Over the years, there has been a lot written on the history of the Le Mans 24 Hours, a race which has earned the reputation as one of the most challenging endurance races on the international motorsport calendar.
The 24 Heures du Mans enjoys the reputation as the world’s oldest active sports car race in endurance racing, and has been held annually since 1923, with the exception of 1936 and from 1940 to 1948. This challenge has, over the years, attracted the best teams and drivers as the opportunity to lift the coveted 24 Hour trophy requires a superhuman effort from the whole team. But the prestige that goes with winning this monumental feat of endurance makes the effort worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears spent on winning.
In Twice Around the Clock: The Yanks at Le Mans, the author has focussed his attention on American drivers and American teams at Le Mans, and in so doing, he has examined this racing spectacle from a whole new angle. The narratively rich and impressively illustrated work is divided into three volumes – Vol. I: 1923-1959; Vol. II: 1960-1969; Vol. III: 1970-1979.
The first volume begins right at the beginning, and here Le Mans was at the forefront of numerous firsts in the mechanical world. In 1906, the world’s first Grand Prix took place around a 60-mile track east of Le Mans. Then in 1908, American aviator, Wilbur Wright, performed the first flight in Europe by a fully-controllable airplane along what is today the Mulsanne Straight. It was though in 1920 that American Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix organised by the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) along a 10.7-mile circuit made up of public roads to the south of the city. The circuit comprised much of what the modern-day Le Mans circuit incorporates today.
Early photographs show how spectators were dressed mostly in tie and jacket, while personnel hung around what would have been a pit area, much like a crowd milling around at the local market. This was a new sport to most who attended, and so protocol and safety would have been quite a casual affair. Each year covered is followed by a table of results giving all the useful data such as drivers, entrant, group, laps and speeds. Interesting, and evidence of the depth of research conducted by the author over an extended period, is the (albeit brief) weather conditions also listed for each race. I mention this because all of the above information is not easy to find year-on-year, as record keeping in the first quarter of the twentieth century was a pastime still in its infancy, and the longevity of records was given little consideration.
The difference between the race cars of the post-War period differed significantly from the pre-War machines, as advances made in metallurgy, construction, engine and mechanical componentry during the wartime saw more sophisticated race cars emerge. The first post-War race was held in 1949, the race being won by American-Italian Luigi Chinetti in a Ferrari 166 MM. The 1950 race bore witness to the presence of what is certainly the most outlandish craft of any discipline, the first all-American Le Mans Sports Racing Prototype, which was quickly dubbed Le Monstre by the French and the press. Driven by Briggs Cunningham and Phil Walters, the Cadillac Spider finished in eleventh place overall.
The text is liberally sprinkled with informative and entertaining quotes from well-known personalities, making this a wonderfully personal account, accompanied by superb photographic material right from the first race in 1923. These quotes truly bring out the dangerous and difficult challenges and hurdles that drivers would have had to overcome, in order to complete a lap successfully, let alone survive for 24 hours. A supreme effort has been made by the author in this first volume, to source little-known or in many cases, previously unpublished photos, ensuring that this is a refreshing look at this great race. In particular, it is worth mentioning that the early colour images offer the reader a welcome colourful insight into racing in those days.