The world’s oldest active sports car race when it comes to endurance racing, the competition has been held annually since 1923 (with two hiatuses before, during, and after WWII). Named for the town of Le Mans, France, 24 Hours of Le Mans is held just outside the town each June. Unlike other European motorcar races in which the goal is speed, 24 Hours of Le Mans was born out of the desire to test automotive manufacturers on the endurance of their vehicles. Who could build the sportiest but most reliable car, one that would be as fuel-efficient as possible and spend the least amount of time in the pits? The tracks of Le Mans are where aerodynamics and stability share the spotlight.
Since its inception, the race has evolved in its rules and regulations, changing cockpit and door requirements, the number of drivers per car, and the number of seats. There are certain rules and traditions that are unique to 24 Hours of Le Mans, and certain achievements that have gone down in the history books. Here are the five things you may not have known about the world’s most exciting motorsport competition.
It marked the first televised instance of spraying champagne in celebration.
Dan Gurney, a California driver, was no favorite to win in 1967 — at least, not amongst journalists, who predicted that the efforts of Gurney and co-driver A.J. Foyt would end in disaster. The popular duo won, proving the so-called pundits wrong. As they mounted the victory podium, Gurney was given a magnum of champagne (a bottle of Moët & Chandon, to be precise). Gurney took one look down to where Ford CEO Henry Ford, team owner Carroll Shelby, their wives, and all of those pesky journalists were seated. He then shook the bottle and celebrated the victory by dousing everyone in the vicinity with Brut Imperial.
Later, Gurney autographed the bottle and gifted it to Life Photographer Flip Schulke, who had taken one photo of the scene before the spraying spectacle began. According to writer Eoin Young in a piece for Victory Lane, Schulke turned the bottle into a table lamp, which was displayed in his Florida home for thirty years. Schulke reportedly then returned it to Gurney, saying, “You did it…you should have it!”
The 1971 Steve McQueen film Le Mans was filmed on location — during the actual race.
While much of the film’s footage was shot on the Le Mans circuit between June and November of 1970, several scenes were shot during the actual competition. McQueen, who had once considered becoming a professional racecar driver, was a natural for the role. In fact, he had previously won in the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring three-litre class, driving a Porsche 908/02 with Peter Revson. Solar Produtions, McQueen’s production company, entered that same Porsche in 25 Hours of Le Mans for filming purposes during the actual race. While the vehicle, loaded with heavy cameras and equipment, placed ninth in the overall race, it could not be classified. The reason? It had not driven the minimum distance, having to stop too frequently to change film reels.
Our Le Mans, a book that explores the friendship between McQueen and onscreen rival Siegrief Rach, will be released by publishers Delius Klasing this December 1st, 2017.
The first Le Mans video game was produced by Atari in 1976.
Of course, no real sport is without its video games counterparts, and Le Mans is no exception. The first Le Mans-inspired game was produced by Atari in 1976. The game, called LeMans, was an upright, single-player arcade game that allowed the player to race a vehicle via a basic control system: a steering wheel, a four-position gear stick, and accelerator and brake peddles. The white raster graphics on a black background featured a top-down view of the tracks, and players would race against the clock while avoiding obstacles like oil slicks and walls.
The most recent iteration of a Le Mans game is Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport 7, in which the entire circuit can be virtually raced via Microsoft Windows or Xbox One.
Tony Rolt, the 1953 Le Mans Champion, was a British WWII hero who planned not one, but eight great escapes from German POW camps.
Tony Rolt, born in 1918, had already developed a love of racing before the outbreak of WWII, winning the Coronation Trophy in 1937. As a student at Eton, he had even gotten into trouble for keeping a car.
During the war, Rolt served as a lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade, and often fought in heavy battles like the defense of Calais. He was captured just before the evacuation of Dunkirk and sent to a German prisoner of war camp, escaping seven times from five different camps before eventually being sent to Oflag IV-C, a maximum-security prison in Colditz Castle.
Given his love of all things automotive, it’s no surprise that Rolt was one of the genius British soldiers (in fact, it was his idea!) to build a glider in order to escape. The castle was liberated by the Allies before the soldiers could launch the aptly-named Colditz Cock. (Would this have gone down in history as the Great Escape Part II? We’ll never know.) For his efforts as one of the Empire’s most sneaky escape artists, Rolt was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross. He went on to prove that he is simply impossible to catch or keep up with, winning the 1953 Le Mans competition in a Jaguar.
The works of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, and Jeff Koons have all made an appearance on the Le Mans circuit.
That’s right— some of the most prolific artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have had works on display at Le Mans, thanks to BMW’s Art Car Project. In 1975, French racecar driver and art lover Hervé Poulain commissioned friend and artist Alexander Calder to transform a BMW for the race. This began a tradition of collaborations between the luxury car manufacturer and the world’s biggest artists. In 1977, Roy Lichtenstein painted a 320i Turbo in his signature graphic art style, and the 1979 BMW Art Car by Andy Warhol is now considered, according to CBS News, the most valuable car in BMW history.
And the art hasn’t stopped with the new millennium; a 2010 creation from Jeff Koons made an appearance on the Le Mans tracks, and the most recent creation, a 2017 BMW Art Car by Chinese artist Cao Fei, debuted on the tracks this past June. Thirty-nine years old, Cao is the youngest artist to create one of these iconic vehicles.