Big crashes, dangerous public roads and the kind of bragging rights that car companies can turn into sales. That’s the legacy of the world’s longest-running endurance motorsports race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In its 83rd year, the event is more relevant today than it’s been since the late 1960s.
Never heard of it? Think of your favorite two-lane road that meanders through the countryside, then imagine it packed with cars going 200 miles per hour. Much of the 8.5-mile-long Le Mans course takes place on public roads that are shut down once a year in this bucolic province of northwest France. The cars run a full 24-hour period, with three drivers taking turns between Saturday and Sunday afternoon, navigating darkness, occasional rain and guaranteed crashes.
Along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500, Le Mans is one of motorsport’s most prestigious races. But it is little known in America, so as a Yankee car writer I decided to see what the fuss was about. And I got the best seat in the house — on the track itself, inside a $500,000 Aston Martin. This year, I raced Le Mans.
Well, sort of. My turn was in the 45-minute support event just before the start of the big show. But in that brief span I hurtled to 180 mph and nearly crashed out of the race, all in the presence of 263,000 fans. Now that’s pressure.
One of the more exciting aspects of Le Mans is that different classes of cars run at the same time. That means you get an odd mix of cars on the same grid together. Some, like the Aston Martins, are based on the same street-legal cars you can buy at a dealership. Others, at the top-tier LMP1 class, look like alien spacecraft, and hurtle around the track at otherworldly speeds. Aston Martin won its GT AM class last year, an incredible feat considering the development dollars available to other, larger car companies. Chevrolet (GM) and Ferrari also compete in the same GT divisions. And Ford (F), which hasn’t had a real presence since the 1960s, will return next year to compete in the GT class. It will mark the 50th anniversary of its historic Le Mans win against then-dominant Ferrari — and with hopes of bolstering its new performance division.
But it’s the LMP1 class that gets the big bragging rights. And this year, for the first time ever, Nissan (NSANY) joined Porsche (POAHY), Toyota (TM) and Audi (AUDVF) in that exclusive class, an undertaking that requires investing magnificent amounts of money in development and operational costs. (The figure $200 million per year is generally bandied about.)
By the end of this year’s race, on June 14, Porsche had taken first and second place, knocking down Audi, who has held the title since 2010. Porsche returned to the event last year after skipping 16 years, and the company is certain to use the win in advertisements, helping to sell sports cars to fans who very much care about Le Mans.
My race was the Michelin Aston Martin Le Mans event. Some 40 racecars competed, driven by pairs of amateur drivers who paid $15,000 to enter. I was a guest of the brand, and would split racing duties with the company’s president, Andy Palmer.
Which sounds grand in theory, until you step into a coffin-like cockpit wearing fire-retardant underwear. It was hard to ignore the scrutiny of all the fans. Palmer, a former executive at Nissan who joined Aston Martin last year, graciously insisted I begin the race. But as I started my 600-horsepower V-12 engine, I was having doubts. The circuit is infamous for a good reason: It’s treacherous. You drive flat out most of the time. But the threat of embarrassment is even worse.
The Aston Martin GT12 I was piloting was in most respects the same road-legal car you can buy from a dealer, but modified with a safety cage, five-point safety harness and all luxuries stripped out. It was deadly fast.
The green flag dropped and I launched into the heat and fire and history that is Le Mans.
My competitors, who included a contingent of Americans, had been a mannerly bunch in previous sessions. But a kind of mania took over from the very start. Three cars tried to bomb into a narrow “chicane” turn abreast of each other. Not a good idea. They banged together and caromed off the track, raising a cloud of brake smoke and dust. I wended around them, gaining several spots.
Now I was on the legendary Mulsanne Straight, a narrow and crowned section of public road that stretches for 3.7 miles and is hemmed in by tight metal guardrails. In the days of old, drivers would bomb down at speeds of more than 220 mph, until two chicanes were added to slow things down. I worked my way up through the gears — fourth, fifth, sixth… blap blap blap! — and passed a slower car. I glanced down at my speedometer: 180 miles per hour. Then I bounded onto the brakes for the wicked upcoming corner.
I was nearly at the end of my first lap and the mania was gripping me, too. Intent on hunting down the next car, I entered a slow sharp turn and pounced on the gas pedal too early. The car lurched and then, horrifyingly and in slow-motion, began to do a lazy spin. I slid off the edge of the track, into a bed of deep gravel used to slow out-of-control cars. I was stuck right in front of a grandstand. People stood and stared.
As all my competitors roared by, a corner worker hooked my car up to an all-terrain-vehicle and towed me out. Then he waved me back to the track.
I was a lap behind now. This had all gone wrong so soon, so quickly. I was letting the president of Aston Martin down. The only thing to do? Speed up, of course.
And so I tried to catch up, accompanied by the rich vibrato of the engine and the thrum of blood in my ears. I passed a slower car. Then another. A corner worker waved his yellow flag. Another accident. And another. That one was bad, with pieces of a gorgeous car stretching across the road.
The circuit was living up to its reputation.
Four long laps in, it was time for the driver trade-off. I shot into the pits, finding my crew, and got out of the car as fast as the complicated safety equipment would allow. Andy Palmer nodded at me, jumped in the car and headed out.
Was it pretty? It wasn’t. We all got overexcited. But did I race at Le Mans? Yes, I did. And as the employees of Audi, Porsche and Aston Martin will tell you, that puts me in rarefied company indeed.
Why Le Mans is good for car companies
Unlike in Formula 1 racing, carmakers that engineer cars for Le Mans really do see a technology trickle-down effect. Many of the cars in the race are based on the same cars sold at dealerships, and engineers are continually tasked to push the limits of all-wheel-drive, traction control and hybrid powertrains. (F1 cars, in contrast, are not allowed to use AWD, traction control or even ABS brakes.)
Audi executives point to the laser lights they developed for the R18 E-Tron race car. In Europe, a similar system will appear on the upcoming second-generation R8 sports car. “We race at Le Mans because it gives us a competitive advantage,” says Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America. “If our technologies can win at Le Mans then our customers win when we bring those technologies into our production cars.”
Porsche executives say the promise of new technology also lured them back to Le Mans after a long absence. Instead of the big engines found on older cars, Porsche’s 919 Hybrid needs only a modest four-cylinder engine and an electric motor mated to an energy recapturing system.
As importantly, the new technology used at Le Mans has to be robust enough to survive hour after intense hour of a 24-hour-long endurance race. The result is each company is trying its own approach to create cars with the best efficiency that are still incredibly fast. (Nissan’s entry was a front-wheel drive vehicle.) It’s the automotive equivalent of the space race.
Even before this year’s 24-hour race had started, Detlev von Platen, president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America, told Fortune, “Where else do you find some of the most respected manufacturers fighting it out on a race track? And where else can you rapidly gain so much technological insight that will ultimately benefit your production cars? Only Le Mans. Winning it is the most prestigious achievement ever.”
A version of this article appears in the July 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “154 mph.”