We Followed Hurley Haywood at Le Mans: Racing Is What Racing Was

Except it isn’t—the racing legend lets us in on what's changed.

Hurley Haywood abhors being late.

As a three-time champion of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and a five-time winner of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, arriving anywhere first is a trait that's served the 72-year-old well during his 30-plus years as a race car driver. But at the moment, "Early Hurley" is stuck in an elevator smaller than a bathtub—with seven other people—for nearly half an hour. Perhaps more upsetting than this claustrophobic predicament is the threat to Haywood's punctuality. Even worse: As the grand marshal of the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, he's a guest of honor at a Rolex-sponsored dinner to kick off the famous endurance race. But the finicky elevator within the control tower of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest's complex in France has a mind of its own.

Upon release, much of the dinner is over and Haywood's interest in attending has waned. Aggravation may shoulder some blame here, but fatigue factors, too. The requisite grand marshal duties are lengthy and afford few moments of respite. In between photo ops with fellow racing luminaries such as Jacky Ickx or glad-handing the eager cadre of 1,000 volunteer track marshals, many of whom watched Haywood successfully campaign here in 1977, 1983, and 1994, Haywood's presence has been politely requested at a slew of luncheons, dinners, and other functions, including the drivers' briefing.

"I remember when you could smoke during these," Haywood quips quietly during the latter, as we sit in the front row of a room containing 186 drivers, a few seats from returning Le Mans champion and ex-Formula 1 superstar Fernando Alonso.

He also recalls far fewer rules governing his time on the Circuit de la Sarthe. In stark contrast to today's 150-plus pages of regulations, "We were told not to crash into each other, respect the marshals, and go like hell when you saw the green flag after a caution," Haywood shares. Among the lengthy instructions FIA race director Eduardo Freitas gives today's crop of pilots is a telling command: "Reverse is one of your gears. Make sure you know how to use it. I'm not keen on putting marshals in harm's way to push your car out of a gravel trap."

This directive would have been unfathomable in Haywood's heyday, but it's a prescient one rookie drivers need to hear. Over the years, the FIA, international racing's governing body, and the ACO, the Le Mans organizer, have waged a multipronged effort to mitigate risk. Freitas and his colleagues believe the Circuit de la Sarthe needn't be the notorious danger zone it once was. Part of the safety advances include physical changes to the course, a direct response to ever-increasing speeds.

"The driver [years ago] who overcame obstacles the quickest won ... Oil on the track was just another obstacle. "

Hurley Haywood with FIA president Jean Todt (left) and ACO president Pierre Fillon.

"The cars are now capable of 400 kph [almost 250 mph] on the Mulsanne Straight," Freitas says later over lunch, "so two chicanes are necessary. But the placement of the last one is vital: Too far back, and the brakes are too cool for the right-hander at the end." Blow the braking zone after the 3.7-mile straight, and the punishment is a trip around a newly included roundabout to the left. "You'll hit a gravel trap, and I can't risk you dragging stones onto the track, so the roundabout will help knock away the loose pebbles." Attempts to skirt the maneuver will see marshals holding the car for longer than it takes to comply.

Freitas understands the drivers' belief that their car is the most important vehicle on track. "But," he says, "we have the largest field ever this year. There are 61 other cars out there that I must consider. One car has no right to mess up others' races. If you're spilling fluids all over the track and still pushing [to the limit], that's a large problem. You must exit."

Measures aimed at eliminating driver injury are applauded by all, though it's a marked paradigm shift, mentally. "The driver [years ago] who overcame obstacles the quickest won," Haywood offers as we shuffle to the pits where he'll wave the flag to open practice and qualifying sessions. "Oil on the track was just another obstacle."

Norbert Singer, Porsche's technical race chief who was an essential part in each of the company's 16 overall wins at Le Mans from 1970 to 1998, believes the ACO's regulation of the modern race means it's now harder to win Le Mans than Daytona. Singer worked intimately with Haywood and was elated when the driver clinched wins at both venues. "The racing is the same, but the procedures are easier in Daytona," he says. "Officials there are more forgiving. Here, one minor mistake, and your race ends."

If you play a drinking game where you must chug every time you hear the word "mistake" during an endurance race, you'll be hammered within minutes. Haywood's final instruction from his bosses of yesteryear—"To win, you can make no mistakes"—is issued verbatim by today's director of factory motorsport for Porsche, Pascal Zurlinden, who pulls no punches in a post-qualifying press conference.

"I'm disappointed," Zurlinder says bluntly of his team's performance as he stands beside Nick Tandy, a British driver of a 911 RSR liveried in homage to Haywood's famous Brumos Racing colors. "We always want the pole, and we didn't get it today."

Tandy and his co-drivers missed pleasing Zurlinden by 0.028 second, ceding the LMGTE Pro class pole to a Ford GT. The remaining three factory Porsche GTs qualified fourth, fifth, and sixth. "For the race, we must do better; we must have no mistakes," Zurlinden reiterates.

Perfection means impeccable planning, so Zurlinden and his team of engineers and mechanics retreat to the pits, where they spend the night running through unwelcome scenarios, meticulously plotting strategies to overcome each one. Although mechanical troubles are considered, they're less a factor than they were in Haywood's era. During a tour of the Le Mans museum, we spot the trophy that bears Haywood's name thrice, and he beams while he recounts his 1983 overall win in the Rothmans Porsche 956—a win that almost didn't happen because of a faulty door.

