Le Mans, May 1, 2002. Sinking into the west, the setting sun pours a syrupy glow over the famous Circuit de la Sarthe. It’s sometime after 8:00 p.m. The track is cool and there’s a peaceful still in the air. Now deserted, the towering grandstands echo to the clatter of technicians as they work in preparation for the first test session of the 70th 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Lost in his thoughts, Kevin Buckler stands transfixed on the pit straight, watching the techs fix the ‘Porsche #81’ board above his garage. Brimming with pride, he turns his gaze to drink in the expanse of the pit complex and the dusty old stands that bear the names of past Le Mans legends and feels a wave of awestruck nostalgia wash over him. This is the moment he’s spent untold nights dreaming of. It is the moment he’s been waiting for all his life.
Gently, he lowers himself to the ground and with reverential care runs his hand over the smooth surface of the famous race track. The sensation sends a chill up his spine. Looking up, he grins, amused to find that his usually stoic crew are doing the same thing. They were all exhausted after the grueling transatlantic flight, but despite their weariness, all they could think about was driving straight to the track to catch their first glimpse of it while there was still light.
Grinning, he looks on as his crew revels in the moment. And it’s just then that reality finally dawns on Buckler’s sleep-deprived senses: ‘We’re here. We’re at Le Mans. We’re really here!’
Like many of us, Buckler watched the 1971 film Le Mans in his youth and wanted to be just like star Steve McQueen. He read the books, watched the race on TV and drove lap after lap of the iconic track on PlayStation; where, from his home in California, it all seemed so far away. But now, at the age of 43, he was finally going fulfill his dream and race in the 24 Hours for real.
In truth, Buckler wasn’t the only one surprised to find his relatively inexperienced Petaluma, California-based Racer’s Group (TRG) outfit at Le Mans that year. Indeed, more than a few eyebrows had been raised when the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) accepted TRG’s application to race the 24 Hours. Not that Buckler didn’t deserve his shot. He’d spent more than a decade evolving his racing suspension business from a small-time garage outfit into a full-fledged shop and top-flight racing team.
As far as his driving career went, Buckler had done the hard yards: working his way up from local Porsche Club events to IMSA GT3, all the way to the Rolex Sports Car Series, taking a couple of impressive class finishes along the way. But despite all Buckler’s successes, 2002 would be the year that his Racer’s Group would finally come of age.