This weekend is Le Mans. To be official, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. To be French and official, les 24 heures du Mans. The race, held each June since 1923 in Le Mans, France, is among the most important in the world, certainly the toughest road race, and a wonder to behold.
No road race goes faster for longer—cars run for 24 hours straight, on a mix of purpose-built track and public roads, and see top speeds in the neighborhood of 200 mph. Hell—even the slowest cars regularly hit 180 mph. There’s daytime racing, sure, but also night racing, rain, insane weather, million-dollar prototypes, and, from time to time, absolute chaos.
You can enter Le Mans. You can try to win. That doesn’t mean you will. You may not even finish. You might go home broken and six figures poorer, your car in tatters because someone made an ordinary mistake at 3 in the morning. Or because a 25-cent part failed. Or because you just weren’t smart enough to consider every possible outcome, every potential disaster waiting in the wings. This happens, with great regularity, to amateurs and professionals alike.
Carmakers and deep-pocketed sponsors throw big money around trying to win this thing, and the race’s prestige has only increased through the years. The combination of the two has produced some spectacular, truly innovative machinery, but also some wonderful—or just plain odd—long shots and underdogs.
This year’s running of Le Mans takes place Saturday and Sunday. Here in the states, the race will be shown on Fox Sports, or you can catch it over the livestream on the always excellent Radio Le Mans. Keep an eye (or an ear) out for the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo, this year’s weirdest, and coolest, entry. And remember: In pro racing, the most exciting stuff isn’t always up front.
So in honor of this year’s race, here’s a look back at some of the craziest cars ever to take on the 24.
1929 Bentley Speed Six: There was a point where Bentleys were large. They’ve never been small, exactly, but before World War II, the cars were monsters. And known for big power, big speed, and durability—three things that help at Le Mans. Tim Birkin and Woolf Barnato used a Speed Six to win the 24 Hours by a whopping 70 miles in 1929, and Speed Sixes won one-two a year later. It may not seem weird, but take a moment to look at the size of the thing: It’s basically a truck. (An awesome truck, but a truck nonetheless.)
1955 Nardi Bisiluro Damolnar: The 62-hp Nardi Bisiluro was built in 1955 by Italians Enrico Nardi and Carlo Mollino. They wanted to create a light, aerodynamic car that could tackle the factory teams of Jaguar and Ferrari. The hope was that the Bisiluro’s higher cornering speed and lower drag would offset its lack of power and sophistication. The engine lived in one of the car’s body “pods,” and the driver lived in the other. During the race, the car was blown off the track by a passing Jaguar D-Type and damaged too greatly to continue.
1967 Chaparral 2F: Texan Jim Hall’s 1960s Chapparals were nothing if not innovative. Hall was a pioneer of race car aerodynamics, more famous for his groundbreaking designs than their actual racing success. The 2F featured an automatic transmission and a downforce-producing rear wing that the driver could adjust with a foot pedal. The car saw Le Mans just once, in 1967, where it retired after just 225 laps.
1966 Mini Marcos GT: Le Mans has always hosted a wide variety of race cars, and the 1960s were no different. When a tiny Mini Marcos GT—based on a then-new Mini Cooper—took the race’s starting flag in 1966, it was the smallest and oddest-looking machine on the track. When it finished the race that year, it was the only British car to do so. Also the only one to look like a cartoon bunny.
1968 Howmet TX: The Howmet TX’s name stood for Turbine eXperimental. No prizes for guessing the car was powered by a turbine engine. The Howmet wasn’t the first turbine race car—or even the first turbine at Le Mans—but it was arguably the coolest. The chassis was built by McKee Engineering, the turbine was leased from Continental Aviation, and driving duties were handled by legends like Bob Tullius and Corvette icon Dr. Dick Thompson.
1979 Hershel McGriff Chevrolet Camaro “Snowplow”: Not the only piece of American thunder to race at Le Mans, but one of the most famous. Hershel McGriff’s aerodynamically funky Camaros were based on circle-track designs—the same people involved in this car famously took a NASCAR stocker to Le Mans in the mid-1970s—and modified for the stresses of road racing. They never finished well, but they were amazing and weird nonetheless. (What else do you call a shovel-nosed Seventies Camaro that went 200 mph?)
1950 Cadillac Series 61 Aerodynamic Roadster, “Le Monstre”: What happens when you take a ’50 Cadillac coupe, strip it down, and clothe it in purpose-built racing bodywork using a 50s understanding of vehicle drag and aerodynamics? This happens. American sportsman and motorsport legend Briggs Cunningham took this car to Le Mans in 1950, along with a near-stock Series 61 Cadillac coupe. The French press nicknamed the rebodied car “Le Monstre”—The Monster. Cunningham’s machines were the first cars to compete at the 24 Hours since 1935. Le Monstre finished 10th, with the coupe 11th. As for Cunningham, he went on to do ferociously excellent stuff.
1980 Dome Zero RL-80: Dome is Japanese for “child’s dream.” The low-drag Zero was designed by Minoru Hayashi and competed at Le Mans for three years. It looked odd, like the love child of a Porsche sports racer and a shingle. The Dome’s best finish came in 1980, when it placed last, almost 100 laps down from the winner. It’s still cool. Long live Japanese weirdness.
1983 Rondeau M482: Jean Rondeau won Le Mans in 1980, driving a car of his own design and construction. This is not that car; it’s the car he built to try and top it. The 550-hp M482 ran at Le Mans five times between 1983 and 1987. Unorthodox aerodynamics ensured that the car stood out in the field, and its best finish was 12th, in 1984.
1991 Mazda 787B: A three-rotor rotary engine that sounded like a bloodthirsty chainsaw. The first—and to date, only—Japanese car to win at Le Mans. The only non-piston-engined car to win. And a machine that went up against the best of the era: Porsche 962s, Jaguar prototypes, and towering Mercedes-Benzes. The 787 finished 362 laps, ahead of the 360 completed by the second-place finisher, the V12-powered Silk Cut Jaguar of Tom Walkinshaw Racing. It remains, by far, the coolest thing Mazda has ever done.
2006 Audi R10 TDI: Diesel-engined cars had run at Le Mans before, but until the R10 TDI, the race had only been won by gas-powered machinery. The 650-hp TDI used two turbochargers and a 2,000-pound chassis to annihilate all comers, but noise—or lack thereof—was the coolest part. The R10’s turbos and intricate plumbing silenced what little sound the engine would have made at speed. Standing next to one in a corner, you heard tires chirping and brakes groaning, but not much else.
2012 Deltawing: Shaped like a rolling sex organ. Two tiny tires up front, two wide ones out back. The weirdest thing to run at Le Mans in years, and a genuine rethink of automotive form. Not exactly successful, yet definitely not a failure. Weird as hell. Read more about it, then salute the guy who built it, for keeping a tradition alive.