"I'm driving at 200 mph on the Mulsanne Straight, and the door falls off," he says. "The crew guys get another door on, but the latch doesn't line up. One mechanic removes his belt and ties it around the intercooler and the door, but there's a gap, and the air coming into the intercooler is deflected, and the engine suffers. Al Holbert is in the car for the finish, and thankfully he's very mechanically minded, so when the engine finally seizes, he has the wits to get it into second gear and pop the clutch to break the engine loose. He literally puttered across the finish line."

The reliability of today's cars has transformed endurance races into long sprint races, and when you're driving at 100 percent for every single lap, the onus of perfection shifts onto the drivers' shoulders. "In Hurley's day, miss one shift, and you destroyed the engine," says Tandy, who, along with every other driver today, benefits from semi-automatic paddle-shift gearboxes. "Still, you have to take care of your equipment. You can't bash curbs because something will eventually break. Now, no mistakes means not crashing or going off the track."

Patrick Dempsey has become well known in sports car racing circles.

That doesn't absolve rookies from understanding what's happening with their cars. Dennis Olsen, a spirited 23-year-old Norwegian in the second Brumos 911 RSR, is a new Porsche factory driver who has never driven the car or the circuit. Olsen was one of four drivers tapped from a field of 120 prospects, and part of the selection process includes the team secretly disabling or altering parts during testing to see if the driver can identify the problem, unprompted. "You don't have to be a mechanic and work out the problem, but you have to be able to talk about it," Olsen says. He adds that Porsche issued its prospective drivers several written exams concerning technical knowledge of the car.

"I wouldn't want to drive a modern car ... Driving requires 100 percent of my concentration, so I couldn't go flat-out, monitor all these systems, and have an engineer yapping in my ear asking for two clicks on the fuel wheel. I'd be in the bushes in seconds. "

As younger competitors such as Olsen continue to flood into the sport, Haywood and his ilk are cognizant of the changing of the guard. Although respect flows equally between the generations, platitudes from the up-and-comers toward those who came before can seem to be without substance, or at least proper context, a notion that gets Singer animated. "Today's young boys can't imagine how difficult driving used to be," he bellows. "To practice, they hop in a simulator, crash, and hit reset. If Hurley crashed, the weekend was over."

Ickx, Haywood's teammate in the 1977 win and a six-time Le Mans champ, doesn't think "the kids today can understand what we did 50 years ago," he shares. "The past isn't fascinating, and that's a good thing; they must look to the future. I don't think they know who I am or what I did, and that's OK."

"I wouldn't want to drive a modern car," Haywood says as we examine a 911 RSR's cockpit. "Driving requires 100 percent of my concentration, so I couldn't go flat-out, monitor all these systems, and have an engineer yapping in my ear asking for two clicks on the fuel wheel. I'd be in the bushes in seconds."

Zurlinden, though, believes Haywood would adapt to today's driving more easily than today's driver could learn mechanical sympathy: "He'd get in and go flat-out from the beginning."

Hurley Haywood (holding bottle at right) wins Le Mans in '77.

Haywood's favorite time of any 24-hour race is Sunday morning, hours before the race concludes. A stop in Patrick Dempsey's Dempsey-Proton team's pits finds the sleep-deprived, actor-cum-team principal in a state of delirious excitement. The two are old friends, and Dempsey—who played with Matchbox cars of Haywood's 936 as a kid—recalls their bond burgeoning shortly after Dempsey began driving. "Hurley gave me great feedback right away, about people who had come in from Hollywood and what they had done right and wrong and how to improve," Dempsey says. "It was immensely helpful."

Dempsey's race isn't going terribly well; one car crashed out during qualifying, and others suffered flat tires, cracked splitters, and timing penalties. Hang-ups after safety zones and safety cars haven't worked in his favor, and the sum of the issues have cost his team the overall series championship. Haywood shares that, in his races, "I'd have been on my hands and knees praying by now. At this hour, you're running on adrenaline and hope. Remember, anything can still happen."

He'd know. In 1977, after a series of problems left Haywood's car limping along near last place and Ickx's car had flamed out, Ickx was brought over to Haywood's team during the night and "drove like a god," Haywood says of Ickx leaping up the standings like lightning, ultimately winning. That's the magic of racing, Ickx says. "If you give the public a good show, they're happy. If you don't win with difficulties, you don't win with glory." He adds that Le Mans is a "battle of gladiators, and these drivers all came to fight. To have all these cars, hours from the end of the race, within 20 seconds of each other is exceptional racing."

Olsen's car ultimately finishes seventh in its class, after the steering wheel lock broke and caused the wheel to float around loosely. Another setback came after an FIA camera broke free and flew around the car, wrecking some telemetry systems, but he's proud of the result. "Without any experience, we showed our maturity to keep the car on the track without big mistakes," he says. Zurlinden is pleased that two of the factory GTs finished second and third in class, with Tandy in the latter machine. Haywood helps distribute medals and trophies to the winners, slipping away before the confetti and Champagne starts flying.

Haywood's a quiet, guarded man, but reflecting back on his time as grand marshal, he's emotional. He's most touched by the support he felt after his stint in the pace car to start the race. "To be back driving this track 25 years after I last won, with 300,000 people cheering me on, was humbling. I'll remember that forever," he says. It's but another acknowledgment of the fact that regardless of how Le Mans evolves, success in this race and in this sport remains the ultimate badge of honor for those who rise to the challenge, whatever it might be.

Archive photography: LAT Photographic