A first-hand report by Deborah Dudley
From the A.C.O. website: “People with a physical handicap of 80% or above will be granted free entrance to the circuit on the presentation of their disability certificate. The accompanying person must normally pay for their ‘General Enclosure’ ticket. A ‘disabled reception’ has been put in place near to the ‘Consiergerie’ and the ‘Porte des Italiens’ (In the stands area), ‘Tribune Dunlop’, ‘Musée’ and ‘P5’ (Village). These points have been added to the permanent buildings: ‘P16’, the stands situated above the team garages, the race control centre, the A.C.O. stand, ‘Houx’ and ‘Maison Blanche.”
That's it for the official version!
In reality, the situation is both better and worse. Following a car smash in 2008, I have now had the opportunity to sample the A.C.O.'s disabled facilities at first hand.There's no doubt that you're better off with a helper (or preferably two given that we're talking, in my case, about nearly 40 hours without sleep here), mainly because the surfaces at Le Mans are poorly suited to the average wheelchair. Every bit of gravel or broken beer-bottle conspires to make your passage around the circuit a nightmare and a trip out to Tertre Rouge, Arnage or Mulsanne is virtually impossible although some of my fellow wheelchair users have driven round to TR during qualifying without being challenged. Whatever, you can still have a good time.
If you make it to scrutineering, for example, wheelchair users and their helpers get the best view in the house, under the press stand in front of the square where the teams and their cars pose for photographs. Many of the drivers are extremely affable (others less so!) and chatty. One of the highlights of the week for me and well worth turning up early in the week to catch.
Once at the circuit, blue badge holders can park within the confines, alongside the wall behind the grandstands. You need to stop just by the main entrance and go to the little office next to the turnstiles. With typical forethought, there is a big step into this office, but the staff are very helpful so if you have no helper with you, just knock on the door and the staff will come out and do the paperwork for you. Just show your blue badge,give them your registration number and you will get a parking ticket. Without a blue badge it is possible to blag your way into the circuit on practice days (smile, point to the wheelchair, and look a bit distressed) but it's hard to imagine this being possible on Saturday or Sunday. Thus it's a long and tedious push from whatever campsite you are on to the circuit if you are not registered disabled.
Once parked, it's a quick trip to the South end of the Maison Blanche grandstand where a ramp leads up to a truly excellent viewing area (one of the few perks of being in a chair with wheels on.)There are also ramps leading to a purpose designed viewing area below the yellow concrete grandstand opposite the pit exit, but the downside is that you are below the catch fencing so it's rubbish for photography. But is under cover and has a great view of the approach to the Dunlop bridge. This has become a favourite of mine in the early hours of the morning.
If you're alone, there is a disabled person's Concierge - I have never found out where they are based because since this was added, I have always found that one of the helpers tends to find me, and they are a great help in showing you around, pushing you up ramps, and explaining the best places to go. As well as the two stands listed, there are - according to the ACO, also places to watch in the Pits grandstand and at Race Control, but I've yet to find these. If you should do so, please let me know for next year's guide.
A.C.O. members have the added problem of needing to get their wristbands from the horribly-placed new members area up by La Chapelle. Without my galant helper the first year, I would have been well and truly stuffed in this respect. However, having had one dreadful experience with this, I went to the ACO truck just by the tunnel exit in the village and they were able to provide me with a wristband which saved a lot of hassle. If in doubt, ask - many of the ACO staff and helpers speak French. If you have seats in the ACO grandstand then in theory, disabled people can get in via a lift and the staff were, as ever, eager and willing to help. However, when I did ask I was taken up to the top (nice view and all, no doubt) where, unless one had a helper to go and get some assistance from the staff, one was stuck, as the lift had no call button on the exit side! Goodness knows what you're supposed to do if you need the loo….. or a drink…. or to go home again…
On the plus side, the disabled loos are good, easy to access, and these days available all around the cicuit. There are even disabled-accessible showers in the lavatory block behind the pits grandstand. The tramway system makes direct access between the ciruit and the city of Le Mans a piece of cake, although the downside is that you can't get from corner to corner very well. However, it's one of the easier ways to get to Tertre Rouge as it's ramps all the way (although some are pretty steep and hard work in hot weather). The little trains are an option for those with limited mobility but not for those unable to tackle a step or two.
The A.C.O. is doing its best to accommodate people with disabilities but ultimately this is a motor racing circuit and, let's face it, it's huge and in many ways has out of date facilities. Whatever, you can still have a good time and one thing I felt the first time I had to do this was that at the end of the race that I had done it - I watched 22 out of 24 hours of the race - I breathed in the atmosphere and I felt the real LM buzz. What more can you ask?