A (VERY) FAST FRIENDSHIP: OUR LE MANS
The film, The friendship, The facts

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OUR LE MANS
The Film, The Friendship, The Facts
By Hans Hamer
ISBN: 9783667111128
Publisher: Delus Klassing Verlag
Hardcover – 208 pages – 8.25 x 11.0 inches
170 Illustrations in color
$35 USD

More a wonderful extended diary than a hardcore racing book, this one is all about the sort of kinship that motorsports once enjoyed.

This is the personal story of a well-known European movie actor who was picked to play a part in a film about racing simply because he looked like a racing driver to the movie’s producer, and subsequently comes under the spell of motor racing.

Some forty-five years after the film debuted, Siegfried Rausch, the dashing, recruiting-poster handsome-Teutonic actor, (here with the help of writer Hans Hamer) relates a string of personal stories that seem to have happened only weeks ago.

This is about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the oldest, best-known and most important long distance sports car race in the world making a feature film about it over some 3,600 hours at the famed French circuit.

Acting in this film was a true turning point in his life for Rausch. Becoming friends with Steve McQueen and all of the others on both sides of the cameras who made this film prompted this book, many of those “battlefield” relationships lasting until this day.

McQueen himself cast Rausch in the role of his archrival after seeing him in the stunning movie “Patton” as a member of the German high-command.

In “Our Le Mans”, he explains that had very little motorsports involvement when the call came, but that his five months working on the film was both very hard work and an unforgettable magic adventure.

“I didn’t know a lot at the time because I’d never driven a car at 200 or 250 km/h,” he relates early on in the book. “I learned a great deal about aerodynamics and spoilers. Commercial aircraft take off at 250 km/h and there were race cars in those days that had become airborne at that speed. Since then I’ve realized that it is very important as an actor – and possibly as a racing driver too – to stay grounded,” he concluded with a laugh.

Gallows humor in a way … a way of shrugging off the possibility of grave injury, Rausch was a “quick study” as a racing driver. (And if anyone, save McQueen himself, ever looked and acted more like a racing driver, I must have missed it.)
There’s a wealth of photos here (some very personal) that set this book off as a love letter to a very short period of time that still captivates and that still evokes very deep emotions.

The production itself, like the race that it portrayed, was never a smooth nor a particularly happy run. If you’ve seen the film you’ll have noted that, of the few smiles that are see all fleeting and most often smiles to hold back something painful. Rausch points out that McQueen’s favorite refrain during filming was, “Too much talk!” Below: call sheet with original (longer) working title.

There are a number of chapters of very personal memoirs written by many of the film’s roster of drivers, engineers, and stuntmen. They are brief but telling reminders of the film’s impact on their lives. The stories area as varied as anyone could possibly imagine, what with a film that shot for 5 months in one location and that had what effectively was its own little city (“Solar Village” named for McQueen’s own production company). Here’s a look at it from the book:

“Solar Village is a purpose-built community, bustling with life between June and November 1970. Architectural elegance and beauty is not to be expected here – on the contrary, a tent and barracks settlement with prefabricated huts from a Swiss factory covers almost 10,000 square meters, surrounded by unwelcoming fences. Dominating the entrance is a fluttering American flag, flanked by the flags of the other represented countries. The temporary town lies about one kilometer from the start, not far from the Mulsanne straight, and is linked to public roads via a muddy two-lane driveway.

“This looked like the bomb-scarred battlefield of Dunkirk,” writes McQueen’s biographer Christopher Sandford sarcastically. Indeed, he paints an unflattering picture of Solar Village: a curious little empire, subdivided into a jumble of huts, caravans, cranes, lights, portable toilets, beer and hamburger stands, inhabited by a throng of groupies, and, as is so often the case in such circumstances, a growing number of lawyers joining the odd entourage.

Other memories from such heroes of the day include those from some of the top professional drivers and engineers whose work made the film look so authentic: Richard Attwood, Jurgen Barth, Derek Bell, and Herbert Linge, Hans Hermann, Kurt Ahrens, Peter Falk, Hans Mezger; all multi-time Le Mans participants with many “24 Hours” wins on their records between them.

We also hear from a number of the stuntmen and car builders who all worked very hard on the practical side of authentic; keeping the huge fleet of high-powered, finicky race cars running and doing (most) of the accident sequences.

If one story stands out among the many; the film had a title card at the end of the movie recognizing journeyman driver David Piper for his “sacrifice” during the filming, is one that’s told in this book (with a classic British “stiff upper lip”) by the indomitable man himself:

“Obviously it’s not necessary to ask which was my most lasting memory of filming “Le Mans” – I lost a leg during the filming.

