Glancing at the entry list for the Le Mans Classic last year, I was surprised by the abundant presence of 935 Porsches. ‘But they can’t be classic already!’ was my immediate reaction but then, good gosh, it dawned on me that the 935 is over a quarter-of-a-century old. Memories came rushing back of my first Le Mans visit in 1979, and what turned out, against all expectation, to be a thrilling cliff-hanger of a race in which film star Paul Newman nearly pulled off a fairy-tale win.
‘Toys for Big Boys’ read a decal on one of the Dick Barbour Racing Team’s quartet of 935 Porsches. Barbour, a West Coast car importer and racing enthusiast, had put together a three-car team piloted and partly funded by a group of like-minded middle-aged enthusiasts, with the addition of a pro-driver for each car. (A fourth, American-entered 935 was ‘adopted’ before the race.) The year before, Barbour had won the IMSA category and finished fifth overall, so expectations were high for another good finish. As it happened, the race turned out to be as tense and exciting as any in its 56-year history.
My own ‘Le Mans start’ consisted of a double-handed push in the chest from a red-bearded grizzly bear of a mechanic, that left me spread-eagled on my back in a tangle of crashing Nikons and Leicas. It seemed that this was one grizzly who didn’t like having his picture taken. ‘Bob Garretson, Bob Garretson’ (for he was my host) I heard myself bleating, and after several repetitions of the passwords I felt myself being lifted from the floor, rather more gently than I had been deposited there, and dusted down by a pair of giant paws.
It would be an understatement to say that tension was running high in the Paul Newman sector of the Le Mans circus – and this was only the second day of practice. Glen, my new hippy-mechanic friend, explained that the crew were tired of the relentless attention from the French press. He had mistaken me for yet another paparazzo, storming the pits for a grab shot of the world-famous star sharing car 70 with Barbour and gun-for-hire Rolf Stommelen. Now that he knew I was a friend of Bob Garretson, who was in charge of preparing the Barbour cars as well as driving one, I was suddenly elevated to the A-list.
In the 1970s, Le Mans remained one major race where the enthusiastic amateur could still make a modest contribution. If you were fortunate to know someone who was in the race, you could volunteer your services as a helper. This invariably meant that you were banished to the ‘tribunes’, the remote timing station at the end of the Mulsanne Straight, where lap times and other vital information were relayed by field-telephone to the volunteers, who then hung out timing boards for the drivers to read as they slowed, in some cases, from well over 200mph to almost a standstill. In the days before radio communication with the drivers this was an absolutely vital job that could not wait until the cars passed the pits, as each car would then be committed to another eight-mile lap before it could come in.
The Barbour Porsches were accompanied by a support team of around 50 people, most of whom, like me, had paid their own passage and expenses for the sheer pleasure and thrill of being ‘on the team’.
Another brace of very special 935s, dubbed K3s, was being fielded by the Cologne-based Kremer brothers, immediately recognizable from the look of their exotic bodywork and confirmed by their astonishing speed. A best of 205.674mph down the Mulsanne was bettered only by the Works’ 936s, the Ford (née Mirage) M10s, and the very slippery Domes.
However, in terms of overall lap times the K3 cars were even more sensational, with Klaus Ludwig posting a 3min 34.64sec lap. This put the Kremer/Whittington car on the second row of the grid, which it shared with another rapid 935 entered by German rival Georg Loos.
From the inside the Barbour compound felt like an American outpost under siege. Everything, from the giant Kenworth transporter, via the Snap-On tools, to the soft drinks and hamburgers, had been shipped in. A makeshift fence manned by gendarmes had been rigged around the perimeter to keep out the ever more numerous Newman spotters. It was hard to resist the temptation to shout ‘Remember the Alamo!’
I saw Mr Newman talking, Mr Newman walking, Mr Newman yawning and Mr Newman eating a hamburger (imported), which he attacked with what I felt was a surprising lack of finesse. Heck! He looked like any other guy on a race team. Correction, he was better looking than any other guy on a race team, but he behaved just like one of the guys.
Saturday, June 9, was a dull day with worsening weather and rain forecast. The start of the race had been brought forward by two hours because of voting in the European Common Market elections, so it was a 2pm and not the customary 4pm start for the 47th Quatre-Vingt Heures du Mans.
The start of any race is exciting: the surge of noise, energy and forward motion releases the tension and anticipation that has been building, in the case of Le Mans, not just for hours but all week. The whole length of the pit lane is filled with thunder and a rush of color, numbers, smoke, exhaust fumes, the smell of hot clutches, a whiff of burnt rubber and hot oil. And then... nothing. The sound fades, the smoke and smells disperse on the wind and there is silence. And then you realise what a big circuit Le Mans is. So big that you can’t hear the cars on the far side.
