How the ACO has taken the spirit of Le Mans all over the world

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Ask a racing driver to name an accolade they would most like to win, and it is likely that the same answers will come up time and time again. Some dream of winning the Formula 1 World Championship; others the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.

But it can be argued that the sweetest victory of all would come at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. No race encapsulates the battle of man and machine quite like the twice-around-the-clock classic.

Ask a racing fan to name a race they would most like to visit, and again, the answers will be common. Monaco and the ‘500 are on the majority of motorsport bucket lists, while newer events such as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will pique many an interest.

But again, there is something different about Le Mans. It’s more than just a race. It’s a celebration of motorsport that is difficult to match anywhere else in the world.

And yet that has been the goal of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the organizers of Le Mans who tasked themselves with taking the spirit of Le Mans across the globe. Fans and manufacturers had flocked for Le Mans for decades, yet the lack of a series built around it meant interest was not sustained – after all, it was ‘once a year’.

Attempts were made with the American and European Le Mans Series, but it was not until the formation of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) back in 2012 that a truly cohesive series existed for manufacturers to race in.

“At the beginning, you had just Le Mans,” explains ACO president Pierre Fillon. “Le Mans is one shot, one time a year. For the manufacturers, it’s not enough because they invest a lot of money and they want to show their technologies and innovation around the world.

“So for us it was important to have more than a race per year, but to organize other races with the same spirit.”

Now in its fifth year, the WEC has gone from strength to strength and is currently embarking on its biggest season yet. Besides Le Mans, eight six-hour races also feature on the calendar, with a new event in Mexico City joining the calendar for 2016, while the mix of prototypes and GT cars on-track offers a feast of racing for fans at the track.

“With Le Mans, technology is open, not one technology for everybody,” Fillon says. “We have four categories: LMP1, LMP2, GTE Pro and GTE Am. You have a mix of private teams and manufacturers with professionals and gentlemen drivers, so we want to keep that. We want to take that around the world.”

The WEC boasts a grid filled with some of the biggest car manufacturers in the world. In LMP1, Audi, Toyota and Porsche have invested heavily and run sizable programs, while GTE Pro features factory efforts from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Ford (Porsche also has a customer program). For Le Mans, Corvette and Porsche will also join the ranks. So why are manufacturers so keen to be part of the WEC?

“I think our rules are very attractive for the manufacturers,” Fillon explains. “The different categories is important for drivers. We have spectacular racing, fast racing. That is always something. You don’t know who will win before the race, that’s important.

“All of this, for the rules and maybe the atmosphere in the paddock you see, every driver is fighting in the race but is friends in the paddock. The link between drivers, cars and spectators is very, very important. In Le Mans and endurance, you can touch the car, you can speak with the drivers. All of these details at this time, sports cars is very interesting.”

Heading into the 2016 race, the battle for top honors in LMP1 looks to be one of the most open in recent history. Porsche, Audi and Toyota all hit trouble in the opening two races of the WEC season at Silverstone and Spa, yet all could put forward a case for having taken to the top step. If the six-hour events are anything to go by, then Le Mans is shaping up to be a classic.

WEC 2016 - 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps

It remains the race that drivers want to win more than anything – even the WEC title itself. Porsche No. 1 car driver Mark Webber clinched the drivers’ crown last year, but after a storied career largely spent in Formula 1, Le Mans is now his target.

“I have the championship already but I would love both. Of course we want to do both,” Webber says.

“As we know, normally when you win Le Mans, you get 50 points so that also helps the championship a lot. It’s a good problem to have. Le Mans is a beautiful race, spectacular, it’s a huge one.

“But in general, that’s something I have missing in the trophy cabinet at home. It would be nice to go next to the Monte Carlo victories.”

Audi’s Marcel Fassler won the WEC title back in 2013 and is also a three-time winner at Le Mans. For him, the unique and historic nature of Le Mans makes winning it more special.

