For almost 12 months of the year the French provincial town of Le Mans lives quietly and industriously. But on the second Saturday in June the silence gives way to the roar of high-compression engines, the incessant meshing of gears, the whine of hard-braked tires on asphalt and the cheers of some 250,000 people. It is the Le Mans 24-hour Grand Prix of Endurance for sports cars.
From 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon, when the 250,000 spectators watch the drivers sprint across the road to their gleaming sports cars for the start, until the same time on Sunday the 8.38-mile circuit is closed to all normal road traffic. Italian Ferraris (last year's winner), British Jaguars (like the one at right driven to second place in 1954 by Tony Rolt), German Mercedes, American Cunninghams and other famous sports cars whiz along at speeds as high as 165 mph through darkness, opaque early morning fog, rain or sunshine until the new champion of what the French call les vingt-quatre heures is crowned. For prospects in this week's Le Mans, see page 19.
At the start of the 24-hour Le Mans grind, before 250,000 spectators and beneath a flowering of international flags, 57 race drivers from six countries sprint across the track to their cars.
U.S. hopes for its first Le Mans victory will be riding again this year with Briggs Cunningham, whose third and fifth place with his C4R design (above) last year was best ever by a U.S. team