LE MANS, France - It is 3 a.m. and the moon is full and beautiful over the 8.5 miles of winding road that make up the Circuit International du Mans. And everywhere you look, you see people.
Thousands of them are walking from one viewing point to another. Thousands more are gathered around their campsites, drinking or napping. Still more are seated on the dirt banks alongside an area of the track called the Ford Chicane.
They are watching what look like balls of yellow and white fire roll out of the darkness toward them, as if the Greek god Zeus had hurled them from Mount Olympus.
The balls of fire are actually sports cars that go roaring past like great cracks of thunder, shaking the earth beneath mortal feet.
In the small hours, Frank Biela and his teammates, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro, have put their Audi R8 into the lead and they will keep it there, ahead of two other Audi team cars for the next 14 hours, to win the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans.
When the three Audis crossed the finish line first, second and third yesterday evening, 24 hours after they started, it marked only the third time in the 68-year history of the race that a single manufacturer had claimed the top three finishing positions.
Audi joined Peugeot (1993) and Porsche (1982) as the only manufacturers to claim the triple since the race began here in 1923.
For 24 hours, Biela and company had raced through heat, darkness and mayhem to win a golden trophy and a wreath of yellow mums, orange carnations and laurel leaves.
Money? Yes and no. The team collected 250,000 French francs. That converts to about $38,463, less than 1 percent of Audi's probable $60 million investment for this one race this year.
But there is status, and satisfaction for the driver - as well as the car owner.
Men who win Le Mans are heroes - "pilots" they are called here - drivers of the first order. To win Le Mans is to join the ranks of men like Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Henri Pescarolo, Phil Hill and Al Holbert, classic sports car drivers all.
"As I was sitting there talking about this victory, I saw Bob Wollek in the corner," said Biela, who won for the first time in only his second try. "He had come in to congratulate us. I looked at him and I found myself thinking how he has been trying to win this race all his life and never has. And now, I have.
"It's great for me. But I don't know why I win and so many others do not. You have to have - I'm absolutely sure - you have to have the whole package: the car, the mechanics and up to and including luck. And then, only then, you can win."
Wollek, 56, was trying for the 30th time to win here, and, though he came home first in the slower, Grand Touring Series class in his Porsche GT3R, he has yet to win as a competitor in the prestigious prototypes.
American Mario Andretti, 60, also has been without luck. In his eighth attempt this past weekend, Andretti shared the No. 11 Panoz car with David Brabham and Jan Magnussen and could manage only 16th.
"No result is no result," said a visibly unhappy Andretti. "Not even to make the podium. I'm beyond having experiences. I want results."
But Andretti said his co-drivers and his pit crew were exceptional.
"David and Jan have a lot of talent and we worked well together," he said. "And the pit crew; they worked so hard, they deserved better."
It is the pit crews at Le Mans who have the worst of it.
Drivers have an opportunity to go back to the team compounds and sleep if they want.
Fans can leave their seats and go to the on-site village or leave the track completely to go into Le Mans for five-course, three-hour dinners.
If they stay on-site, they have many choices. They can go to Le Grand Taverne de Baviere and sit under green umbrellas to have an Italian meal in the jolly atmosphere of Italian flags and friendly servers.
They can go to Sandwich American, where hot dogs and colas can be had. Or they can sit under the sun or stars at Au Bouchon de Champagne for a glass or bottle of the French treasure. And those are just a few of the options.
Sitting in a nearby beer garden, Mark Holland, 40, an aerospace businessman from Blackburn, England, was enjoying a riotous party that was expected to stretch through the next morning.
"We were here 15 years ago and have come back for our year 2000 reunion," Holland said, referring to himself and 15 friends.
"Every one of us is a company director," said Michael Walsh, a manufacturer of inhalers who organized the outing. "Back home, we're all responsible citizens. But this is a complete break from that."
Walsh and his friends were headed for a hangover three hours before the race.
All of this happens while the pit crew works.
Every half hour or so, the race cars pit. If something is wrong, the stops can come more often.
In the Panoz garages, where the cars ran into gearbox troubles, oil leaks and flat tires through the night and early morning, everyone was working frantically at 6:30 a.m.
Down pit road, Greg Creek, a 32-year-old fabricator for the Cadillac teams, had found the going rough.
"It's real tiring," Creek said. "We're up for 34 hours straight, by the time we get in at 7 a.m. Saturday morning to the time we finish Sunday evening."
You have to step carefully through the garages between 3 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.
Even in the Audi garages, where everything seems to run with the same precision as the cars on the track, crew members were stretched out on the floor, heads propped on walls, heads resting on rolled-up jackets, heads leaning on hands with bodies sitting precariously in chairs.
"There are about three times through the night when you hit the wall," said Adam W. Masters, who handles the air jack on Audi pit stops.
"The really bad times are between 2 and 3 a.m., around 7 a.m. and again between noon and 2 p.m. Sometimes you just have to give in to it and take a five-minute catnap."
But even when they're napping, as the Cadillac team was around 7:30 a.m., they have radio headsets covering their ears. And as in every garage when they hear key words like, "Puncture ... problem ... I think ... 'Oh, no!" they leap up, grab their equipment and take their places on pit road.
When the car is serviced, they immediately resume their resting positions, eyes shut.
"It's a difficult race for everyone," Biela said. "For sure, no one can sit in the stands for 24 hours. No one can sit and watch the race on television for 24 hours."
But when it's over, the celebrations are massive and no one cares that it has been difficult. In fact, it is the difficulty that makes the outcome so rewarding.
The Cadillac and Corvette teams of General Motors were competing here for the first time in 50 years. They had dreamed of victories, but vowed they'd be happy if their cars were still running at the finish.
Corvette made the podium in the Grand Touring Series class, finishing second to a Chrysler Viper, and earned respect.
"Without a worthy challenger, there is not so much glory in winning and not such satisfaction," said Viper team director Pierre Dieudonne.
"The Corvettes were actually faster than us on the track, but we were able to save 20, 30 seconds each time in the pits by not always having to change the tires. Over the 24 hours, it is that that made a great difference."
The Cadillac, competing in the LMP (prototype) class, battled through cut tires and broken parts to have its independent developmental car and its two main entries still running at the finish - 20th, 21st and 22nd, respectively.
"In racing, you never look back," said Herb Fishel, director of GM racing. "You deal with the hand you're given, and the Cadillac cars got a lot of bad hands.
"But, the experience of the last two days has confirmed my expectation that this is the toughest race in the world to win and that what we've learned here will enable us to finish the job."