The Quick and the Dead
It's customary to think of the 1950s as a golden age of motorsports. But in mythologizing the past, we often gloss over how brutally dangerous racing was during this era. Of the thirty-four drivers who competed at Monza and Reims in 1958, twelve would die in racing accidents.
Resurrecting the past at Reims
Mary Roche was an Illinois girl who visited Reims while attending college and decided to move there after falling in love with the culture, the wine, and, most surprising, the races. "There was something magical about them," she recalls. "The vibrations. The emotions. The excitement. I would find myself thinking, 'Is this real, or am I dreaming?' "
Roche ended up marrying a distant cousin of Toto Roche, who was not only the principal organizer of the races at Reims but who traditionally served as the starter. So it's especially fitting that she's now a leading member of Les Amis du Circuit de Gueux, which was formed in 2003 to restore the dilapidated grandstands to their former glory.
For the past five years, Les Amis have repainted large swathes of the structure in the hopes of frustrating efforts to raze the grandstands. Three years ago, the group found a powerful ally in Franz Hummel, a Le Mans veteran who organizes events for historic race cars. "Here, there is a legend," Hummel says, explaining why he decided to stage a rally in the heart of France's Champagne region. "Reims is fantastic because it is a story."
Last fall, Hummel organized the inaugural Weekend de l'Excellence Automobile de Reims. More than 200 cars participated in the historic rally, among them the W196 streamliner that Fangio had driven to victory at Reims in 1954 in Mercedes-Benz's historic return to grand prix racing. For the event, Hummel enticed his close friend Jean Alesi to drive the car.
"There are no words to describe how I felt when I saw Jean in that car," Hummel recalls. "I have been racing for maybe thirty-five years, and that was my best souvenir."