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.
Volume II kicks off in 1960 with the red cars from Ferrari being the most dominant make of the time. There is no question, Ferrari ruled the roost, and if you wanted to win any of the big races, then you wanted to be in a Ferrari. American drivers were no different here, and many of the top names made names for themselves behind the wheel of these cars. Phil Hill made the race his own three times behind the wheel of a Ferrari (1958, 1961 & 1962), and on each occasion with Belgian partner Olivier Gendebien. Right up until 1964, the Le Mans was Ferrari’s to take, but the writing was on the wall when the GT class Shelby Cobra of Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant finished fourth behind the three Ferrari prototypes. In ’65 it was still all about Ferrari, but Porsche had been slowly climbing the performance ladder, and the Shelby Cobra was still in the picture, finishing eighth overall that year.
In 1966 Ford moved into the spotlight in a massive power shift at the top, taking the top three positions that year with a trio of Ford Mk IIs. However, occupying positions 4-5-6-7 was a squadron of Porsche 906s with the first Ferrari being relegated to eighth place. The tables had turned and the rest of the ‘60s belonged to Ford. Again, photographically this volume is truly spectacular, but this was to be expected with photographers such as Louis Klemantaski, Bernard Cahier and Rainer Schlegelmilch showing why they were considered the best in their field. The author has also enjoyed access to the archives of The Henry Ford (Museum) and the Revs Institute, these institutions providing some splendidly refreshing images in this volume.
If the first half of the ‘60s belonged to Ferrari and the second half belonged to Ford, then the 1970s which is covered in Volume III, certainly belonged to Porsche. In the year of Porsche’s first win, 1970, only five American drivers were in the field and only two American cars started the race. But the times were a-changing, and new names were making their presence felt progressively, such as Penske and NART. Although these names had been around for a number of years, the level of professionalism in the sport was growing and these top teams began to assert themselves more purposefully on the international stage which in turn attracted greater sponsorship into the sport. The cars too, had to be better prepared and stronger, as speeds through the ‘70s entered the realms of unchartered territory, with 225 mph being the new benchmark. It was all an upward spiral – and the beneficiaries were the spectators, because they poured through the gates in their droves. Sports car racing in the ‘70s was a good place to be in.
It must be said that, through the flexibility, performance, affordability and reliability of the Porsche 935, many drivers and teams were able to advance their careers. This race car, more than any other, gave several drivers and/or teams from America the opportunity to shine, by the sheer number of 935s that raced at Le Mans.
What do you get
By the end of the third volume, the reader would have travelled through six entertaining decades of racing at Le Mans, during which time the landscape of international motor racing had changed dramatically. In this, the author must be commended for having successfully captured these seismic changes in the sport through his naturally informative and absorbing style, presenting this work in a manner that makes you want to read the next page.
The three volumes present the greatest endurance race in the world, as seen through a pair of unashamedly all-American tinted glasses. For the reader, there is just tons of material contained in the pages of these three volumes to get his/her teeth into, and what a feast it will be. Firstly, as mentioned already, the narrative style is so easy to read, and the reader will find the story compelling. Secondly, the easy-going presentation and layout is stylish while being cheerful at the same time, a truly professional production.
Should you splash out and buy this publication? There is no question about it, this three-volume set is both informative and a valuable historical document. No serious motorsport book collector or connoisseur in this field should be without this set on his/her library bookshelf. And that is not to blow any trumpets, this is a truly excellent piece of work!
And there is more…
For serious collectors, Toll Hall Sexton Books has created a very special, limited Winner’s Edition of Yanks at Le Mans. Just 25 numbered copies are available, each signed by A.J. Foyt and Hurley Haywood, the only two Americans to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans on their first attempt, and will be personalised by the author. Bound in soft goatskin leather and fabric with uniquely embossed covers and slipcase, it can be ordered only from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org). At this writing, the first three have been pre-ordered and it’s first-come first-serve for the remaining 22 copies. These are priced at $750 plus handling and insured shipping.
A final word…
Just in case you were wondering, Twice Around the Clock: The Yanks at Le Mans was awarded Best Book of the Year as well as the Dean Batchelor Award for excellence in automotive journalism in 2018. This three-volume set was also chosen as a finalist for the Motoring Book of the Year in October 2019.
|Title||Twice Around the Clock|
|Sub-title||The Yanks at Le Mans|
|Publisher||Toll Hall Sexton Books|
|Vol. I (1923 – 1959)||408 pages / 371 photographs|
|Vol. II (1960 – 1969)||360 pages / 327 photographs|
|Vol. III (1970 – 1979)||328 pages / 227 photographs|
|Format||Three volumes, 229 x 279 mm, portrait, hard cover in slipcase|
Written by: Glen Smale