1955 24 Hours of Le Mans: A Tragic Vision By: Jeremy McMullen
In the fog of war, the potential for friendly fire increases dramatically. And in such horrible moments a truly tragic scene develops that is every bit as terrible as the act of friendly troops being cut down by their own. Often a time of blame and finger-pointing, instead of honesty and commitment to stand together, is the immediate result. Unfortunately, such a scene would be about to unfold on the 11th of June, 1955. However, amidst the chaos and the tragedy, one man would see his way forward and would do his best to lead into an era of greater awareness and action instead of blame and apathy.
At six in the evening, a titanic battle would be clearly underway with two potent forces pounding away at each other. With such ferocity, it would be consuming all in its path. It truly was World War II all over again. But instead of some incredible tank battle it would be a motor race with two great teams, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar enthralling the crowd and the drivers. Neither side would be giving in. Therefore, in the fog of this titanic battle, neither side would realize the truly horrific scene that was about to play out and, as a result, expose decades of apathy and abandonment of sound judgment.
The early 20th century would be a period of great adventure and discovery. Danger and the threat of death would be never far away as man stretched the limits. In fact, the danger would be considered part and parcel to the quest of pushing back boundaries. Forethought, it would turn out, would actually be hindsight.
At the time of this titanic battle raging between Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, Europe had only emerged from the Second World War about a decade earlier. There were still portions of the continent in ruin or slowly being rebuilt. The war would remain on the minds of many, as would the rather comfortable acceptance of death and danger. After all, had it not been for men and women willing to face such incredible danger and incredible threats of death it would have been likely Mercedes would have considered Le Mans home territory by 1955. So there were many things, many obvious signs of danger that would go unnoticed until 6:26pm on the evening of the 11th of June.
The incredible crowd would be a part of the problem. Le Mans had always been a major draw, and in 1955, an estimated crowd of 300,000 descended upon the circuit for the 24 hour race. Tightly packed in along the start/finish straight, it truly was, as it would be realized later, an image of innocent lambs being led to slaughter.
But the crowd would play its part as well. Only a decade removed from the horrors of World War II, the French crowd would appear happy and enthusiastic cheering on the British car battling it out with the mighty German automobile. And, for someone like Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn, that would only be further fuel for his competitive fire.
Similar to citizens during the American Civil War that would dress in their best and would wander out near a battlefield to watch the horrific action, Jaguar and Mercedes were lobbing heavy shells back and forth, in terms of their race pace. It was attracting a crowd and would quickly become mesmerizing. Unfortunately, no one was realizing how the firepower was actually ringing everybody together leading to an absolutely cataclysmic and terrible event.
But then, one errand shot would finally leave the barrel of the gun. Mike Hawthorn would pull over in front of Lance Macklin in a slower Austin-Healey in order to enter the pits. The disc brakes on the Jaguar would work well slowing Hawthorn's Jaguar down from more than 150mph. Unfortunately, Macklin would be caught out and would be forced to swerve in order to avoid hitting Hawthorn due to the fact he did not have disc brakes like Hawthorn's Jaguar.
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Swerving to avoid hitting Hawthorn, Macklin would move a little too far to his left while trying to maintain control. This would be easy to do on the very narrow public roads used to comprise the Le Mans circuit and that passed along the start/finish straight. Horribly unfortunate, Pierre Levegh would be looking both ahead, and behind, him with his teammate Juan Manuel Fangio fast approaching from behind. The quick movement made by Macklin and the little to no reaction time Levegh would have at the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz would lead to the world of motor racing receiving the worse shock of its life as Levegh would leave the circuit, crash into a barrier and send pieces of the car flying through the heavy-packed crowd eventually killing more than 80 spectators. And, across the road in the pits, less than ten minutes from taking over the wheel of the very Mercedes that had just left the circuit and that had caused such catastrophe would be John Fitch. As a result of what he would witness, and of the immediate aftermath, this young American's life would forever change. And right at that very terrible moment, Fitch would emerge a leader, doing the very best he could to lead motor racing and the automotive world on a whole forward.
