Historic racing is often maligned for being more like a parade than a race, and while that is not a baseless critique it does not always apply. One can still see old cars trading fresh coats of paint, in Europe especially, but no matter how hard the grid of near-priceless cars is charging it is simply impossible to recreate the stakes of the original competition. You can find some great modern battles between old cars at the front of the pack in vintage events, but it just doesn’t really matter who wins. The spectators are mostly there to experience the past (whether they were a part of it or not), and there are few better ways to travel back in time than the biennial Le Mans Classic.
As the name implies, this is a celebration of the history of the Le Mans 24-hour race, one of the toughest and most revered endurance challenges—motorsport or otherwise—in the world. The entrants are divided into six car categories separated by age, covering various eras of the competition, from the big, brash pre-war beasts up to the wild silhouettes and prototypes of the 1970s and early ‘80s. The aim of the event is to provide a glimpse into the 24-hour race experience throughout its history, and while the different race groups compete only for 45-minute periods, racing in general does go on around the clock, throughout the night, series after series taking to track one after the other. In that sense, you do get a feeling that is very close to watching Le Mans races of old, albeit packaged into a greatest hits montage.
The circuit itself leaves a large footprint on the French countryside, and the atmosphere within the course is lively and full of contrasts. The paddock and the grandstands, as well as the parts of the Circuit Bugatti that are hosting the club’s meetings are packed with people and dominated by a frenzy worthy of a busy Mediterranean market. Classic racers share the space with pedestrians, period-correct buses ferry people from one end to the other, vintage road cars work as VIP shuttles for the drivers, guests, and officials. Cars from every period share the road, while the more experienced participants ride on a plethora of minibikes, scooters, and bicycles, all competing for the same tiny stretch of passable throughway, with marshals and police whistling the chaos into some semblance of order to allow grids to form or ambulances to make their way through.
It’s also a bit of a maze of steel fencing, where you need time to learn every passageway and arcane route, as just guiding yourself from a map and a general sense of direction surely ends up with having to reluctantly follow your track backwards and try a different approach; this is sometimes done to grant some space to the mechanics, but, at other times, it’s just a byproduct of using the permanent circuit as part of the display area. The energy continues into the campsites and well into the night, the crack of downshifts providing a constant backing track to the festivities.
But it all goes very quiet once you travel to the other side of the course, toward Mulsanne. There, on that long stretch of lonely tarmac, Le Mans feels more like a road race. There is hardly anyone watching out here. It’s much darker, the boisterous fans replaced with solitude and a sense of drama. The speed of the approaching cars is mind-blowing, especially if you witness the later age groups blasting through the night with their rather anemic headlights. The fanfare is absent for the drivers here, and watching, you can imagine their perspective, the feeling of being alone, hurtling down a narrow stretch of tree-lined road in a fragile metal contraption with only an inner monologue for company. It’s amazing how different it is out here in the relative sticks compared to the hub of activity around the start-finish straight.
As the sun sets, a light mist starts to form over the track, and the whole place turns surreal as night takes hold. Music still blasts from the bars around the track, but, on the other side of the guardrail, the dance looks completely different. Racing assumes a serenity that is only witnessed in endurance series, where cars battle one corner at the time, mostly against the clock than their competitors, attuning to a rhythm absent during the daylight hours. It’s delightful to watch, and to become a small part of. Midnight at Tertre Rouge, in the middle of summer, where there is still just a hint of leftover sunlight, watching a Ferrari 250 SWB taking the big breath before diving into the Hunaudieres straight, is unforgettable. I wish I would have been around to see such things the first time around, but this hardly felt like a consolation prize. World-class historic racing events can be found around the globe and almost year-round, but just as the 24 Hours of Le Mans will always bear singular importance in the world of motorsport, so too does its homage.