The memorable thing about it was that I experienced it all fully conscious, unlike my earlier serious accident in a sports car race, in 1957 in St.Etienne, in which Piero Carini lost his life. On that occasion, I had only came to when I reached Hospital … I was completely surrounded by nuns in black habits and I didn’t know if I’d ended up in heaven or in hell. The nuns weren’t particularly good-looking.

Here’s how my accident happened: Mike Parkes, Richard Attwood and I were going flat out between Arnage and Maison Blanche, a Ferrari 512S and two Porsche 917. Suddenly my tire lost air and peeled off the rim. My 917 ricocheted between the rails and was split in two by a guardrail. I hung from the rear of the car with my right leg crushed. It wasn’t properly treated in the hospital at Le Mans and got infected.

Back in England I had to have the lower part of my leg amputated just under the knee. Life, it seemed to me, had lost all meaning. But then I had a visit in the hospital from Douglas Bader, the English WWII fighter pilot ace. He rolled up his trousers and showed me his two prostheses. One was attached above the knee, the other underneath.

“Don’t worry, old chap,” he said. “Everything is still possible.” I took this to heart. I taught myself to brake with my left foot and continued to race.

And a technical note of critical dramatic importance … had this film been made even only a few years later a good deal of the drama would have been lost. The open helmets that we see on the film’s protagonists were already well on their way out in ’70 and using modern full-face helmets in this film would have blocked out or blurred any of the driver’s facial expressions that make the racing scenes read so dramatically.

My friend, automotive historian, a contemporary of McQueen, and an accomplished actor himself, Tim Considine* calls this movie a “tone poem”. And in many ways I must agree, on the other hand there’s a brutal edge to it that tells a dramatic story of a race pretty damn directly. Danger almost always lies ahead, but sometime it comes from the blindside, from the sidelines…

In this book a number of the people who acted and drove in the film express some disappointment in the final theatrical version. It sort of startles one, because the movie is now regarded as such a true touchstone of racing realism. My guess there is that the final 1 hour 46-minute movie seemed almost bland by comparison to the sort of angst and action that they had been a part of for the months-long duration of the shoot. In the end though, the film stands out in my mind as a pretty damn good depiction of the truth about racing and the questions that racers often ask themselves.

There has already been both a book, vividly-titled: “A French Kiss With Death” and a solid documentary film: “Steve McQueen Man: The Man and LeMans” about the making of the movie. And now we have one more set of memories about this 5 month long world which still seems so very alive all these years later.

Rauch’s book here has a true tale to tell, and a legend at its center.

Author Hamer also quite handily provides not only a wealth of Porsche racing history related to their on-going domination of the 24 Hours, but there’s even a short chapter devoted the famous square-faced Tag Heuer “Monaco” wristwatch that McQueen wears with such aplomb in Le Mans. The now-celebrated watch was an example of some fairly early product placement brokered by Swiss racing driver Jo Siffert.

By now everyone must know that Delaney’s (McQueen) two-finger salute to Ritter (Rausch) is neither “victory” nor “… two more beers, please”. It has deeper and (more than one, it seems, meanings). It is said to be a medieval sign that indicates that a solider/bowman still had the fingers that he used to fire arrows in war. (Enemies were supposed to have cut off the first two fingers of captured bowmen). The other meaning was a somewhat friendlier way of extending just one finger in a salute. Either way, Siegfried Rausch and Steve McQueen had a wonderful time on the journey and this book celebrates that long ago, but still so vibrant ride.
-DS

Post Script: If it was not fully evident in the above, I personally consider this film to be the single most authentic theatrical depiction of long distance sports car racing. Yes, it has a number of what seem like clichés, but in reality, very few are off the mark. I was lucky enough to be able mention my opinion to Mister McQueen, many years ago in a chance encounter with him in a pharmacy in Brentwood. He smiled that crinkled smile, thanked me and was off in his black 911. (He had been in line in front of me buying a package of cigarettes.)

*There’s something about this race that differentiates it from any other. Giving credence to that claim, Considine is presently working on a multi-volume work that will chronicle the history of every American to have ever raced in the 24 hours of Le Mans entitled: “Twice Around the Clock … Yanks at Le Mans”

(And, in one more twist of fate, Considine was also in “Patton” playing the young shell-shocked soldier who Patton slaps in an Army hospital.)

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