Le Mans 1979 by Chris Wohlwend

February 7, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Chris Wohlwend

Chris Wohlwend is a magazine writer and editor and author of the memoir Ridge Running: A Memoir of Appalachia. The article below is about one of his experiences pursuing the worldwide field of auto racing.

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I was awakened by loud laughter followed by a quieter “shhhh”. The language was French, the voices female. Quietly turning my head, I could see the lower legs and feet of three women, a trio who did not know they were being observed by two males who had been asleep under the truck where they now stood. 

The year was 1979, the place was Le Mans, France, and the time was about 2 a.m., approximately 15 hours into the 24 Heures du Mans. And it was raining. The roar of the cars as they thundered past pit row only a couple hundred yards from us provided background. My friend Tom Stokes and I had found the truck when we were searching for a comfortable – and dry – place to catch some sleep. It was large and high enough off the ground for our needs.

We were in the high-security paddock area where trucks and trailers provided shelter and supplies for the racing teams, our media passes allowing access. The females, we surmised, were somehow associated with one of the teams, which would explain their presence. And, we quickly realized, they were inebriated – and looking for an out-of-the-way place to relieve themselves.

We remained quiet until the girls had departed. Stokes went back to sleep, but I crawled out and found my way to one of the public-access food-and-drink tents just beyond the pit road, hoping it was not too early to find another made-on-the-spot quiche like I had enjoyed earlier. There, a few staffers played host to a handful of guests, only two of whom were awake. The others were asleep, heads down on their arms, though one had simply crawled on top of the table and passed out. Nearby, one would-be reveler still clutched his half-empty beer mug, though he was head down on the table, obviously asleep. 

Two waiters were treating themselves with a bottle of cheap champagne while a waitress slept at a nearby table. One of the pair had given into his condition, but the other still attempted the elegance of his station – his burgundy jacket buttoned and black bow tie still tightly tied though his white shirt was spotted with wine stains.

When he saw me, wet and bedraggled, he woke the waitress. She took the interruption of her nap in good humor, managing a smile when she served my coffee, and apologetic when she said it was too early for the quiche, but offered a croissant instead: “frais du boulangerie, monsieur.” 

But for many of the racing teams, the situation was not champagne and smiles as the day slowly dawned. By 7:30 a.m. only 28 of the original 55 entries were still running.

Stokes and I were veteran automobile-race fans – I had obtained media credentials for the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Daytona Continental, the U.S. Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and several events at Road Atlanta. Equipped with one of my cameras, Stokes would pretend that he knew how to use it. 

This year the Le Mans entrants included another attraction, the actor Paul Newman, at age 54 still a formidable racing competitor. He and his teammates were driving a Porsche 935 Turbo. With 20 on the starting grid, the 935 was 1979’s make and model of choice.

After the start of the race – before the rains came – Stokes and I had wandered around, getting a feel for the scene. The route includes several miles of public road (closed during the race, of course) and the infield encompasses several acres of farmland. The original circuit is more than 11 miles long, which means the infield is vast, large enough to hold thousands of camping fans, huge tents for food and drink, an automotive museum, and booths and tents where automotive products and automobiles were on display.

In some areas of the infield, off-limits to fans, French country life went on as usual. A few hundred feet inside the Tetre Rouge, the turn that leads into the Mulsanne Straight, a farmer was busy working his fields seemingly unaware of the cars hurtling down the straight at more than 220 miles per hour. 

As the rain continued, the all-night fans grabbed whatever shelter was available. Dim, sodden lumps were visible under cars, huddled beneath concessionaires’ overhangs, or relatively comfortable stretched out on abandoned seats in the covered grandstands. Some usurped space in closed-for-the-night display booths. The pedestrian tunnel under the track filled quickly.

The privileged, those connected with racing teams and the sponsors, fared better. The paddock area and the infield just behind were filled with camping trailers and trucks and by-invitation-only clubs and cafes. There, the partying went on through most of the night.

As the sun began to peek out of a clearing sky, Stokes and I made our way through the pedestrian tunnel into the now-quiet carnival area, finding seats in the grandstand that provided an excellent vantage point for photos with the pits in the background on the other side of the track. But as the seat holders wandered back to the stands, fortified with coffee and their expensive tickets, we had to vacate.

As the stands re-filled, Stokes and I claimed seats in a media-only area above the pits, in a prime position for the 2 p.m. checkered flag. Not surprisingly, the winners drove a 935 Turbo, but they were not veterans of the circuit. American brothers Don and Bill Whittington and their co-driver, German Klaus Ludwig, claimed the prize. The Whittingtons had only started their serious racing efforts 18 months earlier. Newman and his veteran partners, Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelman, finished second.

As the champagne flowed along pit row, Stokes and I, wet and worn out, made our way to the train station for the trip back to Paris, soon to be lulled to sleep by the rail-clacking rhythm of the rails.

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