If you’ve ever taken a long road trip, you know how taxing a drive can be.
Fatigue sets in, lower back pain crescendos with each new riff in the Journey album you’re pumping from your blown out speakers and charley horses riddle your aching legs. The physical demands are grueling and that’s to say nothing of the mechanical uncertainties: will your ’96 Honda Civic be able to complete this trek? No one can say for sure. You take a swig of water, open the window and grip the wheel, hoping for a rest stop and an accessible AAA card, wondering how anyone could possess the wherewithal to drive in the 24 hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest, and longest, sports car endurance race.
Held annually since 1923, in the scorching June heat of Le Mans, France, the race is commonly referred to as the Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency, a test as much for the cars as the near-sleepless drivers maneuvering them.
In 24-hours, competitors race a distance of over 3,000 miles, a distance six times longer than the Indy 500 and 18 times longer than the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Each car is manned by three drivers who take turns snagging small eat/sleep breaks, the only means of staving off exhaustion and disaster. While undeniably important, preservation of drivers’ focus is only half the battle at Le Mans. The real test is balancing lightning-fast speed with a car’s mechanical capabilities. Since pit stops are limited, drivers must become one with their vehicle, balancing minute-to-minute strategic moves with their ride’s rate of fuel consumption and the endurance of its engine, tire and braking materials.
Originally, Le Mans was a testing ground for car manufacturers and a battle to see who could construct the best machines. Historically, Porsche has the most Le Mans wins, with Audi and Ferrari close behind. More than an exercise in sport, the race was bred out of a noble concern for the common man, a testing of everyday vehicles’ integrity under extreme conditions before sale to the general public. Today, there are two classes of cars in the competition: specialized two-seat Prototypes and Grand Touring cars, more akin to a high-performance something or other you might see on your local expressway. 50 vehicles are allowed to enter each year.
Many races occur every day, the world over. Too many to count, in fact. What makes Le Mans so appealing is its unique blend of human and mechanical skill, and a vision that positions competition as an ingredient in promoting the social good rather than a mere exercise in chest thumping.
Pretty cool, huh?
Our only hope is that you haven’t been reading this while driving. This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is slated for June 10th.