Le Mans

Death and Rebirth – The 1950s at Le Mans

Le Mans is my favorite auto race. It competes for that position with the Indy 500, but it wins because it’s an entire day on a long, challenging, character-filled track. Yes, the chicanes on the line droit des hunaudieres are a travesty and those who approved them in the 90s should be retroactively shot… but even with that, it’s a beautiful thing. I’d love to see it in person someday.

So Quentin Spurring’s wonderful decade-by-decade look at the race, including the organization, each entrant and the events of the race itself, represent my absolute favorite piece of nonfiction reading. I like these even better than the Collector’s Press Horror/Science Fiction/Fantasy of the 20th Century series, and that’s saying a huge amount.

The 1950’s are not my favorite Le Mans Decades (those would be the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s), but Le Mans 1949-59 is a truly wonderful book anyway. The best thing about it is that it dedicates few pages to the 1955 accident.

For those of you who are new to this, that race is infamous because a Mercedes 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh crashed on the pit straight, got airborne and landed in the crowd, killing the driver and 84 spectators.

Cue the immediate overreaction in which several countries banned motorsport outright. Most countries saw how ridiculous that was almost immediately–only the dorky Swiss still insist on keeping the ban around.

Worse, however is the fact that so much ink has been spilled, all the way to the modern day, about that crash, as if it was a difficult phenomenon to explain. Essentially, it can be summed up in a few lines–in an era where speeds were increasing faster than most people expected, and crowd protection was laissez-faire, to put it mildly, something like this was in the cards. To a certain degree, considering that a lot of races were still run on open roads with people wandering in to see race cars capable of nearly 200 mph flashing past, it’s unfair that it happened to Le Mans.

Unfortunately, it did, and the French, to their credit, ignored the initial overreaction, corrected the public safety issues and went on with the race the next year.

What I love about this book is that the 1955 race report is not about the accident. It’s about the race and the drivers and the cars, which is how it should be. The accident is given its own section, much smaller than the race report proper. It was an important event (the deadliest motor racing accident in history, and a real tragedy), so ignoring it would have been just as bad as giving it too much space. Spurring got the balance exactly right.

Which is pretty much what I’d say about the rest of the book. It’s a hefty tome with a lot of minor teams and entrants profiled, yet it never bores the reader because there’s always something interesting about every last entrant… and I can’t even imagine what kind of research was involved in getting that data on obscure teams.

When you remember that this decade represents the rebirth after the destruction of WW2, one can only be thankful the race survived, and came back stronger than ever.

Anyhow, I can’t recommend this one to the general public because I fear a lynch mob as much as the next man. But if you’re a motorsport enthusiast, these are not only indispensable but fun.

Get them. Read them. You can thank me later.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster romp through the Darien Gap. It’s fun, too, and the title is Jungle Lab Terror. You can check it out here.

A Decade of Growth that Ended Horribly

Le Mans 1930-39 - Quentin Spurring

Le Mans 1930-39: The Official History Of The World’s Greatest Motor Race is certainly an impressive title.  But this is an impressive book.  It’s a race-by-race, team-by-team and car-by-car chronicle of what I consider to be the best race in the world, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to the layman, it does go well beyond the pure racing aspect and give a glimpse into the lives of the characters behind the race.  (If you want to see my review of the first book in the series, it’s here.)

In today’s world of polished multimillion-dollar (or Euro or Yen or Yuan) operations with corporate backing, the colorful character is all but absent in many aspects of motorsport, especially in po-faced F1 paddocks.  Le Mans is, to a certain degree an oasis where millionaire playboys right out of a Sidney Sheldon novel still drink champagne well into the small hours, but even this paragon of individuality can’t hold a candle to the way it used to be.

In the thirties, the cast of characters included rich boys, yes.  But it also included rich girls in numbers never seen before, backyard mechanics, British Nazi sympathizers, a slew of Italians who’d moved to France to escape Mussolini, the might of Hitler’s industrial complex and, of course, hundreds of thousands of wine-drinking spectators (those are still there).

With that volatile mix of people–has there ever been a more interesting case of such mixed social and political beliefs coexisting peacefully even while trying to beat each other?–the races themselves became almost a backdrop to the characters.

Almost.

