Quentin Spurring

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.

The Hardest Day

1923 Chenard et Walcker Sport

1923 Le Mans Winning Chenard et Walcker Sport (prints available here)

 

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.

Le Mans 1923-1929 by Quentin Spurring

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.