In the fog of war, when there is an instance of friendly fire, there is a chaos that usually descends upon the situation just before, and especially afterward. On the 11th of June, the chaos prior to the accident would be found on the circuit with Hawthorn and Fangio lowering the lap record with just about every passing lap. Believing to have achieved everything possible in motor racing, the Mercedes' team instructions to Fangio and Moss would be to race, which to them meant driving flat out, as though it were a grand prix. Never one to back down when he felt he had the car and the mood was right, Hawthorn would answer the challenge of Fangio and, in fact, would have to drive flat out in attempts to break the Mercedes anyway to even have a chance at overall victory with a pairing of Fangio and Moss driving the Mercedes.
This incredible fight on the circuit would soon swallow all of the other drivers up. It was as if the other drivers were dodging ricochet shots fired by each team. And in such a quickly fluid situation, errors in judgment become easy to make. And the horrific scene of death and chaos afterward would only prove this point.
While people on the other side of the circuit would be all but unaware of the accident and would carry on with the usually festive occasion that Le Mans usually was, the start/finish section of the circuit would be descending into further chaos, confusion and uproar.
Sitting sipping some coffee with Pierre Levegh's wife, Fitch would hear a terrible explosion. And, as both would take off running toward the pits, Fitch would clearly hear Mrs. Levegh scream. What he would witness from then on would make him a unique observer. It would also come to greatly impact and change him, starting with his follow-up encounter with Pierre Levegh's wife.
Amidst the screaming and shouting coming from the area of the grandstands as people began to take in the full weight of the horror, Fitch would again encounter Mrs. Levegh. It would be stated by someone in the Mercedes pits that the car involved had been number 20, the car driven by Levegh and Fitch. Without any confirmation, Mrs. Levegh would know her husband was dead and would say so a number of times even before having ever really heard that it was her husband that had been involved.
The cars would continue on, partly because the fog of war, the confusion, has finally, and firmly, descended upon the pit area. Though just Macklin's Austin-Healey and the Mercedes of Levegh had been involved, the confusion would cause of great amount of confusion and disarray to cloud judgments and set-off blame and finger-pointing that would carry one well into the early morning hours of the next day, indeed, even decades afterward.
Well and truly a bystander to all that is raging, on both sides of the track, Fitch would get a picture of the events that had transpired by witnessing the immediate aftermath and chaos of the moment, and this would prompt him into action, ultimately, for the rest of his life.
According to Fitch, Hawthorn would emerge from his car 'broken', and 'in tears and in agony'. But despite the number one driver's emotions, Ivor Bueb would clamor in behind the wheel, albeit quite unwillingly, and would carry on with the race. And the fact the race would carry on would add to the controversy and the finger-pointing.
Race officials would allow the race to continue out of fear that had the race been cancelled an estimated crowd of 300,000 people would have blocked the roads and made it practically impossible for all of the dead and injured to make it to the hospitals. Still, the decision would only add to the confusion and the perception of life going on as normal.
But Fitch was no longer living a normal life. What he had witnessed had already changed him. Though he would not give up on racing and would always be attracted by the danger and the thrill of speed, he would take his first steps of action by the late evening hours and would never turn back from then on.
The race continued with Hawthorn and Fangio out in their respective cars, still going at it. Mercedes, by the late evening, had built up a sizable margin with Fangio and Moss behind the wheel. Fitch would be on the phone trying to get through to some connections when he would overhear a journalist talking to his newspaper. Fitch would overhear, from this reporter, that the gendarmes had already calculated more than 60 people killed. This was one of the first reports of a death count of any kind to have been received over in the pits since the accident happened, and it so happened that it would be Fitch that would be the first one to hear the report and have any actual knowledge of the horrific scene still playing out over by the grandstands. This would really motivate Fitch.
Alfred Neubauer would be concerned with events out on the track given that Fangio and Moss were still in the lead. Therefore, Fitch would approach Rudolf Uhlenhaut, Mercedes-Benz's chief designer and the mastermind behind the 300SLR that Levegh and the rest of the Mercedes team were driving. John would speak to Uhlenhaut about what he had overheard. And, despite perhaps being out of place, would suggest to Rudolf the possibility of withdrawing from the race given the fact the end of World War II had only come about a decade earlier and that it had been a German car that had left the track and had come to kill so many French. Fitch's concern was that 'Mercedes, a German company, should not win the race, not when so many French had perished.' He discerned that to do so, to carry on to victory, 'would have been bad for relations; it would have been bad for everybody.'
