By Nathan Tucker
While motorsport might not be an outside concept to most sports fans here in the States, most tend to think of NASCAR, or stock car racing. A more dedicated racing fan might watch it’s open-wheel brother, IndyCar, or Formula One, a global open-wheel racing organization that expands past oval racetracks to curving circuits and city streets.
But the absolute height of the sport isn’t limited to NASCAR, IndyCar, or Formula One. Every driver wants to win one race that’s not on the schedule of any of those racing organizations.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans. The biggest race in the world.
This edition of “Better Know A Sport” takes a look at endurance racing, a sport headlined with 24 hours around the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France.
As the name implies, endurance racing goes further beyond 500+ mile races of NASCAR. Some endurance races are thousands of miles, some are 12 hours, and a handful are 24 solid hours, one whole day of rubber meeting the road.
The first 24-hour endurance race took place at a one-mile oval track in Columbus, Ohio, in 1905. Four autos from different car manufacturers of the time raced for a silver trophy, valued at $500 at the time. The winning car rounded the oval 828 times to take home the prize.
While the goal of all racing is to beat your opponent by being faster than them, endurance racing puts the car being driven under more pressure than the shorter formats.
Like NASCAR and IndyCar, endurance race-specific cars are high-powered machines designed to eclipse 200 mph. Unlike NASCAR and IndyCar, races are contested by multiple types, or classes, of cars, instead of just one.
When Grand Prix or open-wheel cars started to evolve to the shorter distance cars that dart down straightaways in IndyCar and Formula One today, manufacturers designed sports cars for endurance racing. Endurance racing formats were appealing to manufacturers.
The cars, designed more like road-ready cars than their NASCAR or IndyCar counterparts, were seen as ways for manufacturers to advertise their fast, sleek cars that broke the mold of common cars in the 50s and 60s. Today endurance racing combines street-ready “grand touring” or GT car classes with racing prototypes and concept cars, and race teams can win races within their class as well as the race overall.
Grand Touring cars are perhaps most known for their prevalence in the long-running racing video game series Gran Turismo. Unlike racing games that depict NASCAR or other racing organizations, Gran Turismo offers a simulation racing game full of numerous types and classes of race and street cars.
ENDURANCE RACING, HERE AND ABROAD
In the US, the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the highest level of endurance racing. Its 13-race season starts with the Rolex 24 At Daytona, a 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.
The Daytona 24-hour race is usually held in the weeks before NASCAR’s Daytona 500, and it’s not uncommon for NASCAR drivers to take part in the race. NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon won the 2017 Rolex 24, and 56-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner Kyle Busch drove in the 2020 edition early this year.
The second race on the US schedule is the 12 Hours Of Sebring, also in Florida. The Sebring race is seen as a preparation for teams that want to compete in the 24 Hours Of Le Mans. Sebring’s bumpy roads and muggy Florida climate are punishing tests of a car’s durability over the twelve hours.
Sebring also plays host to the 1000 Miles Of Sebring race. While not a part of the US-based WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the 1000 Miles is part of the global World Endurance Championships.
The World Endurance Championship is sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), which also sanctions other international racing circuits like Formula One. Its schedule is made up of just eight races in England, Japan, China, Bahrain, Germany, two in the U.S. and concludes in France for the 24 Hours Of Le Mans.
LE MANS, THE GREATEST RACE IN THE WORLD
Held every year since 1923, the 24 Hours Of Le Mans is the oldest active race in worldwide endurance racing. The Le Mans race is the most grueling test of an automobile’s mettle, an 8.5-mile lap spanning both Circuit de la Sarthe’s dedicated race track and miles of closed public roads through the French countryside.
Le Mans first started when open-wheel, Grand Prix racing at high speeds was the dominant form of racing in Europe. Le Mans was designed to instead focus on the long-term durability of a car rather than top speed over a short distance.
Designing cars for Le Mans inspired automakers into innovations in fuel efficiency and reliability. Over the 24 hours, cars travel upwards of 3,000 miles, which are made particularly grueling by being half driven on somewhat bumpy commuter streets.
Designing a car that can complete the race without failure is crucial to success. A blown gasket caused by a faulty washer can be the difference between glory and humiliation at Le Mans. Over 85% of the lap is spent at full throttle, pushing the limits of even the finest racing machines.
Le Mans has been crucial to the development of auto racing around the world. Fatal crashes were far too common in the early history of the endurance race, and forced safety innovations that have affected racing cars and street cars alike.
The 1955 Le Mans Disaster still stands as the most catastrophic crash in auto racing history. A crash sent vehicle debris into a nearby grandstand, killing driver Peter Bouillin and 83 spectators. Following this, mandates into safety barricades were made for all of racing, to prevent this horrifying accident from happening again.
“The scene on the other side of the road was indescribable.” Driver Duncan Hamilton, watching from the pit wall, later recalled. “The dead and dying were everywhere; the cries of pain, anguish, and despair screamed catastrophe. I stood as if in a dream, too horrified to even think.”
In early years, the race was started by the drivers standing on the opposite side of the front straightaway from their cars. When a marshal dropped the French flag to start the race, drivers ran across the track and hopped in their cars and started them up themselves.
This method of starting became apparently unsafe, with many drivers not properly harnessing themselves in their cars to save time at the start of the race. This practice led to many deaths occurring in the first few laps of the race, as a more bunched-up field of cars would be more prone to wrecks.
Jacky Ickx protested this unsafe method of starting a race in 1969. Ickx casually walked to his car while other drivers ran to theirs and started the race. He was nearly hit by a competitor’s car while on his stroll.
Ickx took extra time to secure his seat belts and helmet as he got in his car. British driver John Woolfe died in an accident on the first lap of the race after not strapping himself in at the start, while Ickx won the race. The standing start was banned following the 1969 race.
Today, the race begins from a rolling start, same as NASCAR. The rolling start prevents the pack from getting too tight in the first turns of the race, and limits the possibility of more potentially fatal collisions.
In the modern era, the 24 Hours Of Le Mans is safer than ever, but with cars reaching power levels once only dreamed of, immense skill is required to complete in the 24 hours. Danish racer Tom Kristensen holds the record for most victories at Le Mans with nine wins, six of which were in consecutive races between 2000-2005.
Last year, the 1966 Le Mans race was featured in the film Ford v Ferrari, where Matt Damon played Carroll Shelby, owner of the American Shelby racing team, and Christian Bale played driver Ken Miles.
Miles ended the 1966 race that he was leading by dropping back and allowing his Ford and Shelby teammates to catch up with him for a “photo finish”.
Due to race technicality, Miles’ teammate Bruce McLaren won the 1966 Le Mans.
In 2020, the race was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and didn’t take place as usual in June. In its stead, the 24 Hours of Le Mans went virtual in racing simulator rFactor 2. A full field of drivers racing from the comforts of home competed in a full 24-hour sim of the famous race. Many Formula One and other professional drivers took part in the virtual 24 hours.
The 2020 edition of the 24 Hours Of Le Mans was rescheduled for September 19. The World Endurance Championships are back underway in August in Belgium.