The Porsche 962C. The rotary-powered Mazda 767B. The Sauber C9. The race at the 1989 24 Hours Of Le Mans was a legendary one filled with cars we still dream about today. Jalopnik reader Alan Dahl was there. Here's his take on an unforgettable race. - P.G.
My first and only 24 Hours of Le Mans was in 1989, and up to a week before the race I hadn't even planned to go.
Let me back up some and set the stage. In 1989 I got a job with a French company here in the U.S. doing programming on their AFIS, or fingerprint identification system.
I was there less than a month when my boss announced that I and several others were going to be sent to France for three months to help the home office catch up. Less than a week later I was on a British Airways 747 heading to London followed by a quick hop to Paris, my first visit to France and my first trip to Europe since I was 10 years old.
Our company's headquarters was in Fontainebleau, a small picturesque town of about 60 kilometers south of Paris located in the middle of a beautiful forest. We checked into our motel, and were soon working long hours with our French colleagues getting our long list of too-often-delayed projects back up to speed. While the work during the week was hard, the weekends were ours, and we spent them traveling to places like Normandy and the Loire River Valley châteaus.
We didn't always travel as a group. We often found ourselves on our own, which in my case meant traveling on the train to Paris, 40 minutes away. Going in each direction I'd pass through the Fontainebleau train station, and I'd often pass the racks of SNCF (the French national railways) brochures advertising train trips to the south of France or other interesting destinations.
One in particular caught my eye: a chance to attend the 24 Hours of Le Mans for just 200 francs, or about $40 US, including the rail journey. This sounded like a wonderful idea, so about a week before the race I went to the long-distance ticket sellers at the Gare de Lyon train staion, and with my broken French (and proudly no English) purchased my ticket.
The ticket was special, too. There was no grandstand seating for that price of course, but unlike all but the most expensive tickets it granted you access to the entire track, not just the section that your grandstand was in. This was quite valuable since I was young and poor and traveling at the last-minute, and would not have any place to sleep.
Early on the morning of June 10th I got up for my 7:30 a.m. train to Paris. I arrived at Gare de Lyon and took the metro to Gare Montparnasse to catch my train to Le Mans. I got to Le Mans about noon and caught the first shuttle bus to the track. This turned out to be a good plan as the track wasn't too crowded yet (as it eventually would be, 250,000 people attended the race), and I was able to plant myself on the track wall just above the press photographers. That way I would have a good vantage point for the start, and proceeded to wait the three hours till the 4pm start without moving lest I lose my spot.
The race promised to be an epic battle between the Sauber Mercedes C9s and the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9LM's of Tom Walkinshaw Racing. There were other teams that could contend, too, like the Joest Racing team in the legendary Porsche 962C, and the Mazdaspeed team with their two Mazda 767B racers powered by 4-rotor Wankels, and a lone older 757. Aston Martin was there too with their AMR1, and while they weren't expected to compete despite their 6-liter V-8s they promised to make quite a spectacle.
My time on the track wall was not put to waste, however. I had a prime viewing spot near the pit exit, and as the crowd arrived I could see the incredible variety of people who attended. It wasn't just French locals, but people from all over Europe, including a very large British contingent there to cheer on Jaguar and Aston Martin.
As the race start neared there was a parade of convertibles driving backwards on the track to deliver the drivers to their cars. While I didn't know many of them by sight, I did easily pick out the Spice Engineering team of Brits Ray Belim and Gordon Spice, and American Lyn St. James, who was there for the first of her two Le Mans appearances.
Finally 4 p.m. neared, and the anticipation rose to a fever pitch. The crowd was packed in to the start/finish area so tightly that I don't think another person could have fit in, and my secure spot on the wall had become a bit precarious. The old Le Mans start had ended in 1970, so a rolling start was used instead, meaning that everyone hit full throttle at the same time in a huge cloud of dust and exhaust smoke.
The cars flew by us and into the Dunlop curve before hitting the chicane and disappearing under the famous Dunlop tire bridge.
I watched an hour or so of the racing, but by this time I was famished so I headed through the tunnel into the infield where the bulk of the food vendors and souvenir stands were.
It was about this time that I discovered the other secret of Le Mans – you have to pay to sit down!
No, there's not a table fee or anything, but it quickly became apparent that if you weren't eating and didn't have a grandstand ticket, then you'd have to stand the whole time. This wasn't a problem yet, but would become an issue before the whole 24 hours was done.
This is a good time to explain the environment at Le Mans. The ground there is a red clay-like soil that seems to get on everything if there's no grass about. There also seemed to be an appalling lack of toilets for a crowd of 250,000, with only a very small handful available. Lines weren't that bad, which meant that it was likely the bulk of the crowd had found, umm, "other arrangements" which is not too surprising, if you know France.
