If the list of European cultural icons that the average North American doesn't get includes soccer, melted brie, Euro Disney and diesel-powered cars, then it must also include France's 24 Hours of Le Mans. Held 74 times since 1923, the 24-hour sports car race is a heroic test of efficiency and reliability of not only machine, but driver.
It's easy to associate heroes with the annual endurance race held in June. Especially if, like myself, your only exposure to the 24 Hours is the 1971 movie Le Mans. Starring the late Steve McQueen - actor and real-life car guy - the film is nearly documentary-like in its attempt to evoke a realistic portrait of a simpler era in racing history. For years, Le Mans has symbolized the glamour of racing. And, as Michael Cotton wrote in Blue & Orange: The History of Gulf in Motorsport, most folks still think McQueen actually won the race in his Gulf Porsche 917.
With the iconic film as my only point of reference, attending last month's race quickly catapulted me forward in time. After 35 years, would Le Mans the race be as romantic as Le Mans the movie?
Like the movie, where you have to wait 38 minutes for the first bit of dialogue, when McQueen's character - Michael Delaney - mentions to his co-driver at his first pit stop to "watch out for the red Lola," patience is a virtue when attending Le Mans the race.
First, it's a couple of hours west by high-speed train from Paris to the outskirts of the small town of Le Mans. Unlike the 24-hour race held in Daytona, Fla., people here actually watch the 24 Hours. Because of its size, it takes a while to work your way through the Woodstock atmosphere created by the more than 220,000 fans who attend from around the world.
While the 1970 race (when the movie was filmed) didn't require drivers to run to their cars, jump in and race away (that tradition ended a year earlier), it was still a standing start, unlike today's rolling start. Other concessions beyond the obvious modern safety improvements include that more drivers are allowed per team.
The 1970 Porsche 917K and the 2006 Audi R10 share a V12 engine configuration placed mid-way in the chassis and put power to the rear wheels - and that's about it.
The R10, which this year replaced the five-time Le Mans-winning R8, is radical in the sense that it is the first and only diesel-engine race car to win the historic event. The 650-horsepower V12 TDI Power diesel is the most powerful of its kind in the world, and "the greatest challenge we have ever had to face in its long history," explained Ulrich Baretzky, head of engine technology at Audi Sport.
Conventionally, race fans equate noise with speed. But experiencing the Audis pace the field at this year's race was surreal to say the least. Compared with the gas-engined race cars, the R10s swooshed by before you knew it, dismissing the prejudices of diesels being noisy and slow in the process.
Back to the question: Is the 2006 Le Mans race as romantic as Le Mans the movie from 35 years ago? Well, yes and no. Dominating diesels may not be that romantic to traditional race fans who might argue that the singular pursuit of victory has been replaced by corporate marketing goals. Porsche in the 1970s, like many other auto manufacturers, didn't build race cars to necessarily help sell road versions.
But, 35 years on, racing is big business.
As every second Audi sold today is delivered with a TDI engine, if - as a road car-buying customer - you relate to its R10, that's okay.