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There was a hard, bitter, cold rain whipping across western France. Around Le Mans's 8.36-mile track, where the famed 24-hour Grand Prix of Endurance has excited automobile fans almost every peacetime year since 1923, a drenched crowd watched eagerly as mechanics pushed 49 sports cars into starting positions.
High up in the press box, French Reporter Olivier Merlin looked down on the scene and philosophized, "There's a reassuring thing about the world of sport. Life always takes its revenge on death."
That summed up the odd sensation of being back at Le Mans. On a similar Saturday afternoon little more than a year ago, from the same vantage point, I saw Pierre Levegh's Mercedes erupt in a sheet of flame and flying metal that killed 83 spectators. Now there are two reminders of the catastrophe: a black marble plaque engraved with a cross and the date of the disaster, and a refurbished track.
Last year's tragedy had been a one-in-a-million fluke. There had been plenty of thrills and spills but relatively few deaths in Le Mans history. In 16 races before the war, only three drivers were killed. Since competition was resumed in 1949 and until last year, three more fatal accidents occurred on the lopsided rectangle.
But decades of good fortune were washed away in blood last year. At first, French officials were paralyzed. Then, after months of study, they borrowed 300 million francs and set to work. They widened critical roadway, created a long "deceleration zone" into renovated pits, built signal stations out on the course and beefed up barriers for spectator protection. More important, they altered the rules. Drastic new fuel consumption regulations were effected and, to reduce spiraling speeds, prototype cars over 2.5 liters piston displacement were eliminated. This, in effect, made Britain's 3.5-liter D Jaguars heavy favorites, since they were the only first-rate big-engined make able to squeak into the production category. Gone were the big Italian cars.
But there was still an imposing array, headed by three factory and two private D Jaguars and extending down in size to tiny DBs and Stanguellinis.
For the big cars, the big worry was gas consumption. Britain's Stirling Moss was concerned about his thirsty Aston-Martin, and Jean Behra, a Talbot driver, was frankly perplexed. He shrugged, "In a race you drive fast, and when you drive fast you burn gasoline. But how can you burn gasoline you don't have?"
Just about the only person in the pits on race day who was taking it calmly was a Pickwickian gentleman never before seen at Le Mans: Scotsman David Murray. Portly in blue coveralls, with a few wisps of white hair peeking out beneath his tartan tarn, Murray had brought his own private D Jag to race. "We're not here to win," he promised. "We just want to see what it's like."