LeMans Racing Site

LeMans Racing

 

The History of The 24 Hours of LeMans

For most fans of the 24 Hours of Le Mans (aka 24 Heures du Mans), the initial draw wasn't the race itself; it was car. Dig into the history of any major modern performance automobile, and Le Mans is almost certainly a part of it. For me, it was America's sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette. As far back as I can remember, the love of Corvettes was one of the few things my father and I had in common. We would argue and bicker nearly incessantly, but as soon as the subject tuned to Corvettes (usually when we saw one driving down the road or parked in a neighbor's driveway), our shared love of this iconic automobile shoved aside any strife between us. And those conversations are still some of my fondest memories from childhood.

So it makes sense that from a very early age, I sought to learn as much about Corvettes as possible, checking out books from the local library and snatching up the latest issue of Corvette Fever whenever I would see it on the magazine rack at the Piggly Wiggly.

I wasn't long into that research when I learned about the legendary collaboration between legendary driver Briggs Cunningham and beloved Corvette engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, which resulted in the entry of three 1960 Corvettes into the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, at a time when American auto manufacturers were leery of motorsports in general. Only one of those three cars finished the race (although it did finish first in its class), but it did have a lasting impact on the development of the Corvette, as well the car's reputation as a legitimate performance vehicle.

That said, reading about that historic race had little influence on my interest in Le Mans as a current event. This was the early-to-mid 1980s, after all, and Corvette hadn't had a presence at Le Mans since racer John Greenwood had entered his Spirit of Le Mans Corvette in 1976, when I was just a wee lad of four years old.

My interest piqued, though, when it was announced that GM was forming a Corvette Racing team and entering the C5.R (the racing variant of the fifth-generation Corvette) in the 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans. Suddenly, this race was no mere historical footnote; it was a now an annual race that would factor into the further development (not to mention prestige) of the only automobile brand I've ever truly loved.

If you aren't familiar with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that may seem a curious statement. But the race is so grueling that it has led—at least partially—to a number of automotive innovations over the years. Innovations like rear-engine drivetrains, turbocharged engines… hell, you could even argue that the 24 Hours of Le Mans is largely responsible for the development of hybrid fuel/electric engines, as a result of the quest for enhanced fuel economy and power.

 

Corvette at LeMans

I couldn't resist tuning in to see how Corvette would stack up against the competition, but also to follow how the race would, year-over-year, influence the design of the street car. Unfortunately, in the end, I was only able to hear the race, as Le Mans is not and never has been a huge draw with American audiences, and no TV channel available to me carried the race. But I was able to listen to the internet broadcast of Le Mans Radio, and I was immediately hooked.

Thankfully, it was only a few years later when my local cable company added the Speed ​​Network to its lineup and I've watched the race every year since. The one thing you get from actually watching the race, rather than reading about it or listening in via Internet radio, is how gorgeous the Circuit de la Sarthe truly is. In its current configuration, the course runs 8.467 miles (13.626 kilometers) from the city of Le Mans to the township of Mulsanne, France, along route départementale (departmental road) D338, then back around to Le Mans again on some of the most picturesque public roads I've ever seen. Given the length of the track, the weather at one end of the course can be completely different from the other. And given the length of the race, the spectacular sunset and sunrise of the Sarthe region of France are as much a part of the spectacle as is the race.

 

24 Hours of LeMans History

Or, I should say, the races. These days, four categories of cars race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: two prototype classes with speeds upwards of 205 mph (330 km/h) and two GT classes of cars that more closely resemble their road-legal counterparts, with top speeds closer to the 170 mph mark. That means that there are essentially four competitions going on at Circuit de la Sarthe concurrently, with drivers not only competing within their own class, but also avoiding the moving obstacles of cars in much slower (or faster) classes.

Thankfully, it's easier than ever to watch Le Mans no matter where in the world you may be. Here in the U.S., MotorTrend has exclusive broadcast rights (taking over in 2018 from Fox Sports, who infuriated Le Mans fans year after year by bouncing race coverage back and forth between FS1 and FS2 numerous times a day, and even dropping coverage for hours a time). And while the COVID-19 pandemic had a serious impact on the 2020 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans—delaying the race from June to September, forbidding in-person spectators, and forcing my beloved Corvette Racing to bow out of the competition—the 2021 running of 24 Heures du Mans is already shaping up to be a spectacular one, thanks to the new mid-engine C8.R Corvette's first entry into the race, as well as the debut of an entirely new class of automobiles dubbed Le Mans Hypercar, which will replace the top-shelf LMP1 prototype class.