LeManns '55 cover

by Christopher Hilton


Book Review by Ed Potkai

At the 1955 Le Mans endurance race, a Jaguar passed an Austin Healey then braked sharply for a pit stop.  The Healey swerved left into the path of a faster Mercedes.  The Mercedes collided with the Healey, then launched into a spectator area, killing more than 80 people in addition to driver Pierre "Levegh".

This book is subtitled "The crash that changed the face of motor Racing".  It focuses entirely on the disaster, its prelude, and its aftermath.  The race winner is mentioned only in relation to the consequences.  Most motorsports fans know of the incident but only vaguely.  This book makes the tragedy and the people involved very real.

Whether the Titanic, Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, there is something about books which count down to inevitable doom.  They start slowly by describing background.  Then as fate approaches, we read faster, all the time hoping that somehow it can be avoided.  Hilton leads us well. He's not afraid to use style to keep us in the moment.  He does not always use complete sentences and can employ repetition for dramatic effect. 

After the crash has been described, the pace of the book slows.  No longer "exciting", it becomes a lesson in good detective work.  The author analyzes the links in the "chain" of events and circumstances that contributed to the disaster.  The work is well researched and documented.  Hilton analyzes the "facts", many of them conflicting, many biased, many impossible.  He respects that the witnesses did their best to remember, but is not afraid to point out when someone might have a reason to recall a prejudiced version.  And his clear bottom line is that no one truly knows. 

The author asks himself would he be able to present his case to the three drivers if they were standing alive before him.  He concludes that he would.  And we too believe the evidence is presented as fairly as humanly possible.

Was someone to blame or was it just a "racing accident"?  Having presented the evidence, the author leaves the reader to draw his own judgement.  Although British himself, Hilton does not fault the Frenchman or the Germans.  He never makes a declarative statement of blame.  But the last sentence of chapter eight leaves little doubt about his personal conclusion.

This book was written fifty years after the incident.  The author takes pains to remind us that it was a much different time.  Many of the actions taken may seem callous.  But virtually everyone at the track that day had survived a terrible war only ten years previous.  British, French, or German, they had watched their countries endure much destruction.  They had all seen days when 80 deaths was a tiny number.  Death was inevitable, especially in motor racing.  Only three months later, the Austin Healey driver crashed out of a race in which three drivers burned to death.

Why would the author examine the accident fifty years after the fact?  The safety lessons have long ago been implemented (however slowly).  By uncovering the facts and emotions, I think he wanted to reach an understanding and to change a statistic into a reality for us.  And that is the reason we should read it.

With such a sharp focus, this is not a book for everyone.  It presents dozens of names which can be difficult to track.  The graphics are adequate but quite basic.  Occasional sentences can be awkward to read (look who's talking!).  But this is a very fine history which will fascinate many. 

Postscript: The driver who was waiting to relieve Levegh was Connecticut's John Fitch.  Within the year, Fitch designed the Lime Rock Park race course.  His top priority was that no race car would ever invade a spectator area.  In more than fifty years at Lime Rock, none has.