The sport of automobile racing is arguably about 130-years old, assuming you subscribe to the notion that the first organized race, using gasoline-powered internal combustion engines, occurred in France in 1887. But looking back across this 130-year history, there are a number of significant events that stand out from the rest, events like the Vanderbilt Cup races, the Targa Florio, the Mille Miglia, the British Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Daytona. But within the pantheon of “the greatest races of all-time,” really only three events rise to the top, if for no other reason than the fact that they are the three oldest events still in continuous existence—The Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After examining all three of this year’s events, I’ve come to the conclusion that Le Mans has now assumed the mantle as the true pinnacle of the sport. Let the invectives fly!
Of the three contenders, the Monaco Grand prix is the “youngest” event having had its inaugural running in 1929. Like the others, with the exception of World War II, it has been held every year since. Monaco holds a special place in the Grand Prix calendar as the grande dame, despite many for years decrying that Formula One has outgrown this ultra-tight, all but impossible to pass street circuit run through the tiny principality. Has F1 outgrown Monaco? If I’m honest, probably, but being the last of the old school circuits, bestows on Monaco a certain nostalgic connection to the history of Formula One that will likely insure its survival for at least the foreseeable future…assuming, of course, that Formula One doesn’t die of a self-inflicted wound in the near future.
The oldest event of the three is the Indianapolis 500, with its first running having been in 1911. Dubbed the “greatest spectacle in racing”, Indy’s long and illustrious history is legendary and were I writing this piece 10-15 years ago, I likely would have said that it was, in fact, the pinnacle of the sport. But in those intervening years, political battles and ever homogenizing technical rules have sadly dulled the shine on this once sparkling gem. In the early 1990s, I used to throw an annual Indy 500 viewing party where 30 or more of my historic racing friends would rent a room, lay in provisions and anxiously watch the race together on the big screen. Now, I feel hard-pressed to even watch a 10-minute highlight reel the next day. What happened?
Like Monaco and Indianapolis, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has also had its ups and downs. First run in 1923, that inaugural race was won by the French duo of André Lagache and René Léonard, driving a 3-liter Chenard & Walcker Sport (great piece of worthless trivia!). As the decades rolled on, there would be halcyon periods like the Bentley-Alfa days of the ’20s-’30s, the Jaguar-Cunningham period of the 1950s, and of course the rise of the Porsche juggernaut in the 1970s. Interest seemed to wane some, just before and after the turn of the century, as Le Mans too wrestled with how to balance technology rules with compelling racing, but in recent years both the drama and the interest seems to have undergone a resurgence. Perhaps, for me, the most telling indication of Le Mans’ current popularity was when a friend—who is a very casual racing enthusiast—gushed how he was glued to the Le Mans coverage this year, but never said a peep about Indy or Monaco.
But, there’s also another bellwether by which to measure the current day status of each of these seminal events—historic racing. While the Indy 500 does have a Legends Day [Click here for the Legends Day Photo Gallery] where the old racecars are demonstrated and a separate general historic race meeting at the facility, there really is no dedicated historic event that captures the same format and flavor of the Indy 500.
Monaco on the other hand, does have a biannual historic race meeting, which puts a contingent of authentic period racecars, out on the same course as the full Grand Prix. And while this is a marvelous event, for me as an enthusiast it somehow feels a little distant and less inclusive. Again, perhaps a byproduct of the challenges of running an event of that type in one of the smallest and most expensive communities in the world?
Which brings us back to Le Mans. Not only has Le Mans gotten its professional racing back in order, but they have done the historic component right, as well. This past weekend’s Le Mans Classic saw over 135,000 spectators for a stand alone, historic race meeting, which is pretty impressive considering the Indy 500 itself typically draws about 200,000 spectators. With over 1,000 drivers sharing 700 historically accurate cars on track, both during the day and at night, Le Mans Classic provided the quality, nostalgia and intimate access that are the hallmarks of a great historic race meeting. In short, Le Mans is hitting on all cylinders.
Now, before you start clipping random letters out of the newspaper to construct your carefully constructed hate mail, let me say that my grandiose announcement about Le Mans being the pinnacle of our sport is 1) purely subjective, and 2) purely a moment in time. As alluded to above, the “Big 3” have all been around for more or less 100 years and in that century they have all seen their fortunes and status ebb and flow with the times. I would argue, that as we sit today in July 2018, that Le Mans has managed to claw its way to the top of the heap, but that is not to say that it might not lose its way or that Monaco or Indy might not recapture the throne.
It’s just that for me, today, Le Mans is…well…Classic.