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The famous Chaparral 2F car, with its movable wing, during the 1967 Le Mans race. Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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Spectator's view at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. After WWII broke out, the competition went on a decade-long hiatus only to return to more interest than ever before.GP Library/UIG via Getty Images
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Driver Carroll Shelby inside the number 22 Aston Martin DB3S at the 1954 race. Shelby later joined the Ford racing team to build their groundbreaking race car that won the brand its first Le Mans victory.Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
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The Jaguar D-Type driven by Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb which won the 1955 Le Mans race.
The victory was bittersweet given the immense tragedy that took 84 lives and injured hundreds more during the race that year.Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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The Bugatti T44 rider is examined by John Tremoulet (right) after his accident during the Le Mans race.
Racers covered a 10-mile course through the French countryside.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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Racing drivers Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille receive flowers for their victory at Le Mans in 1937.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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Mr Dehorter provides commentary at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 1932.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images
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Enzo Ferrari began racing as a youngster in the mid-1910s. After World War I, he started Scuderia Ferrari, the racing team representing the Alfa Romeo brand and continued as a driver until 1932 before turning his attention to managing Alfa Romeo’s racing operation. ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images
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Racing driver Roy Eccles at the 1937 Le Mans. Drivers came in pairs of two to compete in the race.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images
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The first Le Mans race in 1923 rode the car craze of the 'roaring twenties' in which Europeans grew more fanatic about sports racing.Marka/UIG via Getty Images
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Le Mans racing driver Pilette inside the Mercedes rider at the Grand Prix of France.M. Rol/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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The 1955 Le Mans Disaster has largely been attributed to the lack of safety measures implemented following the increased speed of the race cars which had grown exponentially since the competition's inception.
Top speeds of cars were about 60 mph in the 1920s, but by 1955, top speeds for the leading cars were over 170 mph. Getty Images
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The carnage from the 1955 disaster was unimaginable as rescue workers began extricating the dead and injured victims from the venue's grounds.Getty Images
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Organizers of the Le Mans race were forced to keep the race running to prevent the mass crowds of spectators from flooding the tracks, where the rest of the drivers were still racing through.Getty Images
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The 24 Hours of Le Mans became a highly-anticipated affair for big-brand car makers as a way to promote their latest engine models.Reuter Raymond/Sygma via Getty Images
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300 to 400 factory workers marched through Le Mans then occupied the local Renault company factory to protest slashed wages during strikes in 1985.Patrick Aventurier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Race car driver Pilette with his co-driver readying for the 24-hour race to begin.M. Rol/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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Joe Boyer takes a corner during the French Grand Prix which was held in Le Mans at Circuit de la Sarthe which was named after the river that runs through the village. ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images
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A public procession took place following the tragedy of the 1955 Le Mans.Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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British racing drivers Lewis Brian and Tim Rose-Richards on the circuit of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The earlier years of the race were dominated by the French, British, and Italian drivers.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images
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The prefect of Sarthe congratulates the winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, French driver Raymond Sommer and Italian driver Luigi Chinetti in 1932.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images
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Winners celebrate victory at Le Mans. For the world's most daring drivers, there's no higher prestige than winning at Le Mans.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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French President Vincent Auriol drove the new locomotive of the presidential train between Paris and Le Mans in 1947.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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Le Monstre, the Cunningham Cadillac special, makes the finish ahead of a Jaguar and an Aston Martin.
