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.
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.