After dinner I took a quick tour of the track museum, before heading across the Dunlop bridge to the amusement area. In addition to the track Le Mans has a good-sized amusement park with a variety of rides, including what had to be one of the smallest go-kart tracks I've seen, so small it could be folded up and hauled away. The amusement area also turned out to be a good spot to take photos of the cars as they went down the hill from the Dunlop bridge into the Esses.
I've gotten this far and hardly talked about the cars. The Jags and Saubers were quite interesting, but it was the Mazdas and the Aston Martins that were the hardest to ignore. Since they were in a class all their own, the Mazdas often circulated the track together with their unmuffled 4-rotor engines sounding like a million angry honeybees in a can.
The noise was truly piercing, so much so that even with earplugs in it hurt if you got too close to the track when they passed by. The Aston Martins by contrast weren't as loud, but I was walking over the Dunlop bridge when two flew past underneath and the bridge shook like it was riding out a magnitude-8 earthquake. I thought the whole thing was going to come down in a heap!
When you have 24 hours to watch a race, especially at a big track like the one at Le Mans, you have plenty of time to explore, giving ample opportunity to view the cars from many different locations. The only problem is that you couldn't get very close to the track, as everywhere there were double concrete walls several feet apart and large catch fences, which wasn't surprising after the disaster in 1955.
After much searching, however, I found a small spot, not well known considering how many other people found it, on the inside of the Dunlop curve just before the chicane where there was only a single wall and you could get as close to the cars as your ears would allow.
While my ticket was technically good for the entire track, in reality I could only travel between Tertre Rouge and Maison Blanche without taking a bus. I hiked back and forth between them several times that evening, and at about 2:30 am I decided to walk down to Tertre Rouge and saw some of the best sights of the race.
By that point I was getting tired, and it was obvious that some of the drivers were too from the bad lines they were taking through the corner. Whenever you read about the Mulsanne Straight, you always hear about how long it is, but never that it's not at all flat.
The cars would come around the corner and then go up a small rise and disappear. After the cars themselves went out of sight, however, you could still see their headlights as they illuminated the trees on each side of the course and then blasted down the straight at 200 mph. Eventually they went out of sight completely, but even then you could still hear them as they headed down towards the Mulsanne Corner. It was incredible to witness, and I must have spent an hour there before fatigue overtook me. I headed back into the infield hoping to find some place to sit down and attempt to take a quick nap.
Sleep, however, was going to be difficult. The only place I could sit down was on the steps of the track museum, and the only place to lay down was on the nearby grass. Even at three in the morning, there were officials guarding totally empty grandstands lest some unworthy person sit down for a quick rest.
So rather than a nap I merely managed to get a couple of cat naps in, and mostly just sat and rested. As the sun started to come up, my energy rose with it, so I headed back to the Dunlop curves for some photo-taking and got some great shots of the sun rising.
The rest of the morning was mostly a blur as the lack of sleep caught up with me, but by late afternoon I'd woken up again. I wandered over to the car park, which was full of interesting vehicles including a street-legal Ford RS200. By this time the hoards of Brits had returned and the place was rocking again. You had to watch where you stepped, however, as there were beer bottles everywhere, seemingly tossed as soon as they were emptied, because there were about as many trash cans as there were toilets.
Finally 4 p.m. rolled around and the checkered flag was waved. Not too surprisingly, the Saubers finished one-two, with the Joest Racing team — the most successful team in Le Mans history — of Hans Stuck and Bob Wollek taking the third spot just in front of my favorite Silk Cut Jaguar team. I would have hung around but I had a 6:30 train and needed to get to the bus before 250,000 others, so I left quickly.
So quickly, it turned out, that I had an hour or so to explore the town of Le Mans, including the beautiful Cathédrale St-Julien du Mans, before catching my train back to Paris. I napped as much as I could, but when I got back to Paris I discovered that I had an hour and a half to fill before my train back to Fontainebleau.
I headed for the Trocadéro plaza at the Palais de Chaillot overlooking the Eiffel tower, where I just sat and reflected on the last 24 hours and the remarkable journey that had brought me to France, and to my first and only Le Mans race.
Watching it on TV is like watching someone else eat a great meal. It's just not the same as being there. From the crowds of drunk Englishmen, to the red clay soil, to the incredible sounds and smells, it's full of non-stop action. It was a grand, grand time and a wonderful memory 25 years on.
I don't know if I'll ever make it there again, but I think that everyone who's a fan of motor racing should try to experience it at least once.
Alan Dahl is a computer programmer and longtime F1 fan who lives in Washington State. He is also a two-time SCCA ProSolo autocross National Champion and ran a 1988 Peugeot 505 five times in the 24 Hours of Lemons under the team name "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys." His last essay for Jalopnik was about the death of Ayrton Senna.
Photos credit Getty Images, Alan Dahl