Ingram: Yanks At Le Mans – They Keep On Coming
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:
Michael Waltrip is headed for his first Le Mans 24-hour in June, but already has a leg up after spending an Easter Sunday testing at the famed French race course. For those who have never been before – and these days no NASCAR driver has time in the schedule to take in a race in France – the first trip to the eight-mile circuit is always an eye opener.
Like no other race track in the world, Le Mans recalls the early days of motor racing, when public highways between major cities in Europe were shut down for point to point races, when drivers and manufacturers raced for the big prize, or “Grand Prix.” The city of Le Mans still must close some of its public roads annually to create the world’s oldest 24-hour circuit, and, it being France, there is still resistance in some quarters to the idea of an event disrupting the town’s populace for the sake of a motor race!
Not far from Paris but worlds away in many respects, the town of Le Mans participated in those early Grand Prix events. Le Mans is a light manufacturing city that grew out of a farming community. Near the turn of the last century, locals who worked with their hands and others in the community who aspired to think big came together in Le Mans to build some of the world’s first motor cars – and race them. This same dedication to machinery and racing eventually resulted in the first Le Mans 24-hour in 1923, organized by the Automobile Club de L’Ouest, roughly translated as the auto club of France’s western plains, still dominated by wheat fields every spring and summer.
I went to Le Mans for the first time in 1982 and was completely overwhelmed by the enormity and
scope of the event. Grandstands that seemed fairly big looked awesome when they were packed with thousands upon thousands lining the 3/4-mile long front straight on race day. At this time – before chicanes were installed – the famed Mulsanne straight still went on for uninterrupted miles.
I had come, in part, to see Mario Andretti and Michael Andretti race a Mirage prototype owned by Harley Cluxton. But between the time I left the starting grid and arrived at the media center, the Mirage had been disqualified and pushed off to the side shortly before the green flag by officials due to an oil cooler that had been re-positioned after scrutineering earlier in the week. (For safety reasons, the oil coolers were not allowed to be mounted behind the gearbox.)
As the saying goes, things get complicated in a hurry in France, one of those countries that prides itself on being home to philosophy and debate, not to mention a rather outlandish egotism and dedication to bureaucracy. All these elements came into play for the Andrettis on this day, who nevertheless returned the following year to finish third overall co-driving a Porsche. It was the first major accomplishment in what would become a stellar career for Michael Andretti.
As an American reporter, “L’affair Andrettis” initially spoiled my first Le Mans 24-hour. Or perhaps I should say it made a typically grand and noisy start a disappointment, not to mention confusing. The situation was not unlike Lewis Grizzard’s first Southern 500 at Darlington. “I went to the race and didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I sat there for 500 miles and still didn’t understand a damn thing.”
In my case, it was a matter of hanging around for 24 hours. By the time my first Le Mans was over, the Porsche 956 prototypes built to the new Group C regulations had finished one-two-three, the start of one of the great eras of sports car racing.
In doing some research, I saw an interesting forum question on Le Mans. Which of the following three American team owners, went this quiz, accomplished the most at the Le Mans 24-hour: Briggs Cunningham, Harley Cluxton or Don Panoz? (An interesting question, it nevertheless leaves out the matter of Henry Ford’s successful assault on Ferrari at Le Mans in the 1960s.)
Team owner Cunningham scored three class victories during entries made from 1951-1955 as a
quasi-factory GM entrant. Cluxton came close to winning overall twice after taking over the Mirage program initially established by the Ford Motor Company. Cluxton’s cars finished second in 1976 and 1977. American-born Panoz (technically an Irish citizen) scored his lone class victory at the circuit in 2006 with the Panoz Esperante 10 seasons after his first entry at Le Mans.
From my perspective, however, Panoz has had the biggest impact on Le Mans, although he rarely gets credit for it. By establishing the American Le Mans Series in 1999, Panoz gave the stand-alone French race its first association with an ongoing series. By helping the Automobile Club de L’Ouest establish the Le Mans Series – after a notable and expensive failure in his first effort – Panoz helped the ACO build its own series in Europe. Both of these efforts led to the current Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, the first series constructed by the ACO itself.
Like a three-legged table in the sidewalk cafes found in almost any quarter of France, these three series have given Le Mans immense stability. Although it now seems ancient history, Le Mans went virtually bankrupt in the early 1990’s, due to a lack of entries amidst ongoing legal disputes with the FIA, which controlled world sports car championships at the time in addition to Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship. The arrival of Panoz and his unique promotional skills helped Le Mans turn the corner on this dreary epoch.
More’s the pity that Panoz Automotive’s new Abruzzi was not included in this year’s entry. Although Corvette Racing once again will ably represent an American brand, there’s fewer American teams in general than in the recent past, due in part to the economy but also to the growth of sports car racing in Europe during what might be termed the Panoz era at Le Mans.
Alas, since the days of Briggs Cunningham in the early 1950s, through the hey day of Henry Ford’s Mk II and Mk IV followed by Cluxton, then Panoz, and now the current Corvette C6.R’s and Flying
Lizard Porsches, the Americans have long played a significant role as entrants at Le Mans and are likely to continue. This year, Level 5 Motorsports and Robertson Racing are making their Le Mans debut and Krohn Racing is returning with its Ferrari effort. (Nothing official has been announced regarding the Honda-backed team of Highcroft Racing, which remains on the official entry but did not participate in the Test Day.)
Rob Kauffman, a partner at Michael Waltrip Racing and Waltrip’s co-driver, is currently considering the launch of a team in the American Le Mans Series. Kauffman wouldn’t be drawn on any details when I talked to him prior to this year’s Daytona 500 about an ALMS entry. (Might it be a prototype or GT car?) As it stands, Kauffman will co-drive with Waltrip at Le Mans in a GTE class Ferrari Italia entered by AF Corse, veterans on the European circuit.
But perhaps one day soon, Waltrip will take an MWR entry from the U.S. to Le Mans and join a long line of American team owners who have helped sustain the great French race as one of the most unique events in the world. On the other hand, recalling the experience of the 1982 race for the Andrettis, perhaps it’s best to wait and see how things go in June for Le Mans rookies Kauffman and Waltrip!
Quote of the Week: “I know four places where I can hold it wide open and be as fast as anyone.” – Michael Waltrip in an interview with Radio Le Mans prior to the Test Day in preparation for this year’s Le Mans 24-hour.
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments