[Author's Note: The article below was the basis for a news article in the National Corvette Museum magazine, "America's Sports Car" that was published in July 2016. Very special thanks to Bob Bubnis, Editor, for his excellent edits!]
The most historic automobile endurance race is run each June at the Circe de Sarthe in Le Mans, France. Dating back to 1923, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, has been the proving ground of legendary race cars: Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Bugatti, Ferrari, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. And equally legendary drivers: Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Tom Kristensen, Phil Hill, A.J. Foyt, Dick Thompson and so many more.
Corvette competed at Le Mans for the first time in 1960 when Briggs Cunningham shipped four Corvettes to France to compete against Europe’s finest marques. That year a Corvette driven by John Fitch and Bob Grossman finished first in their class against great odds. If you have never seen it, you simply must get a copy of “The Quest” for the story of this amazing feat and, more surprising, the story about the location of the long-lost winning Cunningham Corvette and its return to France 50 years later to be driven on the track again by John Fitch.
In more recent history, Corvette Racing has competed at Le Mans every year since 2001. In that span, a Corvette has finished 1st in class eight times, 2nd seven times and 3rd three times, for eighteen Podium finishes in sixteen years.
Corvette lovers can look to many organizations for support of their passion for America’s Sports Car including their local Corvette clubs, The National Corvette Restorer’s Society, and the National Corvette Museum (NCM). NCM’s “Museum in Motion” (or MiM) program strives to take Corvettes and their owners to interesting and fun places. In January MiM announced that they would offer a tour of France that included entrance to the 2016 Le Mans race. The 50-seat roster was quickly sold out. Participants included 27 parties (couples, a father and son pair, a mother and daughter pair, and Corvette friends) from 16 States and Canada who collectively own fifty-seven Corvettes. Our group included an NCM past-Board member, collectors, racers, restorers, Chevrolet dealers, Corvette event organizers, the legendary Corvette Racing blogger (Charley Robertson), and equally legendary wife of Corvette racer Dick Thompson (Eve Thompson). Some participants had been to Paris or France, but none of us (other than Eve Thompson) had ever been to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The itinerary included a tour of Paris, Normandy, Le Mans, and castles in Northern France, attendance at the pre-race parade, and watching the 24 hour race. By the end of our eight-days together we had traveled 1,300 miles, made new friends, and experienced the grandeur of France’s past, the beauty of its countryside, the sadness of D-Day, and the unique experience that is Le Mans.
Our Paris tour began on Sunday, June 12th at the ultimate icon – the Eiffel Tower – giving us a preview of the spectacular sights we would see over the next three days. Laid out before us were the grand avenues of Paris, museums, sculptures, parks, the River Seine, and a city alive with activity from early in the morning until late into the night.
Our next stop was the Hôtel national des Invalides (The National Residence of the Invalids), a complex of buildings near the center of Paris containing museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans, the building's original purpose. The buildings house the military museum of the Army of France with artifacts dating back to the days of jousting and suits of armor. Most impressive was the Dôme des Invalides, a large church with the burial site for some of France's war heroes, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte. Following lunch in local Brasseries, we took a river cruise on the River Seine viewing the majesty on either side.
On Monday we hit the museum trail again. The Louvre is the world's largest museum located on the right bank of the Seine. It contains nearly 35,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century exhibited over an area of 652,300 square feet. The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century. It first opened as a museum in 1793. It could take days to fully appreciate the contents, but our tour guides, Ange, Emanuele, and Rabia, ushered us through the most interesting exhibits, including the sculpture of Venus de Milo and the painting of the Mona Lisa, in record time. We then strolled through the Tuileries Gardens to the Place de la Concorde, the largest public square in Paris. It was here that we came to realize that thousands of soccer fans had invaded France this month for the European Soccer championships, “EUFA Euro 2016”. As Monday drew to a close we climbed the stairs of the Arch de Triomphe for another panoramic view of Paris and the Champs Elyses.
Tuesday brought us to left bank of the Seine to see the Musee d’Orsay, a grand railway station built between 1898 and 1900 that has been converted into one of the largest art museums in the world. The museum holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1914, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world, by painters including Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh. We finished the day by visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral.
A symbol of the extreme opulence of the French Royalty, as well as the absolute rule of the French Monarchy, the Palace was constructed in many phases between 1623 and 1774. The massive estate includes multiple residences, vast gardens, sculptures, paintings, and original furniture. But Versailles is probably best known for its Hall of Mirrors, the site of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. Our next stop was Omaha Beach in Normandy. Here we visited Arromanches Museum (or the D-Day Museum) to watch video and scale model presentations showing the immense feat achieved by the Allies of World War II to create, in a few days, the floating harbor that supported the effort to drive the German Army out of France in June 1944. We closed the day with an NCM-hosted dinner at our hotel.
Thursday proved to be sobering and reflective when we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Meticulously maintained grounds hold the graves of 9,387 American soldiers. The bright white grave markers go on and on and on. Everyone was prepared for what we would see here, but no one could escape the emotion of so many young lives taken in the cause for peace. You could hear a pin drop as our bus left for Angers and Le Mans.
By Friday everyone was in a mood to see some racing. Corvette Racing, General Motors, and the local Corvette Club worked together to make the NCM group feel right at home in Le Mans. When we arrived at the track the Corvette Corral was ready for us with great food, video screens, raffle prizes and Corvette merchandise. Many of the local Corvette owners brought their cars to display at the Corral and to greet us. We were treated to a visit from one of the driving teams: Oliver Gavin, Jordan Taylor and Tommy Milner. GM executives Mark Reuss and Jim Campbell stopped by to thank us for our loyalty. Everyone loved the Corvette Corral!
The big event for Friday was the Grande Parade des Pilotes. The whole town of Le Mans and about half the race track turned out for the town-clogging parade which included classic cars, modern supercars, Le Mans drivers (present and past), dignitaries, and thousands of racing fans.
By 3 PM on Saturday we had toured the track, feasted on Corvette Corral food, visited all the booths and were ready for the race to begin. Luckily we had covered seats near the start/finish line to protect us from the torrential rain storm at the beginning of the race. It was clear from the start that 2016 was not going to be favorable for Corvette Racing. But the Corvette fans cheered for our cars as fervently as if we were in 1st place. A few of the faithful stayed the entire night.
By Sunday night our whole group was tired, but in good spirits. Corvette Racing had run the best race possible under the conditions, and we were proud of the team, the mechanics, and the drivers. Monday morning we made the long drive back to Paris, stopping to see two Chateaus enroute. Then we exchanged good byes (and email addresses), thanked our tour guides, and everyone headed for home.
I’m not sure the National Corvette Museum will ever be able to top this trip. It was fantastic from beginning to end. The participants had bonded more and more each day, sharing their stories and affection for their beloved Corvettes and the people who own them.
Thank you, National Corvette Museum (and especially Karen Renfrow) for an experience of a lifetime!