In The Beginning
Le Mans began as a testing ground for the automobile, which was still a work in progress in the early 20th century. The French organization Automobile Club de l'Ouest "thought that if they ran a race over 24 hours, it would help figure out the best kinds of technology that would and wouldn't work in cars," Baime says. The event debuted in 1923, and that first year 33 vehicles from 17 brands, including Bentley and Bugatti, started the race, and 31 endured a four-hour hailstorm to finish. The French team of André Lagache and René Léonard won the inaugural event at an average race speed of 57 mph. After World War I, "Le Mans became a place where countries — not just car makers — would bring their vehicles to try and beat each other," Baime says.