Minutes tick away and the tension mounts, wondering if your cars will make it round for lap one. Then the spectators in the stand opposite begin to strain to their right, stretching forward for a better view, the pit crews look at their watches and press forward looking anxiously to their left, there’s the scream of engines revving to the limiters, and they’re coming through to cheers from stands and pits alike. First the two 936s, car 14 only yards in front of 12; seconds behind are the Ford Mirages, and then the pack rushes through and silence once more descends.
Four minutes have elapsed, eight miles have been covered and the reality of the Le Mans 24 Hours hits you with a jolt. You will have to wait a whole day to know who the victor will be. There are still 1436 minutes to tick away, 300 laps to cover, over 2500 miles to complete.
The assumption is that, as usual, the race winner will be from Group Six, but as dusk begins to turn into night the form-book is turned on its head when the Kremer K3 takes the lead, closely followed by the Gelo 935s. The Mirage of Bell/Hobbs (who has been joined by Schuppan from the other Mirage) in the lead for the previous two hours has pitted to replace its exhaust system, and a succession of glitches and accidents amongst the other Group Six cars has dropped them all down the field!
Due to the change of the start time, midnight, rather fittingly, marks half-distance in the race and it is about now that the rain starts, a light sprinkle at first but soon turning into a deluge of Biblical intensity. Throughout the night the Kremer and Loos teams from Cologne battle onwards through the storm and then, bang! The two Loos 935s are out, their engines not up to hanging onto the flying K3.
Suddenly the Barbour car is catapulted into second place – and second place can easily become first place in this war of attrition. Despite everyone’s weariness the tension is tangible; there exists, at least for the moment, the very real possibility that a Hollywood superstar can win Le Mans.
Slowly and reluctantly the dawn tries to rise but it seems to be fighting a losing battle with the rain clouds. The Barbour car has been running like clockwork with only the minimum amount of time spent in the pits for fuel, tyre and driver changes. However, each lap without a problem only heightens the expectation that the next lap may bring one; and then, at about 11am, news comes over the public address system that the Kremer car is stationary on the circuit. An explosion of jubilation sweeps through the Barbour pits like a flash fire.
This doesn’t yet put car 70 in the lead, as it is running 15 laps down, but the unthinkable suddenly becomes possible. Out on the circuit Don Whittington is attempting to change a broken fuel-injection drive belt on his stricken K3. As the minutes tick away, Barbour is slowly carving back the laps. Then the K3 is running again – and then it stops again. With nine laps regained, Barbour pulls in for a routine fuel stop and driver change. And then the dice roll again. Although not necessary, a decision is made to fit new front tires. Halfway off, a center-lock wheel nut jams! Even the outrageous strength of my red-haired mountain-man mechanic can’t make it budge. An order is barked: ‘Change the upright!’
Later, Garretson explains that the team had experienced this problem before: as the lightweight aluminum nut is released from the very hot hub, the heat soak from the brakes continues to expand the hub while the nut is now starting to cool – result, seizure. As a precaution the team had prepared spare uprights complete with brakes. For a while there is a strange hiatus as the two leading cars are both incapacitated.
In the Barbour pit the whole crew is milling around like chickens waiting for a barbecue. Paul Newman leans forward and shouts in my ear: ‘Is it still raining on the Mulsanne Straight?’ I lean forward, and with an arm on his shoulder shout back ‘No!’ Or was it ‘Yes!’? For the life of me I can’t remember; all I recall is the feeling that I had finally become a member of the team. And then I blew it. ‘This is too incredible. Even Steve McQueen wouldn’t have invented an ending like this!’ I bellow. Mr Newman’s blue eyes turn icy. He is not amused. My bonding is over. I will be embarrassed forever.
It takes 23 minutes to change the upright on the Barbour car before Stommelen can rejoin the race. The K3 is also back on the track – without losing the lead – and there are still two hours of tension to go. And then, with only 20 minutes of the 24 hours remaining, we hear that Stommelen is slowing. Once again our emotions take a big dipper ride to despair. The car creeps past for a few laps, misfiring badly with a blown gasket, and then comes to a halt just short of the line.
But all is not lost. Le Mans has many idiosyncratic rules, one of which states that the last lap of the race must be completed within a maximum time of 15 minutes. Wily veteran Stommelen has parked with less than ten minutes to go, but he must keep the engine running. Clerk of the course Charles Deutsch positions himself next to the car to ensure no funny-business and, at precisely 2pm, Rolf edges car 70 over the line to finish in second place and first in the IMSA category. A few minutes later Dick Whittington in the Kremer 935K3 crosses the line to register the first-ever Le Mans victory for a Group V car.
It’s over. We survived. We nearly won. An enormous Frenchman appears with an equally enormous bottle of Champagne. The cork is popped and the contents are jubilantly decanted over the exhausted but elated Barbour boys and girls. Even Mr P Newman manages to relax, at last, into his magic smile.