17 March 2008

Book Review: Le Mans '55

At the beginning of 1955, the deadly nature of motorsports was an accepted reality. Each year a few of the best drivers from the previous year would be mourned in death rather than greeted on the grid at the beginning of the new season. No one asked whether it was the increasing speed of the cars, the dangerous nature of particular circuits, or the lack of any safety practices that caused these deaths; they were simply accepted as the price of participation.

Then at 6:27 pm on June 11, 1955, in the short straight before the pits at Le Mans, the racing world was forced to acknowledge the price of its casual neglect. An incident involving race leader Mike Hawthorn in a Jaguar D-type and Lance Macklin in a much slower Austin-Healey 100S, launched the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh off the track and into the crowd across the track from the pits. In less than three seconds, Levegh was dead, as were nearly 90 spectators, and many more were injured. During those few seconds, as noted motoring author Chris Hilton points out, motor racing’s attitude toward risk and death would finally begin to change.

In this exceptionally detailed book, Hilton traces the chain of events that led up to the tragedy, then links the accident to the changes in racing that inevitably followed. Though the basic facts of the race are well-known to most motorsports enthusiasts, the author explores the details more comprehensively than anyone has ever done before. But beyond a simple recitation of facts and recounting of interviews, Hilton has invested his prose with an urgency that makes the book exciting to read.

This book will reward any reader interested in learning why auto racing today is as safe as it is, as well as any enthusiast interested in the history of motorsports.

Le Mans ’55: The Crash that Changed the Face of Motor Racing

by Christopher Hilton

Breedon Books 2004

ISBN 1 85983 441 8

Hardbound, 256 pages, 7x9.75 inches

30 bw photos, 30 diagrams

$24.47 www.motorbooks.com

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