For one weekend every year, the unassuming city of Le Mans, nestled in the French countryside between Paris and the Brittany coast, becomes a global hot spot. Like clockwork, this Saturday hundreds of thousands of people will converge upon the capital of the Sarthe region to experience the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a 24-hour car race that is a titillating confrontation of man versus machine. Founded in 1923, it is now the grand dame of endurance auto racing, combining speed and persistence as drivers cover the equivalent of roughly 3,000 miles from Saturday to Sunday. It’s been immortalized in Steve McQueen’s cult classic, Le Mans; graced by celebrity drivers like Paul Newman and Patrick Dempsey; and peppered with the occasional fatality.
Pulling off the 24 Hours of Le Mans each year takes a lot of work. It’s not the only 24-hour endurance race hosted by the city: there’s the 24 Hours of motorcycling and the 24 Hours of karting, to name but two. Yet, it’s The Race—the one often referred to simply as “the 24 Hours”—that’s the main draw. For this city and its residents, the decades-old institution is more than just a race. It’s an economic engine and a driver of identity; an event that transforms the city. Roughly 270,000 spectators descended on the town in 2016, outnumbering locals about 2:1. “It’s not only a race,” says Frédéric Lenart, General Director of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which organizes the race. “It’s like a temporary city, in a way.”
Le Mans is a small city with long history. The birthplace of England’s King Henry II, it sports a late-third century Roman wall, one of the longest in existence in Europe. But it’s the other wall, the one marking the renowned racetrack on the city’s southern periphery, that serves as the city’s heartbeat, pulsating activity. By late April, its pulse speeds up, and the buzzing sound of cars testing their might greets visitors at the main entrance.
The vast complex, which includes two race circuits and a museum, is also ACO headquarters. For Lenart, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is his organization’s defining activity. “The 24 Hours of Le Mans is in the DNA of the ACO,” says the 50-year-old former steel industry executive.
Historic posters at the museum. All photos by Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff.
The racetrack grounds are transformed as spectators and workers stream in. Upon crossing the main gate, visitors traverse an underpass and emerge onto a large fairground studded with dirt and pebbles. Known as The Village, this section dates to 1950 and contains refreshment concessions, souvenirs, and merchandise boutiques. Pass through The Village and one arrives that the tiered grandstands that overlook the finish line, one of the track’s iconic sites.
History is made along this stretch. For years, driver Jacky Ickx reigned as king of the circuit, coming in first place six times from 1969 to 1982. This feat was eclipsed by Tom Kristensen (nine wins) more recently. But the past is ever-present throughout the 8.47-mile circuit and grounds. Long before the 24 Hours was conceived, local inventor and car manufacturer Léon Bollée invited Wilbur Wright to demonstrate his biplane on a field that today is the track circuit’s Mulsanne Straight. Wright’s August 1908 flight, his first in Europe, convinced many skeptics of man’s ability to fly.
Other legends have played out along the grounds. At the race’s second iteration in 1924, the famous ‘Bentley Boys,’ a team of English racers, took first place. The win inaugurated a decades-long competition between English and French drivers for race supremacy and cemented the reputation of the Bentley automobile, as it would do for other marks in the future, like Ferrari. Some manufacturers, however, have instead gained infamy along the circuit. Such is the case of Mercedes, whose car caused the horrifying 1955 ‘fireball’ crash resulted in the deaths of 82 people, including driver Pierre Levegh.
This year, carmaker Audi—which dominated Le Mans for most of this century, winning 13 of 17 titles—withdrew last fall to focus on electric racecars. The news was met with trepidation by the ACO; people love to watch the Audis compete. But Lenart believes the absence of the crowd-pleasing car manufacturer creates new opportunities and suspense. “We really have a very nice, very exciting fight between Porsche and others,” he says of this year’s contest.
Also, there is much excitement over the enlargement of the race to include four additional cars, for a total of 60. While four more cars may not sound like a lot, the calculus within the rarified world of car racing is slightly different. “It’s enormous in terms of racing,” says Lenart.