Winning the Le Mans race often translated to big sales for car companies.Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images
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French actor Alain Delon and his companion, Mireille Darc, attend the Le Mans automobile race. The prestigious event attracted high-profile visitors from around the world.Francis Apesteguy/Getty Images
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The race track at Le Mans has gone through significant changes since the first race in 1923. Now, the track stretches roughly 8,467 miles and consists of both private tracks and public roads.National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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French racing driver Odette Siko ready at the wheel before the start of the race. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images
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Paul Newman at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Newman was known as a die-hard sports racing fan, and eventually became a racer himself, even competing at Le Mans.James Andanson/Sygma via Getty Images
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Paul Newman with professional drivers Rolf Stommelen and Dick Barbour. Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma via Getty Images
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The Ford GT 40 driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi. Ford snatched its first victory in 1966. Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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The almost century-old race has seen countless accidents occur on its tracks. Guy Durand/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Romanian Prince Nicolas examines the debris of the car of driver Odette Siko who survived unscathed from an accident that completely destroyed her vehicle.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images
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French Grand Prix motor racing driver Veyron won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1939. The Bugatti Veyron 16.4 was named after him. SSPL/Getty Images
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The 24 Hours of Le Mans is often referred to as the most endurance-testing competition in sports racing as drivers must drive through challenging terrains over the span of 24 hours.National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Luigi Chinetti (left) and Lord Peter Selsdon with the Ferrari 166 Spyder Corsa. They won the race, giving Ferrari its first major racing victory at Le Mans in 1953.Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images
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Since 1923, the winner of the Le Mans race has become the epitome of innovative engineering and endurance.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images
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Eugenio Castellotti relaxing in the Ferrari garage in Le Mans, and reading the latest issue of l'Action Atomobile.Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
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The Le Mans race was cancelled in 1936 due to general strikes in France, and the outbreak of World War II in 1939 resulted in a ten-year hiatus. Nevertheless, the competition has survived until today making it the world's oldest active automobile racing competition.Reporters Associes/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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The French driver Odette Siko watches the race from the stands on the circuit of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 1932.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images
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Competitors race through rocky terrain to complete 24 Hours of Le Mans.National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Actor Steve McQueen suited up for his role as a tenacious race car driver at Le Mans in the 1977 film 'Le Mans.'John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
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During his role in 'Le Mans,' Steve McQueen became so enamored with the sport that he asked to perform all the stunts on his own. Of course, studio executives denied his request for safety reasons.Cinema Center Films/National General Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
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Phil Hill (right) with co-driver Olivier Gendebien after their victory in the 1962 Le Mans race.Reporters Associes/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Automakers from around the world invest tens of millions of dollars into the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in the hope of garnering international prestige for their brand.United Autosport/Flickr
44 Pictures Of The 24 Hours Of Le Mans, From Film Stars To Tragic Crashes
There's no competition in the world like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's most illustrious and oldest active automobile endurance racing competition, where the best drivers compete against each other for 24 hours straight.
The Le Mans race has evolved a lot over its almost century-old history, setting the stage for world records, groundbreaking engineering, and even terrible human tragedy. But no matter what, the essence of the race — a show of innovation and endurance — remains the same.
History Of The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Race
Wikimedia CommonsDriver Peter Whitehead finished first place at the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans race aboard the Jaguar C-type car.
As the world entered the 1920s, a new era of economic prosperity took over North America and Europe, sparking the label "Roaring Twenties." Innovative industry powered economic growth and a taste for automobiles began to emerge, especially among the French.
Watching the Grand Prix motor racing was a popular past-time, but European car fans soon yearned for more difficult challenges to test the cars and their racers.
In 1923, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) organized the first-ever 24 Hours of Le Mans (or 24 Heures du Mans) race which ran a 10.7-mile course through the public streets of the Northwestern French village of Le Mans — a challenge never before seen in Grand Prix sports racing. The race track of Le Mans was dubbed Circuit de la Sarthe after the river that flows through the village.
The first Le Mans race was held between May 26 and 27, 1923, and rules were simple: whoever clocked the most miles during the 24-hour period won. The high-stakes endurance-testing competition quickly became a yearly race, and a prestigious affair for automobile companies to show off their latest innovations.
"The race is legendary, it fascinated me, and there I was about to take the start, as had drivers I considered heroes... The circuit was unlike any other. You approached such high speeds in the Mulsanne Straight before the chicanes. For a driver it was exhilarating."
The 24 Hours of Le Mans pushed car makers to design better cars that were faster and more durable, enough to leave the rest of the competitors in the dust. Claiming the title of Le Mans was a coveted honor for car brands since it gave their products uncontested credibility and often translated to higher car sales.
Wikimedia CommonsThe earlier years of the 24 Hours of Le Mans competition were dominated by the French.
Winner of the first 24 Hours of Le Mans race was the French driving team of Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard who competed against 33 other teams inside their 3-liter Chenard and Walcker vehicle. The pair traveled a total of 1,372.94 miles to win the inaugural 24-hour race.
After the Second World War broke out, the competition was forced to stop its activities and did so for ten years. The once full arenas and race circuits were destroyed by the travesties of the war.
After the war, the Le Mans race resumed and attracted even more interest from the public than before. It grew so popular that four years after it started up again it had evolved to become part of the World Sportscar Championship, a collection of the most significant sportscar events in the world to which the 24-hour car race became part and parcel.
Notable Years Of Le Mans
National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty ImagesAfter the end of the Second World War, Le Mans broke its hiatus to renewed interest from sport racing fans and major car makers.