This is Le Mans, and even when everything around it is a circus, the race forces you to take it seriously.  Heavily-favored cars break down.  The glorious Alfa coupe retires from the lead.  People die.  Others celebrate.  For a day, the outside stuff is forgotten, reduced to noise.

But eventually, the race ends and you have to get back to real life.  And when the 1939 race ended, it would be another 10 years before the next was run.  Quentin Spurring reminds us gently of what was to come, telling us that this or that race was the last for one or another of the drivers.  Especially powerful were the mentions of men who fought or flew in the War to come, or, in the cases of Robert Benoist or William Grover-Williams, men who joined the Resistance and where executed for it by the Gestapo.

Ignore the spoiled, millionaire crybabies of today who count a sprained ankle while training their greatest fear (witness the halo on F1 cars).  Racing drivers should be lions, men who live outside of society’s timidity and who, when the occasion calls for it are capable of great acts of courage, even outside the cockpit.

The best part of this book is probably that it reminds us that this is what they once were.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel, Ice Station Death is not likely to help him win the Nobel Prize for Literature… but it is guaranteed to entertain.  You can check it out here.

A Great Sportsman, A Great Time

Perhaps the golden era of the playboy sportsman took place during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.  Of course, anglophones normally read about the exploits of English nobles in those days, but the rest of Europe was also in on the fun.  The first world war put an end to that, and the second applied the exclamation point, the final nail in the coffin for those who persisted in trying to enjoy life.  A decade of austerity lay ahead.

But the same couldn’t be said of Americans.  The 1950s became the golden age of the American playboy sportsman.

Cunningham Sports Cars By Karl Ludvigsen

Why so late?

Well, while the European nobles were busy refining the art of yacht racing all over the continent, and also learning about internal combustion engines and fielding legendary polo teams, their American equivalents were dragging an agricultural nation kicking and screaming into the industrial age after the civil war.  They didn’t have time to goof off.  Also, a lot of them were of a slightly puritanical bent, and hadn’t yet realized that the main reason to have money is to be able to enjoy yourself with it in ways that everyone else simply can’t.

So yes, by the 1950s, the scions of American industrialists had finally understood their position and went off to get serious about having a good time.

And that brings us to Karl Ludvigsen, one of the great automotive historians.  Because, of course, this post is about a book, as well as being about amazing race cars (we did say “eclectic” in the manifesto, didn’t we?  If we didn’t, we meant to).

You see, Ludvigsen wrote a book entitled Cunningham Sports Cars, which might sound like a dry racing title, but is actually a lasting monument to a great American playboy sportsman: Briggs Cunningham.  The book, like all Ludvigsen titles, is painstakingly researched and evocatively illustrated but what it is most notable for is making the reader wish he was Cunningham.

You see Briggs, who died in 2003, was not content to use his enormous wealth to buy cars and yachts – he actually built his own, painted them in American racing colors (blue over white) and tried to win Le Mans (with the cars) and improve the breed (with his yachting innovation).  He also won the America’s Cup, but that was while skippering a tub built by someone else, so he might not have been happy with it (we are, of course, kidding).

In an age where the excesses of the rich are indulged in private or at least with as little publicity as possible (to avoid having the po-faced masses* attempt to raise income taxes or establish even more draconian luxury taxes), it’s refreshing to read about a man who did so openly and under his own name (kind of like an Elon Musk without any kind of social concern or wish to advance humanity).

Cunningham c2-r

Even more importantly was the fact that he learned from his mistakes.  Le Monstre (a special-bodied Cadillac) is rightly remembered as the ugliest thing to defile the sacred Mulsanne straight (and this is hard to do because, other than on race weekends, that is a stretch of French highway, and we assume that Ami 6s were allowed to use it), but his later, Cunningham-branded cars were truly beautiful.

So we at Classically Educated invite you to raise our glass of whatever obscenely expensive bubbly you might have to hand to a man who was more concerned with the good things in life than with why enjoying them is antisocial in some way.

Living well is the best revenge, of course.  And if you buy the book you can do so for a modest sum… at least vicariously.  And you can wish you were Briggs Cunningham, as well as reliving yet another age lost to the merciless passage of time.

*I have a defective socialism gene.  Can’t be helped.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who writes in English.  His latest book, Incursion, was published in 2017.