Often times, the correct thing to do, the best thing to do, will be met with criticism and upon Fitch making such a recommendation to Uhlenhaut, Fitch would find himself in the crosshairs of members of his own team. This was understandable given that Mercedes had been leading at the time, but it would also expose the same errors in judgment and 'win at all cost' mentality that had led to the tragic event happening in the first place. The change within Fitch had occurred. Instead of reacting, he was now trying to be proactive and preventative.
Despite the protests and a passage of a great amount of time, mostly due to members of the Mercedes company being scattered all over Europe at the time, John's recommendation to Uhlenhaut would be determined as the best, and right, course of action to take. And, by the early morning hours of the 12th of June, Mercedes-Benz would withdraw from the race they had been leading for some hours.
Those on the other side of the circuit would wake the next morning bewildered and confused as to what had happened to the Mercedes-Benz team. The confusion on the other side of the circuit would be justified given the Mercedes of Fangio and Moss had been in the lead at the time many would have drifted off to sleep.
The dawn would come and would shed light on the darkness that had come to overwhelm Le Mans, both literally and figuratively. Rain was falling on the circuit, yet the race carried on. The pits were lively, and yet, scenes of death and destruction existed right there on the other side of the road.
Eventually it would be the Jaguar of Hawthorn and Bueb that would take the victory by a handful of laps over the 2nd place car, but as far as Fitch, the French people and organizers were concerned, that insignificant fact would matter little to what had transpired. Unfortunately, in the search for some answers, the blame-game would well and truly begin.
For one thing, Jaguar would come under fire for not withdrawing like Mercedes. They had played a part in the accident but declined to follow Mercedes' lead and quietly withdraw. Once again, the battle had consumed to the point of blindness and the French newspapers would make them aware of it the following day, and the reputation would suffer well into the future.
Moving beyond the teams, it would then be the ones out on the track, the drivers, that would next come under scrutiny and fire. Once again, Fitch would have to take the lead. A bystander and witness to the aftermath, he would be called upon to share his impressions of that fateful moment and the fallout immediately following. While many would not face up to the reality of drivers being responsible for the lives of others in and around them, passing it off to the 'intoxication' of the moment, Fitch's testimony would place a bit more weight and teeth to the subject. Giving testimony of things said and actions taken, Fitch moved the narrative past the apathetic response of simply blaming the deceased and older Pierre Levegh and would cause many, albeit while angering some no doubt, to face reality and to take measure of one's own actions. This stark reality, and the resistance to it, would change many lives forever, most notably John Fitch.
Following the terrible events at Le Mans, Fitch would continue to take part in motor races and would even take class victories in the 24 hour race. However, another main thrust of Fitch's life would be toward greater safety measures. That 'sad' day would drive Fitch work on such innovations as his Fitch Inertial Barrier system, the Fitch Compression Barrier and the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail system that would be employed on both motor circuits and highways saving thousands upon thousands of lives, behind the wheel and in the grandstands. Never ceasing in his search for greater safety, Fitch would be driven by the horror of the sight he witnessed that day, the 11th of June. But while many would try to merely 'carry on', Fitch would spend his life carrying motoring and racing in a new direction, one where apathy and acceptance would be replaced by awareness and foresight. The testaments of lives saved on the circuit and on the highways would only testify to Fitch's ability to lead and to cause people to look with tragic vision at how things are and how they may be improved. This is carrying on in the right direction; when the fog of war is lifted and people can truly enjoy the titanic struggle being played out before them.
The Deadliest Crash—The Le Mans 1955 Disaster (UK BBC 16 May 2010) Video. (2010). Retrieved 7 November 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asGtbXjYdK0
John Fitch and the 1955 Le Mans Catastrophe Video. (2009). Retrieved 7 November 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOAQu4C3yAc
Martin, Douglas. 'John Fitch, Glamorous Racer with a Flair for Danger, Dies at 95', (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/sports/autoracing/john-cooper-fitch-glamorous-racer-with-a-flair-for-danger-dies-at-95.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&). The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/sports/autoracing/john-cooper-fitch-glamorous-racer-with-a-flair-for-danger-dies-at-95.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
'Obituaries: John Fitch', (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/sport-obituaries/9654484/John-Fitch.html). The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/sport-obituaries/9654484/John-Fitch.html. Retrieved 7 November 2012.