PHOTO: © Nick Dungan – AdrenalMedia.com
Every year, race fans await certain races, the ones that mean something, the ones that represent something in this sport. Whether it’s the history of the track, the meaning of the race, a good party, or a combination of all three, there are just certain races in every series that send fans, journalists, crews, and the racers themselves into a frenzy. Fernando Alonso said it best, “Every driver wants to win three races: Monaco, Le Mans, and the Indy 500.” These are known as the triple crown of racing, and just the mention of one of these races sends emotion coursing through the veins of every racing fan.
This year, we watched Lewis Hamilton win at Monaco, we watched the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 be won by rookie Alexander Rossi, and now it’s time for the crown jewel. Tomorrow, the sun will rise on a small French town that usually boasts a population of less than one hundred and fifty thousand people, but this weekend is playing host to countless sports car racing fans and drivers and crew and journalists. And the quiet French town will come alive with the sounds of powerful sports cars, racing for twenty-four hours straight along the country roads. For those of us, like me, who have never been there, we can only imagine what that would be like. For those who go and have experienced this incredible race, the experience is unforgettable. For 93 years, this race has set the bar for all the other races around the world.
But what is it about Le Mans that makes it special? There are other 24-hour races. The Rolex 24 in Daytona is an amazing sports car racing event at a historic track. There’s an entire series of 24-hour races that travels to amazing tracks around the world. So what is it about this race? Is it the prestige? Is it the challenge? Is it the history? Is it the party? Is it the Grand Marnier crepes?
As a history buff, this is the race you have to love. Le Mans was the race car manufacturers used to prove cars could last over long distances. It’s challenging, it requires innovation and perfection, and it is not without its tragedy. It has survived the bloodiest days of racing and provided some of the world’s best finishes. The tradition of spraying champagne was born there, when Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt won in their Ford GT40 in 1967. The best drivers have driven it, hoping to conquer the mix of race track and country roads, driving through rain and shine, into the darkest hours. The names who have been successful, the manufacturers who have built their brands off Le Mans wins make others put Le Mans on their lists as must a must win.
But it’s not just the 93 years worth of history. It’s the tradition. It’s the public scrutineering. It’s the drivers’ parade. I discovered at COTA last year that there is a certain pageantry that comes with WEC races, but Le Mans isn’t just pageantry. It’s the town coming together and opening their doors to this sport. Every moment, every tradition builds the excitement for this race, until your heart is pounding and it’s all you can focus on as the tricolor waves. Even traditions that are no more, like the classic Le Mans start, still hang in the atmosphere of Le Mans. I can’t think of another race in the world that celebrates its past and culture while flinging us into the future of race cars.
I’ve never been to Le Mans, so I can’t speak to the atmosphere of the fans. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of race fans through those night hours, when the alcohol flows freely in campsites and the Grand Marnier crepes are enjoyed. I can’t tell you what it’s like to meet new friends from countries all over the world. I can’t tell you about the poetry of the cars in the middle of the night, when the rest of the world is quiet. But to imagine that atmosphere at one of the oldest races in the world doesn’t take a lot. It’s not hard to picture a party atmosphere surrounding the constant concentration of the drivers. But it’s an experience everyone says you have to have.
What I can speak to is the joy on the drivers’s faces when they finish, when they stand proudly on the podium and raise those trophies high. I’ve watched it, and if you can watch those moments without getting emotional, then you are made of stronger stuff than me. For the crews and the drivers who have battled the elements and put down lap after lap, struggling for the perfection that Le Mans requires, that joy is infectious. It’s watching a dream come true in real time, and maybe that’s something that makes this race so special.
For those of us at home, it will be a long 24 hours. We’ll struggle to stay awake, we’ll live tweet and drink coffee and try to make it through. What is it about Le Mans that makes it so special? What makes it a race that is a must see and must experience? What makes it different from the Rolex 24? It’s a feeling. It’s the passion of racing coming to life in an all-consuming way.
I asked people who have been to the race to tell me what made it special. I’m going to include some of those below because I think it’s important. I think everyone has a reason why they love this race. And I think they sum up why this race has stayed the crown jewel of racing.
And hey, maybe it’s the Grand Marnier crepes, too.