“At the end of the day, Le Mans still counts as more for us as drivers. It’s the biggest race in the world. It’s one of the most famous races in the world,” Fassler says.

“It’s tradition, it’s legend, it’s unique. Le Mans for me is like other athletes winning Olympic gold. On that day, you have to be the best. I think this makes Le Mans so special. If I really have to choose, I prefer to take that.”

This should not, however, be taken as a slight at the WEC. Instead, such a summation fits perfectly within the pyramid of endurance that the ACO has established over the years, Le Mans sitting at the summit.

“At the top, you have the race everybody wants to win: this is Le Mans,” Fillon explains. “Then below you have the World Endurance Championship. The idea is we need to bring the spirit of Le Mans to China, to Japan, to the U.S., Mexico and so on.”

Going to Le Mans as a fan is a very different experience to that of attending any other race. It’s a weekend more akin to a music festival than anything, except with a 24-hour motor race as its centerpiece.

The first time I went to the race, I had little knowledge of sports car racing. Frankly, the idea of a 24-hour race baffled me. When my friend, a Le Mans veteran, said we’d spend the first five hours up at the first corner, I thought “he can’t be serious”. But we did. It rained on and off, so we kept packing and unpacking our jackets.

After that, we headed back to the car, listened to the race on the radio while firing up the barbecue and sharing some beers with our Danish neighbors who taught us about the delights of Europop music. We headed back to the track as the sun began to set, and at 1am, sitting on the main straight, sipping cheap French red wine and listening to the spacecraft-style whoosh of the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, I thought “I get it!” – I haven’t missed a WEC race since.

That is what the spirit of Le Mans is all about. It’s a happy medium of great racing, technological advancement, road relevance and fan focus. It’s also about giving something back to the world.

“The priority is to make motorsport for better mobility,” Fillon explains. “We write rules which lure the manufacturers to show the technology that you can put in your car. It’s different from Formula 1. You can’t put this engine in a road car.

“Our rules must be open so you have to lure different technologies. For sure, you have to make rules that respect the environment. This is the allure.”

For fans, there is so much to like about WEC and Le Mans. One drawback that is impossible for endurance racing to overcome is the fact it is about endurance – races are long, either six or 24 hours. As such, capturing a fan’s attention for long periods can be tough.

However, at races, there is more than just the race itself. Le Mans has a number of attractions, including its famous ferris wheel, while other tracks hosting WEC events are following suit and offering entertainment areas. Tickets are also reasonable, meaning that fans are unlikely to be priced out of watching the races.

Much has also been done to capture a young audience through social media and the use of the WEC and Le Mans apps. “Young people don’t watch TV now. It’s why we launched the app, the WEC app,” Fillon says. “We invested a lot of money into this app, I think it’s very important for us. They don’t spend six hours on Sunday afternoon in front of the TV.”

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15: Fan takes a picture on her camera phone during practice for the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 15, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

The pushing of boundaries is also done on-track, but not just by the manufacturers. The advent of ‘Garage 56’ by the ACO has allowed a car to enter the race outside of the technical regulations for the purpose of advancing automotive technology.

This year, quadruple amputee Frederic Sausset will be racing in a modified Morgan LMP2 car using a system that is set to be implemented on road cars in the future.

So at a time when autonomous vehicles are being tested and plans for a championship using them are afoot, could Garage 56 perhaps play host to a self-driving car in the future?

“Le Mans is a human adventure,” Fillon says. “So without human drivers, for me it’s not Le Mans. For the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we want to keep the drivers.”

That is what the spirit of Le Mans is all about. It is more than just a race. It is more than motorsport. It is a human adventure.

In 24 hours, you witness the highs and lows, see the glory and heartbreak, feel the emotion of those racing. It is a sporting spectacle not to be missed.

Le Mans will always remain the pinnacle of endurance racing, yet thanks to the WEC, a taste of one of motorsport’s most famous races has traveled all over the world.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”