At le Mans, on Automobile Racing's Deadliest Day

By Spurgeon, Brad | International New York Times, June 12, 2015 | Go to article overview

At le Mans, on Automobile Racing's Deadliest Day


Spurgeon, Brad, International New York Times


On June 11, 1955, tragedy struck the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, with 83 spectators and a driver killed after a horrific crash.

It was a brilliant, sunny Saturday, June 11, 1955, and more than 200,000 spectators had showed up in Le Mans for the 24-hour race that was featuring many of the greatest Formula One drivers and endurance racers of the era.

There were stars like Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, and lesser-known drivers like Paul Frere and Olivier Gendebien. It was a great year for the cars, as well, brands like Aston Martin, Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche. But the attraction of the race that year was to be the return of Mercedes- Benz, which had won the event in 1952, but had then been absent in 1953 and 1954.

Its 300 SLR was a prototype based on its winning Formula One car. Its star drivers were Moss and Fangio, sharing the No.19 car. There were two other Mercedes cars, one driven by Karl Kling and Andre Simon, the other by John Fitch and Pierre Levegh.

The new Mercedes were exciting to watch. To compensate for their conventional drum brakes, they had a so-called air brake, which looked like the rear trunk of the car opening up to use an aerodynamic drag effect to powerfully brake the car. The body of the 300 SLR was made of an ultralight magnesium alloy called Elektron.

But if that all sounds familiar to contemporary racing enthusiasts, there were other aspects of that mid-20th-century race that were quite different. The track was only about 10 meters, or 35 feet, across; the pits on the main straight were part of the track itself, not separated by a pitlane; and, facing the pits, the spectators sat on benches and bleachers, and some even made their own viewing perches, standing on trestle tables they had set up trackside.

It was a hodgepodge, a ragged mass of humanity grouped along and over the edge of the track, with only bales of straw and a mound of earth separating them from the racing cars traveling at top speeds of 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, an hour. Given those conditions, a disaster could have been in the making on that June day should anything go wrong.

And only two and a half hours after the 4 p.m. start of the race, something indeed went terribly, tragically wrong.

Hawthorn's Jaguar was leading the race when it came up the main straight to pass a much slower car from a lower category, an Austin Healey driven by Lance Macklin. Hawthorn passed Macklin, and then belatedly noticed that his mechanics had signaled him to stop in the pits to refuel. …

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