The world of sports car racing is at once glamorous and confusing—glamorous for its thrills and dangers, confusing in the brain-crushing variety of cars and events. As an increasing number of Americans are coming to appreciate, however, there are some certainties, too. One is that the finest sports cars built for road or racecourse since World War II have been the elegantly swift Ferraris of Italy. Another is that the single most significant man in the field has been their manufacturer, Enzo Ferrari. And, finally, there is a special magic in the name Le Mans and its 24-hour sports car race, in which Ferraris have recently been invincible.
Certain events in sport are classics—the Kentucky Derby, tennis at Wimbledon, the Indianapolis 500, the 24 hours of Le Mans—each providing the best quality of its kind at a traditional site. Le Mans is a drab provincial capital 115 miles southwest of Paris, famous only for a gruesome double murder in the 1930s and its auto race, held each June and running from 4 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon to 4 the following afternoon. The racecourse, lying south of town, is a long one—8.36 miles of road roughly forming a rectangle. It includes a three-mile-long straightaway and a variety of kinks and corners. As circuits go, it is extremely fast. The quickest cars can get around in a little more than three and a half minutes, which averages out to better than 120 mph. Some fifty-five cars start, running the gamut from tiny Renaults to big Fords and Ferraris. It is usual for larger cars to overtake smaller ones while running 50 and 60 mph faster, which makes for tight situations on every lap. Some of the best road-racing drivers despise Le Mans for this reason, and also because they must suppress a natural inclination to race flat out from the fall of the starting flag. There are always a few who suppress badly, the usual result being a blown engine or damaged gearbox and early retirement. Often the best-disciplined drivers cannot resist taking out after an unusually fast car on an opposing team. In 1965 there was so much unrestrained speed in the early hours that not one of the four factory Ferraris or the six factory Fords finished the race. (A privately entered Ferrari won.) There are other difficulties: the strain of night racing in the long hours of darkness, the probability of fog or rain. Even though there are two drivers to each car, serving alternate hitches at the wheel, the pressure is constant and fatigue sets in.
When it all began back in 1923 the race was intended to be a torture test of fast touring cars—a goad to manufacturers to improve the breed by remedying the defects exposed during the 24 hours. Until World War II the cars were not radically different from showroom specimens. The commercial advantages of winning were not as important then as they are now, and in those days there were a certain chivalry and style now out of fashion.
Consider the scene in 1926 as the English driver and journalist S.C.H. Davis recalls it. Favorites for the overall victory were the massive green Bentleys from Britain and the lithe blue Peugeots of France. The Bentley team knew it was up against "a tough proposition." "Specklessly clean and polished to a blaze," the Bentleys were rolled to their starting positions, "Benjafield and myself on Seven, Clement and Duller on Eight, Thistlethwayte and Gallop on Nine." Davis speaks of the "glorious and thrilling" duels by daylight, and of the transition to night driving: "Darkness fell, out cars came in, the bags over the head-lamps were cut away, and with bright, clean lamp glasses off they went again, while other people were scrubbing hard at a glutinous mass of chloride, squashed flies, and caked dust to produce a light at all. With the head-lamps and the switching on of lights all over the pits and grandstand, the scene became extraordinarily beautiful and eerie, the path of the cars down the road being marked by the swing of the head-light beams.... My spell during the night was cold but thrilling, the run from Mulsanne through the woods to Arnage was goblinesque as the lights threw sharp, dark shadows from the trees, and here and there the warm glow of a fire showed a group of enthusiastic spectators."
Daylight. New thrills. Drama. The top Peugeot goes out, and there is a chance for Davis to overtake another Peugeot now leading. "From our pit fluttered the 'all-out' signal." Thus inspired, Davis hurled his Bentley after the enemy. A shower "clouded one's goggles abominably," and then, alas, the Bentley was off the road and caught in a sandbank, wedged in too deep to be dug out. There was an embarrassing report to make to Builder W. O. Bentley. "I said, 'I have made a fool of myself and broken up the car,' and then I went for a long walk alone and wished I was dead."
This romantic view of Le Mans was not uncommon right up to the start of World War II, and when racing was resumed after the war it survived for a while in a few individuals. The last of the great romantics was the American sportsman, Briggs Cunningham, who with gallantry and a cheerful disregard of the expense put the U.S. into the fight in the early 1950s. He not only had special Cunningham cars built for Le Mans but also raced them—and pretty well, too.
Today most of the Le Mans racers are entered by manufacturers who want badly to win for the worldwide publicity certain to follow. A few amateur drivers still get in, but most are businesslike pros, odds-on not to discern anything goblinesque or otherwise enthralling on the Mulsanne-Arnage section. At Le Mans the cars are the heroes—and the builders behind them.
When normal, prosaic passenger cars were scarce after the war and automakers were humping to meet the demand, there were few sporty machines available for Le Mans, so the race officials admitted the car known as the "prototype." These were required to have a few of the customary features of road cars—fenders, headlights, a passenger's seat—but otherwise they could be as racy as the builders wanted to make them and nobody cared whether they were actually prototypes of cars to be sold to the public. With their fussy racing engines and stripped interiors they were not fit to be driven on normal roads. Naturally, these "wide Grand Prix cars" clobbered the more or less production-line entries. There was much argument among specialists as to whether the prototypes violated sacred Le Mans tradition, but the spectators loved them. They loved them so much that attendance has spiraled up to the 300,000 mark. This affection was not even dampened by the catastrophe of 1955—racing's worst accident, in which 83 spectators were killed when a Mercedes rode up the back of a skidding Austin Healey, took off, hit the top of the bank and disintegrated into the crowd.
Le Mans races go like this: drivers sprint across the homestretch to their silent cars, angle-parked in a long line and arranged roughly by engine size, with the bigger cars first, fire them up and tear away in the loveliest traffic tangle east of the Hollywood Freeway. Twenty-four hours later a Ferrari wins. Occasional winners in the early postwar years, Ferraris became unbeatable in the '60s, taking six consecutive victories in the years 1960 to 1965.
There are several kinds of Ferraris: the sports car prototypes that win at Le Mans, the Grand Prix cars, the somewhat tamer Grand Touring cars that also are raced and some of the most gorgeous, costly, swift, leather-upholstered roadsters and coupes that ever made the street scene. When Porfirio Rubirosa crashed and died in the summer of 1965 in the Bois de Boulogne he was at the wheel of a Ferrari. His widow, the exquisite starlet Odile Rodin, underlined the general feeling about Rubirosa's discriminating taste in cars, as well as his style of living, by commenting that it was the way he would have wanted to go.