By the 1950s, the 24 Hours Of Le Mans race began attracting major car companies like Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, and Jaguar who competed to place multiple cars in the popular race, effectively spending millions of dollars to perfect their teams and take home the crown.
Le Mans was a hotbed for famous personalities, including A-list Hollywood actors. Some had been life-long fans while others took to the wheel after portraying drivers on film, celebrities like Paul Newman and James Garner.
The race also attracted other influential figures, such as Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It seems even the rich and famous were not immune to the addictive euphoria sparked by the illustrious Le Mans race.
"You see it with the Oscars. People vote, they say him or her. In this, you either cross the finish line first, and it's either him or her," Paul Newman explained of his love for the sport. Newman competed in the 1979 Le Mans in a Porsche 935, and continued to race later on in his 70s.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesHenry Ford II poses with Ford drivers Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon after their historic victory at the 1966 Le Mans.
Some of the Le Mans races throughout the years bore unforgettable marks in the competition's storied history. The 1953 race, for example, was the year when the now-legendary Ferrari racing team won at Le Mans for the first time.
In 1966, American automobile maker Ford made its historic run at the 24 Hours Of Le Mans. Ford's American engine was considered an underdog of the race, particularly against the revving powers of the Italian Ferrari. The famous rivalry between Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II heightened the stakes that year, making the competition all the more exciting for sports racing fans.
Ford took home victory in 1966 — the first overall win for the Ford GT40 and the first win for an American car manufacturer at Le Mans. Unbeknownst to the public, it would be the first of many more wins by the Ford racing team with the car maker winning the title for four straight years after that.
The 24 Hours Of Le Mans competition, like any other extreme endurance sport, has seen its fair share of gruesome accidents. At Le Mans 1955, 83 race fans were killed after debris from the highly-flammable magnesium-alloy bodied Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR went flying into the bleachers after it crashed on the track.
At least 83 spectators were killed and over a hundred more injured in the 1955 Le Mans Disaster.
The grisly accident was reported in the June 27, 1955, issue of LIFE Magazine in terrible detail:
Hitting the Healey, the Mercedes took off like a rocket, struck the embankment beside the track, hurtled end over end and then disintegrated over the crowd. The hood decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. The engine and front axle cut a swath like an artillery barrage. And the car's magnesium body burst into flames like a torch, burning others to death.
Mercedes driver Pierre Bouillin, racing under the name Pierre Levegh, was instantly killed while 180 more spectators were injured. The 1955 Le Mans Disaster remains the most horrifying tragedy to have occurred in motorsports history. The severity of the accident led to an immediate temporary ban on sports racing across Europe until safety standards of the race could be improved.
24 Hours Of Le Mans Today
Christian Bale and Matt Damon star in the latest Hollywood adaptation of the infamous Ferrari vs Ford rivalry.
The blood, sweat, and tears it takes for racing teams to conquer the challenging terrain of the Le Mans race has been heavily captured on film. Actor Steve McQueen, who later competed in sports racing off screen--though never at Le Mans himself -- portrayed a tenacious driver competing at Le Mans in the 1971 film Le Mans.
The legendary rivalry between Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II — the grandson of Henry Ford who is known as "Hank the Deuce" — has also been the subject of fascination for filmmakers. The bad blood between Ford and Ferrari began after Ferrari abruptly canceled a business transaction between the two manufacturers while allegedly insulting Ford's car designs.
The 2016 documentary The 24 Hour War centered on the feud between Ferrari and Ford and its unfolding behind-the-scenes at the 24 Hours Of Le Mans. The film received high approval ratings from both critics and regular audiences.
United Autosports/FlickrThe 24 Hours Of Le Mans is still the most elite sports racing competition in the world.
The same rivalry is also portrayed in Ford v. Ferrari starring actors Christian Bale and Matt Damon. In the dramatized version of the rivalry, Bale and Damon play the two figures crucial to Ford's upset win against Ferrari in 1966 — British driver Ken Miles (Bale) and American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon), who were said to be the masterminds behind Ford's revolutionary race car, the Ford GT40.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans still runs today as part of the competitive FIA World Endurance Championship — a cross-track, cross-continental competition which takes place over the course of several months. The Le Mans race is now the last leg or "Super Finale" of the extravagant car racing competition, pitting drivers from around the world against each other in the ultimate test of endurance.
Now that you've read about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, check out the two men behind Ford's thrilling win over Ferrari in Le mans 1966, Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles.