Strange But True: Asleep at the Wheel

Many experienced racing drivers say that the Le Mans sports car race is the toughest of all. They have many reasons for feeling that way.

First, the race is an endurance test lasing 24 hours. It begins at four o’clock in the afternoon and ends at four o’clock the following afternoon. The winner is the car that has run the most laps.

Second, no one can predict the weather. The race might begin in bright sunshine, only to be replaced by a night fog or heavy rains. Sunrise brings the bright glare.

Third, the course is tricky. It runs on city streets and is filled with tricky curves and sharp turns. Because cars often break down, the road becomes clogged with dangerous oil slicks, which are hard to see at night.

For those reasons (and many other reasons as well) each car must have two drivers. One rests for a while, trying to nap, or drink coffee, while his partner is spinning around the course. Then it is his turn to get behind the wheel and drive through the turns, the tunnels, the gritty roads.

But the rule requiring two drivers had not come along in 1952. In that year a Frenchman named Pierre Levegh decided he could drive the whole race by himself without a relief driver.

Levegh drove a Talbot, a good, durable sports car. He had spent long weeks planning exactly how he would drive, and when the race got under way, he stuck to his plan.

Through the long afternoon and night Levegh drove on, stopping only briefly to fuel up, to change a tire, and to drink a quick cup of coffee. By morning he was leading by four laps. Many of the other cars had dropped out of the race.

Racing fans along the route marveled at the daring driver. He wasn’t a young man–indeed, Levegh was over 50 years old at the time!–yet he continued to drive mile after grueling mile.

By three o’clock in the afternoon Levegh had a 25-mile lead. Only courage and determination kept him going. But he was almost exhausted, and his brain was getting fuzzy. He could no longer make the split-second decisions that were necessary in order to handle the car.

Going into one curve he tried to shift into a higher gear. But his reflexes were dulled. Instead, he shifted into a lower gear. The car’s engine stalled. Levegh could not start it. He was taken off the track, numb, crying uncontrollably.

Pierre Levegh had come within less than an hour of winning the Le Mans endurance race all by himself.

From The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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1 Comment

  1. While not a race car driver, I’ve had more than my fair share of endurance drives–some as long as 36 hours. I can attest to brain fuzz, numbness and uncontrollable crying.

    Pierre died during the 1955 Le Mans race in which 83 spectators were also killed.

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