The first 24 Hours of Le Mans was held in 1923, and it has been run 76 times since. The early races were held on public roads, but much of today’s track is a purpose-built facility, although public roads are still used in some sections.
Entrants compete in four categories, and the winner is the car that covers the most laps of the 8.47-mile circuit between 3 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. The fastest cars average nearly 124 miles per hour and hit 214 mph or more on the long Mulsanne straight. Three drivers per car take turns of varying length. Each car covers between 11 and 13 laps before needing to refuel.
For the 200,000 spectators, LeMans is a pilgrimage and the Circuit de 24 Heures is the shrine that rivals the Indy 500 and the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo. Spectators bunch six deep on a large berm at midnight to glimpse cars as they burst out of the night, scream through the Porsche Curve and vanish into the darkness once again.
Le Mans also means sipping champagne at 9 a.m. and eating Grand Marnier crepes. Only at this event will you see a small pop-up camper pitched next to a late-1960s Ferrari Dino parked in an infield lot.
On Friday evening before the race, the drivers of each car are chauffeured in antique cars past the Cathedral of St. Julien du Mans, built in the 11th century, and through the old town center.
A lighted Ferris wheel and bungee jumping give a carnival atmosphere to the west side of the main grandstand.