Le Mans: Breaking Down the History of Storied Event

Justin Onslow@@JustinOnslowNFLContributor IIJune 16, 2013

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 16:  The AF - Corse Michael Waltrip Racing Ferrari 458 of Robert Kauffman, Rui Aguas and Brian Vickers drive during the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 16, 2012 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
Ker Robertson/Getty Images

There aren’t many races that test the endurance of driver and machine quite like the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Marking the 90th year of the storied event, this year’s race typifies the longevity that makes Le Mans so intriguing, exciting and unique. Twenty-four-hour racing has become much more popular in recent years, but it all started in 1923 on the roads of Le Mans, France.

Originally a race that tested the limits of ordinary production vehicles and their drivers, the race served to boost the innovation processes of major manufacturers like Bugatti and Alfa Romeo, each hoping to produce faster and more efficient cars for Le Mans, as noted by LeMansRace.com. In time, innovation became the norm, and the result is a race that blends style, performance, endurance and competition.

While the 2013 edition marks the 90th anniversary of the first 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race did experience a 10-year period of inactivity, beginning in 1939 with the start of World War II. And while the interlude halted a major event, its resurgence in 1949 helped shape the race we see today.

In the 1950s, several more luxury and sport car manufacturers entered the mix, including Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. Just 30 years after the first race, Le Mans became as much about cutting-edge technology as it was about tremendous displays of skill and endurance on the part of the drivers.

But not every race was so beneficial to the image of the event. Marshall Pruett of Road and Track compiled a list of the “10 Most Infamous Crashes in Le Mans History,” the most infamous of which involved Pierre Levegh and his Mercedes 300 SLR in 1955.

As noted by Pruett, Levegh’s Mercedes catapulted into the crowd as the result of a shrewd Lance Macklin maneuver that resulted in more than 80 spectator deaths, some of which were caused by the ensuing fire. Following the accident, Mercedes withdrew from motorsports, and Switzerland banned auto racing.

At a time when safety took a back seat to performance and excitement, Le Mans was faced with a devastating result that necessitated a change in priorities.

While auto racing made some of those necessary changes, automotive performance didn’t suffer from the tragedy. Manufacturers continued to improve their cars, and what we see today is a stable of vehicles capable of churning out one of the most exciting races in the world.

As quoted by Motorsport.com, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest Pierre Fillon feels the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the most prestigious racing event in the world of performance racing:

Once again the Le Mans 24-Hours race shows its appeal thanks to an idea that although it may be 90 years old, is more modern than ever. This event is the best test bed in the world, and the major manufacturers know this better than anybody as they put their trust in our race year after year. In terms of prestige no other event matches it, which is why the best drivers in the world flock to the Sarthe.

As is the case with many of the world’s best sporting events, Le Mans blends competition and performance with new innovation and a rich history and tradition. Simply put, there isn’t a race quite like it in the world of motor sports.

That will all be on display when drivers take to the track on June 22 and 23. For 24 hours, the 90-year history of Le Mans will be nothing more than a footnote as the best drivers in the world look to secure their own piece of history behind the wheels of some of the most exciting cars in automotive racing.


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