For me it all really started in June 1980 when I bought the Le Mans report issue of AUTOSPORT. It was a truly great race that year, and I decided there and then that next year I simply had to be there.
The article should have included an addiction warning though, because I've only missed one race since.
I've often been asked over the years what it is about the race that's so mesmerising, why I keep going back year on year. As I prepare for my 32nd Le Mans 24 Hours, the following is a brief view from many years on the 'beerside' of the fence. I hope it helps!
There are many ways to 'do' Le Mans - camping, hotel or by organised coach trip, for example - but for me once I discovered the delights of a week in a French field under canvas, I haven't felt the need to look anywhere else.
When we arrive at the circuit, we do a lap of the track before making our way to our chosen campsite. One of my favourite things about Le Mans is that most of the circuit is public road.
Starting at Tertre Rouge, drive onto the famous Mulsanne Straight and you can go all the way around to the Porsche Curves, apart from the chicanes on the Mulsanne. The track was diverted at the Porsche Curves in 1972, but the old road up through Maison Blanche towards the grandstands still exists.
Le Mans camping area © XPB
Do not try to emulate the speed of the mighty Porsche 917s and Ford GT40s though, as the circuit is populated by ever-vigilant gendarmes throughout race week.
If you're lucky enough to have arrived the weekend before the race, there's the opportunity to witness the pre-event scrutineering, held in the city centre. It's a fantastic event in its own right and if you arrive early enough to see it, do so!
Wednesday and Thursday evenings are for practice and qualifying. Seeing these fantastic cars driven hard in the darkness is one of the greatest things about Le Mans.
Glowing brake discs, exhaust flame-outs on the overrun, headlights picking out the apex as these meticulously prepared dream machines disappear off into the night; these sights and sounds will live with you forever. From the whispering Audi diesels to the thundering Corvette V8s, this variety is all part of the magic.
Friday is a rest day as far as track action goes, but there is still so much to see and do. There's a pitlane walkabout and the Grande Parade des Pilotes in the city centre. With the addition of the excellent tram a few years ago, access from the circuit to the city centre is much easier these days.
Friday night descends into a huge pre-race party around many of the campsites. Fireworks will light up the skies well into the early hours of raceday. It's all beautiful to watch, but not so helpful for those trying to have a good sleep before the rigours of staying up for the whole 24 hours.
Saturday dawns and there is soon action on the track, with the teams having a warm-up session to settle into race trim and test any last-minute set-up changes.
This is quickly followed by the support race. Usually this is for some gorgeous historic machinery. In recent years this has alternated between the very popular Group C series, showcasing the powerful beauty of the cars that raced in the 1980s, and even further back - this year's is for Le Mans cars made between 1949 and '65.
With the main race underway and a few limelight-grabbing laps under their belts, the cars settle into the race and the 24 hours ahead of them. The first pitstops are eagerly awaited as this gives an idea as to how the race will pan out.
With the different classes all on track together, there's plenty to keep things interesting.
No sleeping during the race, so a good nap before the stars helps © LAT
A radio is a must. In my early years, we had a five-minute English-spoken bulletin every hour over the public address system, but this was almost inaudible when the cars were roaring past. Then in 1987 something wonderful happened: Radio Le Mans was born and it transformed the experience.
As the race moves on into late afternoon, there is much to encourage the spectator away from the terraces.
Beer halls in the 'village' behind the pits and paddock offer refreshment, helicopter rides afford some amazing views around the track and, for the less die-hard race fan, there is musical entertainment in the form of a concert by the Dunlop Bridge.
You can also spectate from Mulsanne Corner, Indianapolis/Arnage and the Porsche Curves. These are accessible by car and there are coach excursions, but traffic queues during the race can be lengthy, even well into the night.
Maybe procure a detailed local map and stretch your legs with a good walk (or by bike if you have one!).
If you don't manage to do everything this year, don't worry - mark my words, you will be back!
HOW THE DRIVERS SURVIVE
Le Mans is a test of endurance for the drivers as much as the fans. Johnny Mowlem explains his regime as he prepares for his ninth start in the 24 Heures du Mans.
"Even though my deal with HVM Status GP came late, I've been preparing for Le Mans since April," says Lola LMP2 racer Mowlem. "On the physical side, I ramp up my neck exercises, and I'll start carb-loading a few weeks before to put on a tiny bit of weight, maybe a kilo or so. I eat a lot of pasta.
"A couple of days before I make sure to get well hydrated. It's not like a marathon, where you train really hard and then taper off at the end. Le Mans is not physically demanding, more energy-sapping mentally.
Mowlem during the 2011 race © LAT
"It's easy to get drawn into the nervous excitement of it all!
"Personally, I have to force myself to get away from the track to relax between stints and get my head down, but I never sleep fully.
"I have the radio playing quietly in the background so I can hear what's going on with our car.
"Every time I go to Le Mans, I feel like I'm learning another little idiosyncrasy. You can never tame Le Mans; if you think you've got it sussed, it will bite you in the arse!"
To continue reading this feature, join Autosport Plus today.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
- Your Autosport Plus membership includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from a monthly or yearly membership.