Since its first running in 1923, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has established itself as one of the most historic events in auto racing. It is where many car manufacturers try to prove themselves, testing the limits of their designs.
“A lot of brands became who they are now — Ferrari, Jaguar, Porsche, Audi, Bentley, Ford — at Le Mans. They all fought to begin to have their name there. That made their brand.”
Any car brand with a significant presence in motorsport has succeeded at Le Mans. The significance of the event has created a history and atmosphere that drivers entering the race cannot help but feel.
Brendon Hartley, who won the race in 2017 with Porsche, said that when he entered endurance racing, he did not know much about it. “I didn’t follow Le Mans as a kid, but I did fall in love with the race,” he said. “It’s a brutal race. It’s got huge history. You feel that history when you go there.
“Until you’ve experienced that atmosphere, it’s hard to explain. It’s like no other race. I’ve never been to another race that has that much atmosphere.”
The rich tapestry of the race and its traditions will be celebrated from July 6 to 8 at the Le Mans Classic, which takes place every two years at the Circuit de la Sarthe — the track that hosts the more famous 24-hour race.
The classic, which has drawn 120,000 fans, includes cars, and sometimes drivers, that have raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. These old cars do not run for 24 hours, but compete in a series of 45-minute races.
Tradition is at the heart of the Le Mans Classic, with officials trying to ensure the cars are close to their original condition. This is outlined in documents accompanying each car, known as a Historic Technical Passport.
“There are cars that raced at Le Mans in a very precise definition. This definition is included in a technical document, like a passport of the car. That is validated by the FIA,” said Albert Le Goff, one of the technical scrutineers for the classic, referring to auto racing’s global governing body. “We can rely on this document to ensure the car before us correlates well with the history it presents.
“Our goal is not to falsify history,” he said. “Unlike the modern racing that changes year on year, if it’s in history, it’s frozen.”
While priority is given to cars that previously raced at Le Mans, applications to participate often exceed the number of places available.
“We have an unbelievable entry list for the race,” said Patrick Peter, the founder of Peter Auto, which specializes in classic-car events and is the organizer of the Le Mans Classic. “We accept all cars from the beginning of the story of the 24-hour race, beginning in 1923.
“Of course, we give priority to the real chassis which raced at Le Mans,” he said. “After that, we accept all the other entries with the same type of car, the model of car. With the six grids, we have 500 cars, and we have around 800 entry forms, and we have to select the best ones.”
The challenge of selecting the cars that best reflect the history and tradition of the race may seem tough, yet it is one Peter embraced as the classic attracted interest from all over the world.
“In French, we say it’s a problem for rich people!” Peter said, jokingly. “It’s always better to have to select than to not have enough cars. We’re very happy. The quality is good. We have entrants from everywhere, from European countries, but also from the U.S., Japan etc. I think we’re probably around 30 nationalities for each edition.”
In a bid to stay as close to the proper Le Mans event, Peter insisted on using the full layout of the Circuit de la Sarthe. Incorporating a number of public roads, the track was previously available only in its full form for one weekend a year for the 24-hour race.
But a concession was made to allow the classic to use the complete circuit from its inaugural running in 2002, sticking close to the tradition of the main event.
“When I wanted to launch Le Mans Classic, I said, ‘It’s on the long track or nothing,'” Peter said. “Because clearly for everybody in the world, the dream is to drive the car on the full circuit.
That had long been the dream of Shaun Lynn, president of BGC Partners, a New York-based brokerage company, and a car collector. He raced there in 2016 and won one of the classes. This year he is driving a first-generation Ford GT40.
“The first time I went to Le Mans was in 1985,” Lynn said. “I’m lucky to own some of the cars that I actually watched. I think it’s a dream come true to relive some of that, but instead of looking from the grandstand and watching the competitors on the track, to be driving one of the vehicles that was actually racing.
“When you pull onto the track for the first time, you think of all those boyhood dreams and the videos you’ve seen. Where else can you drive with all that history, in the middle of the night, driving close to 200 mph on an amazing circuit?
“You just escape. You go back in time.”
Those staying true to the eras of the cars wear period clothing, starting from the 1920s. Men will often wear colored suits and blazers, pinstripe shirts, waistcoats and caps. Women often wear summer dresses, perhaps paired with a scarf or a hat. Yes, there is a dress code. A makeup salon and tailor are also available.
Attire in keeping with Le Mans’ history is not limited to the fans. There are actors in period costumes and musicians playing period music on live stages. Even the police dress for the era, wearing vintage uniforms and setting up a 1960s-style station for the weekend.
Some of the entertainment is also from the era. A drive-in cinema shows old films throughout the night as cars continue to lap on the track, and there are also exhibitions of classic cars.
The Le Mans Heritage Club also celebrates the traditions of the 24-hour race by showcasing some of the most prestigious cars from its history. The entrants to the Concours Le Mans Heritage Club are judged by an international jury and points are rewarded for authenticity, historical importance and presentation.
Unlike at the main race, the classic allows fans to get close to the race cars and mingle with the drivers. In fact, the openness of the classic has played a key part in its success.
“Everything is open,” Peter, the event organizer, said. “I think it’s very important. Now in modern races, it’s very difficult to approach the drivers and approach the car.
“One of the keys to the success is to allow the spectator to go everywhere,” he said. “The owners of the cars are very happy to talk with the spectators, to show them the car, to explain the mechanics.”
Peter said the drivers were also there for the fun.
“If they win, they are happy,” he said. “If they don’t win, they are happy, too, which is not the case in a modern race. In a modern race, they need to be the best. Here, it’s just for fun. It’s very important, because the atmosphere is very friendly.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.