It is Europe's foremost automobile race but, because of its myriad parts and exhausting length, it is more a happening than a neat sports competition. The 200,000 spectators who attend the 34th running this weekend will carry away visual memories much like the images on the following pages—right, disconnected, a little blurred around the edges. It may start down a suicidal highway from Paris, and then the images crowd the corridors of the mind. A lighted Gothic cathedral with shining racers adjacent. Black asphalt and white stripes. People. Restless, milling people. A rush of cars, engines screaming sensually. Neoned midway rides spinning to harsh, insistent music. Take a nap. Drink wine. Embrace a girl. Eat some oysters. Smell the sausage. See the cars, now large, now tiny against the sky and woods. Nightfall. Daybreak. Wash your face in the windshield washer. Observe the finish. And motor slowly back to normality.
'HERE TO SHOW THE WORLD'
Henry Ford II, whose cars are favored to win the first U.S. victory in the 24-hour Le Mans race, answers some questions about Ford's ambitions and motives
Q. What is the significance of Le Mans to Ford Motor Company? Why is success at Le Mans important to you?
A. Ford is an international company with branches all over the free world. The Le Mans event is one of the most important automobile races in the world. We feel that a good showing by our products at Le Mans will reflect favorably on us in the countries where we do business. We also consider Le Mans important because of its toughness—the test to which it puts cars as far as durability and all-round performance are concerned.
Q. Would you care to predict the outcome of the confrontation of Ford and Ferrari racing cars at Le Mans?
A. I think our chances this year are better than in the previous two years we've competed. We've learned something more each time we've been at Le Mans. Our people have put a lot of work into this year's effort, and we're on program with our testing and developmental work. Our cars are well prepared, and our drivers are among the best in the world. However, we'd be foolish to sell Ferrari—or any other serious competitor—short in an event of this duration and character.
Q. Enzo Ferrari has been quoted as saying he is being "steamrollered" in Le Mans-style racing by the wealth of Ford Motor Company. What is your reaction?
A. We're still newcomers to this type of racing. Taking on the highly established racing teams of Europe involves considerable expense. Also, we're trying to do in a very short period of time what these established teams have devoted many years to. We're simply doing what we think is necessary to try to establish the superiority of our products in a specific area of competition.
Q. It is often said that racing improves the performance and safety of passenger cars. How has it contributed to the Fords on the streets?
A. Participation in sports, stock and drag car racing has helped us develop better power plants, better steering, better suspension systems, better brakes, better aerodynamics and better all-round handling and performance. (By the way, it has helped the rubber companies build safer, longer-lasting tires, too.) Many of these advances already have been incorporated into our passenger cars and trucks, and many more will be in coming years. We call our GT cars "laboratories on wheels." While in some cases it may take considerable time to translate our racing knowledge into production-line vehicles, we're convinced that what we're learning in our present GT program is helping us build better, safer and more efficient automobiles for general use.
Q. It is also said that racing inspires a company's engineers to greater creativity and, by giving employees a rooting interest in races, stimulates esprit de corps. What has been your experience?
A. This certainly has been the case with us. One of our main reasons for racing is that it provides our engineers with an unusual challenge and incentive. As to esprit de corps, the effect of a victory is immediately apparent among our management, our employees, our dealers—and, I'm happy to say, our customers.
Q. When you attend races as a spectator, what do you hope to see?
A. Aside from a Ford victory, I hope to see interesting competition. And I especially hope to see a safe race, without accidents.
Q. What is your outlook for the future in racing? Is it likely that Ford will be importantly involved in racing for an indefinite time? Or are there factors that may tend to influence you to curtail or cease racing?
A. We consider automobile racing an integral part of our development program. We have some of the finest test tracks and proving grounds in the world, but we still think of automobile racing as an important adjunct to our regular test program. While we may increase or decrease the emphasis in various areas of racing in any given year, we have no intention of abandoning our racing program in the foreseeable future.
The images multiply: more people, gendarmes, a driver's earnest face, an hour's respite in town at a sidewalk café beyond the stark serenity of the old church. Return and walk toward collapse. Plenty of time to trudge across the pop art Dunlop bridge to see the cars from the other side of the track. The big cars lap the smaller cars. And, apart from the first few places, nobody knows who is leading whom. The only people really at home now in the Department of the Sarthe are the drivers, who speed round and round, shifting up, shifting down.
Always the people are as much Le Mans as the persistent cars. Crowded behind fences or sprawling amid litter, they stand, sit, sleep. In time their eyes acquire the stare of the blonde on the midway poster. Then the engines are still and the people gone, and Le Mans spins out of the headlines.