Endurance racing is a hell of thing to endure: For the cars, it’s a test of how well they hold up while being raced at breakneck speed, hour after hour, through wind and dark and pouring rain. For the humans racing them, it’s how many G’s they can endure while trying to stay alert at 200 miles per hour. And for new or potential fans, it’s how to puzzle through all the technology and jargon, and get into this relatively arcane sport.
With that in mind, we assembled this primer (or let’s call it a spotter’s guide) to racing’s ultimate challenge, which has become more accessible than ever thanks to a greater number of televised events, as well as live-streaming. Endurance racing is a strategic ballet, a proverbial chess game at speed, with epic heroes and nefarious villains, teams to root for, legacies to uphold, and action worth staying up for. Here’s where to begin.
The world’s first motor car race happened in 1894, when 102 entrants dueled all the way from Paris to Rouen, a distance of 78 miles. The 24 Hours of Le Mans has been run since 1923, pausing only for World War II. Even more extreme races like the Targa Florio (277 miles) or the Mille Miglia (1,000 miles from Rome to Brescia and back) were ran for decades. Whenever you watch a modern endurance race, you’re tapping directly into a little bit of this storied history.
The basic success metric is elementary: How many laps can you squeeze in before time runs out? There are other rules, of course: tiers for driver skills, race-car classes, average lap speeds, mechanical strictness, the dreaded scrutineers who check over every vehicle with a fine-toothed comb…. But the fundamental thing that makes the World Endurance Championship (WEC) so captivating is, ultimately, its simplicity: Without breaking down, without growing tired, it’s how much distance your car can cover, in the form of laps at the world’s finest racetracks.
Seven out of nine WEC events last around six hours. And the longest? That would be the most prestigious race in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans — which is, yes, 24 hours long. Insane.
That may seem like a lot. (And it is). But! Your average Super Bowl lasts four hours, not including the halftime show and time spent tweeting brand-specific hashtags for the 12,000 commercial breaks. A baseball game takes three hours. A regular pro football game is three as well, even with just 11 minutes of actual play. Throw in tailgating, a last-minute beer run, and the ceremonial kicking out of your friends, and it’s no more time than your average endurance race.
The Le Mans prototypes are like no other cars on earth. In fact, they more resemble spaceships than automobiles. But the rest of the classes are more recognizable: Run by a combination of factory teams and well-experienced privateers, they look like the race-car eye candy you’ll see lining the curb in front of any self-respecting South Beach club. They may even look like a car in your garage (if you’re lucky). And that’s the fun part: the idea that your near-supercar could conceivably drive from the Gas N’ Go right onto the Esses at France’s Circuit de la Sarthe.
Formula One has regulations on tire sizes, aerodynamics, weight penalties, engine formats, fuel limits, even the colors of drivers’ socks. (Probably.) But for the WEC, all that gets thrown out of the window. You want to use a big honkin’ V8? Be our guest. Diesel? V10? You want to race a car with three cylinders that looks like a letter opener? Go for it. No, wait, how about a hybrid? That’s what most prototypes use today — including Porsche, which worked quite well this year.
The prototype classes have seen some incredible machines race, with little held back in terms of aerodynamics, lightweight construction, and efficiency. The cars can’t just be fast, they also must conserve fuel — not something normally thought of as part of racing. Thus, innovative technologies originally developed for the track, from diesel to hybrid, often trickle down into production cars, meaning your daily driver might contain ancestral endurance-racing DNA.
You can sprint if you want, but sprinters get winded. You can go slow and steady, except that some other team will be doing exactly that, but faster. The competition isn’t you against the next car: It’s your team against the clock, against tire wear, fuel levels, track conditions, driver fatigue, weather, crashing. How fast do you go? When do you pit? When do you switch drivers? When are your rivals doing all these things? That’s where the strategy is. Like in chess, it pays to think many moves ahead.
It’s four in the morning when the race car pulls in, tires shot, brakes nearly on fire, and the driver trying to keep his shit together, with a lead to hold onto… and every member of the pit crew has a role to execute, with perfect precision: fueling up, changing tires, even giving the driver more water. They hone their pit stops to seconds’ worth of precision. And, unlike the co-drivers, they can’t sleep. The drivers may get the trophies, but he and his co-drivers know that they’d be out of luck without the team in the paddocks helping them.
This year, Toyota was leading Porsche when, on the last lap, the Japanese manufacturer’s TS050 Hybrid coasted to a stop: As it happened, a tiny engine malfunction had brought the previous 24 hours of effort to a painful close. Porsche took the checkered flag, with heartfelt props given to their rivals. While that level of drama is uncommon, it made for a thrilling end to an epic race. You don’t want to miss whatever the next holy-shit moment in endurance racing turns out to be.
Blake Z. Rong is a writer, journalist, and photographer who’s wasted much of his life so far writing about cars and motorcycles. He has contributed to Jalopnik, Road & Track, and Autoweek, among other fine publication. He lives in Austin, Texas.
llustrations by Josh Lees.