dusk, night, and dawn, and there was the ever-present threat of rainstorms, just like at the real race. Mercifully you didn’t have to do the entire 24 hours in one sitting, as there was the option to save during pit stops.

I wound up doing the entire 24 hours just one time, in a save file that took me months to finish. This may be the origin of my zen-like gaming habits: since the track was the same and completing the race was just a matter of pounding around lap after lap, it provided time for my brain to think of other things. This was where local radio shows came in. I was still a high school kid, so things like local alternative-rock radio DJs were hip and edgy to me. I spent the better part of the summer of 2001 racing in Test Drive Le Mans and listening to awful local hosts do their best Howard Stern impressions. (Those of us from Portland of a certain age may remember these same hosts getting fired for doing a couple horrible things on the air years later.)

Once I made my fortune in Gran Turismo 6, I bought the car I had a model of as a child after watching it race in IMSA competition in Portland, the Jaguar XJR-9. It’s also an unlock able in Test Drive Le Mans.

Once I made my fortune in Gran Turismo 6, I bought the car I had a model of as a child after watching it race in IMSA competition in Portland, the Jaguar XJR-9. It’s also an unlock able in Test Drive Le Mans.

Even though the Gran Turismo series and Forza Motorsport series later also introduced Le Mans’ Circuit de la Sarthe, and GT4 and 5 even had full 24-hour races in them at the track, it just wasn’t the same. Maybe it was the car count; maybe it was the loving detail that Infogrames put in the older game, partnering glowing brake discs and engine backfires with throaty engine notes and fantastic rain effects to make it feel wholly different from the contemporary competition (including Gran Turismo 3). I think not having to do it in one sitting helped as well!

And of course there’s something very special about the 24 hours mode, too. It seems like such a silly endeavor -- even spaced out over a month, that’s still 24 hours sunk into driving around the same track, with the same competition, and only so much they could do to add realism. The drama from the real 24 Hours of Le Mans comes from so many things off track -- did one car manage to sip fuel and manage tires well enough to stay out longer and longer, and effectively stop one time less in the pits? Did the team run into mechanical problems that require extensive repairs? Did a slower car get hit by a faster one, or vice versa? Was the design of the car over a year ago done well enough to allow it a chance to win after months and years of development and planning? Was their team of three drivers fast enough to lead and consistent enough to not make mistakes?

Sometimes this 24-hour race comes down to the final hour and even minutes, which is an astounding feat. I remember 1999, when Toyota were in the final hour trying to catch the slow-but-steady BMW and had a flat tire on the long, fast Mulsanne straightaway. I remember 2000, when Audi stopped their car to change the gearbox and managed it in under 5 minutes, an astonishing time that left all the commentators flabbergasted. This is a race where more than just one fast lap can save time -- making it that simple to work on helps, being more fuel-efficient helps, and having extremely well-drilled crew members definitely helps. As we’re moving into a new console generation, I’d love to see more of these details work their way into a new spiritual successor to the TDLM throne. But until it does, I'll fire up Gran Turismo 6, dial up a virtual version of the Circuit de la Sarthe, and follow the corners I learned long ago on the Dreamcast, driving the car I loved as a kid.