Le Mans: Dangerous Past, Dangerous Present [w/video]
It is my goal one day to make the pilgramage to town of Le Mans, France, for the one week of year when the quiet hamlet is not so quiet. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is THE destination for many motorsport enthusiasts, and is something of a Mecca for those who have not yet gone. For the spectators it is Woodstock, or Phish at Red Rocks. It is a rare happening in motorsport, where the masses flock to a given location for a weekend of camping, drinking and watching a little racing. For those brave individuals behind the wheel and manning the pits that same weekend, it is a dangerous endeavor, and always has been. There are plenty of crashes to point to, including the horrific Mercedes-Benz crash in 1955, and others, but to understand why these crashes occur, one must examine the race itself, and the mindset of those who compete.
It is a 24 hour endurance race, and the rules are simple- the one who has gone around Circuit de la Sarthe the most times in that 24 hour period wins! This means driving through the night, reaching speeds in excess of 200 mph. It is the fastest course in the world, the majority of which is on actual roads. Multiple classes duke it out, with constant passing. It is a wonder crashes are not even more frequent.
But there was a group of gentlemen who thumbed their nose at danger. They were the Bentley Boys- all men who had survived the horrors of World War I and were hell-bent on living their lives to the fullest. The drivers had little care for the inherent danger, and their attutiude yeilded multiple wins in the late 20's in early 30's. In 1927, Bentley had won by an incredible 200 miles. Their exploits are the stuff of lore:
There have been countless crashes in races, qualifying and practice. As the safety equipment gets better, the speeds of the cars increase as well. The GT cars are capable of faster and faster lap times, to the point where you get intense crashes like the one that happened this week in practice:
The Ferrari 458 racecar hit with such force that it blew away the tire wall, bent the retaining wall behind it, and ultimately, race organizers had to cancel the practice session. It just goes to show you that the element of danger never leaves Le Mans. It is that presence that keeps us engaged, but not the way that a NASCAR fan waits for a crash. No, we watch with the same nervous tick that the driver must experience as the nears the end of the race: "OK, I've gotten this far without incident, just a little bit longer and I'll be home." While the driver may be going through it personally, we all feel this stress, knowing at any minute, at may possibly happen. And win or lose, all are entertained by the greatest race in the world: "C'est Le Mans!"
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