We did say eclectic, right?
Let’s move away from our more mainstream cultural, literary and cinematic concerns to talk about the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yes. An auto race.
I’m allowed to do this because Tom Wolfe, he of the white suits and Bonfire of the Vanities, did it before me, with little negative effect on his career… and he was writing about NASCAR for chrissakes.
The 24 Hours is not NASCAR. It’s a global event of massive proportions (congrats to Toyota for finally breaking their curse in 2018–despite the relatively weak field, I was very happy to see a loyal and determined competitor finally achieve the prize), steeped in a tradition that few other sporting events can match.
It survived the deadliest motorsport accident in history (84 people dead in 1955) without missing a beat and continues to be the best race in the world to this day.
But it would have been hard to imagine that on its first running nearly 100 years ago. In 1923 a field of relatively stock touring cars set off on awful roads to drive for a day. Automobiles were still mostly for the rich, especially in Europe, although some manufacturers of cyclecars were emerging (of course, the Ford Model T had already put America on wheels, but this wasn’t America). The cars at Le Mans, however, weren’t transportation for the masses; they were serious machines for the gentleman enthusiast.
Come to think of it, that hasn’t really changed at all–the GT category in this year’s race was composed of cars similar to those that the well-heeled can buy off the showroom floor.
If you’ve already got a couple of general Le Mans books, the absolute best way to get a feel for how this race really was in its early days is to read the incredible book Le Mans 1923-29. This one, part of a wonderful series by Quentin Spurring, goes really deep and talks about every race and every car and team in every race. It’s the absolute best description of this era available.
Even if you aren’t really into auto racing, it’s a good read. Why? Because it gives you a feel for the 1920s in France from a viewpoint that you won’t get anywhere else. I’ve already got the next volume (1930-39) sitting in my to-be-read pile, and am looking forward to it anxiously.
I may, at some point in the near future, write a novel where early racing figures prominently, so I can call these books research. Yeah, I think I’ll do that…
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose novel Outside is available on Amazon through this link.