Old race circuits have suffered a lower survival rate than even the brave men and women who risked their lives racing on them. Among the survivors, few tracks have had the opportunity to age gracefully. The old Nrburgring defiantly wears a gnarled game face, but places like Le Mans or Monza have undergone surgery, a nip here and a tuck there to smooth out wrinkles and allow them to still play leading roles in modern motorsport. In too many instances, their historic character is sliced away with the wrinkles.
Fortunately, a place still exists in the French countryside where it is possible to retrace the tire tracks of racing's epic heroes on a proper road course. Best of all, unlike the Nrburgring, it is open year round and there is no admission charge. Even better, you can keep both eyes on the course ahead instead of constantly looking behind for fast-closing kamikaze bikers.
The city of Reims (Americans call it "reems"; everyone else says "rahms") is a little over an hour's drive east of Paris on the A4, E50 autoroute. Most visitors are attracted to it as the "headquarters city" for France's Champagne region, a home to Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot. World history students also know that a tiny Reims schoolhouse was site of the German surrender to General Eisenhower on May 7, 1945. Traveling further back in time, the city's cathedral hosted the coronation of French kings beginning in 496.
Racing history buffs, however, will head for the outskirts of town, reached by taking highway N31 (the exit marked Soissons) west off the A4. Follow signs to Thillois, make a left on D27 (look for Restaurant La Garenne on the right) and, after proceeding about 1.2 kilometers down this rural two-lane road, prepare to pull into the pit lane of what was once one of Europe's fastest road racing circuits. Today it is an automotive archeological treasure.
The race circuit at Reims dates back to 1925, when the Automobile Club de Champagne laid out a course for the inaugural Grand Prix de la Marne. Existing roads were used to form a triangular course that became famous for its long, fast straights connected by three narrow hairpin corners. Reims' flat-out stretches put it in contention with Belgium's notorious Spa-Francorchamps circuit as Europe's fastest road course.
The precedent for a triangular race course near Reims was set in 1909. In August of that year, cashing in on Louis Bleriot's successful flight across the English Channel, the first international aviation competition was staged with sponsorship from the local champagne companies. Of the world's top aviators, only the Wright Brothers failed to show. America's Glen Curtiss set a speed record of slightly over 50 mph and bested Bleriot in a two-lap race around the pylons of a 10km triangular course.
The original configuration of the road course had the cars shoot down the long pit straight, which later became D27, and into the village of Gueux. Here they negotiated a right turn through the buildings to race out of town and through the woods toward another hard right, Virage de la Garenne, that put them on the N31 for a furious high-speed chase through the farm fields to the hairpin bend on the outskirts of the community of Thillois. Exiting this turn put them back onto the main straight.
In 1932 Reims hosted its first running of the French Grand Prix. The winner was Tazio Nuvolari in an Alfa Romeo. The French GP returned to the track in 1938 thanks to the efforts of Raymond "Toto" Roche, the kinetic and enterprising president of the Automobile Club de Champagne. Manfred von Brauchitsch won that race for Mercedes-Benz. The following year saw Auto Union claim the French Grand Prix, before World War II put an end to racing in Europe until 1947.
The present Formula One World Championship was established in 1950. Reims played host to the French Grand Prix 11 times between 1950 and 1966. Fangio won the inaugural race in 1950 driving an Alfa with a fast lap speed of 112.36 mph. The triangular circuit was lengthened from 7.82- to 8.35km in 1953, bypassing Gueux and connecting to Route Nationale 31 farther west toward Muizon. The 1953 race is considered to be one of the greatest Grands Prix of all time, as Mike Hawthorn's Ferrari out-dueled Fangio's Maserati through the Thillois hairpin for a last-lap win.
Fangio's retribution came the next year as leader of the runaway debut of the fearsome Mercedes-Benz W196 Silver Arrows effort. During a practice session he became the first driver to do a 125-mph lap at Reims. The circuit was slightly modified from the previous year to its final configuration of 8.3km (5.16 mi). The inside of the hairpin was a favorite spot of photographers, the Restaurant La Garenne appearing in the background of many action shots as cars shot past the hairpin down the escape road.
One of those photographers was a young Californian named Jesse Alexander. Just out of college, Jesse and his wife and baby were living in Europe. Having owned an MG as part of the postwar sports-car craze in the U.S., Jesse had attended a few races as a spectator. When he read that Mercedes-Benz would be making the first appearance of a German Grand Prix team since the war that July at Reims, he arranged to get a press pass to record the proceedings with his trusty Leica. As you can see by the accompanying photos, it was a momentous debut on both sides of the camera lens.
The silver German streamliners dominated the race as Fangio edged teammate Karl Kling, both of them one lap ahead of the third-place Ferrari. The third W196R, driven by Hans Hermann, suffered mechanical problems early on but did manage to set the fastest race lap of 121.8 mph. Jesse went on to capture many more magical moments of racing history on film, and european car has been fortunate enough to run many of them over the years.
A less auspicious debut of another racing legend occurred at Reims in 1958. Phil Hill's first Grand Prix was in a Maserati that he drove to seventh place, a lap down to Ferrari's Mike Hawthorn. Tragically, an accident claimed the life of Luigi Musso during this race. Two races later, at the Nrburgring, Hill would take Musso's place on the Ferrari F1 team.
Jack Brabham won the last Grand Prix at Reims in 1966. Ferrari's Lorenzo Bandini set a record lap speed of 141.44 mph.
A number of 12-hour endurance races were also held at Reims, many as part of the Grand Prix weekend. These sports-car races started at midnight on Saturday and finished at noon on Sunday prior to the GP race. The D-Type Jaguar's first victory came at the 12 Hours of Reims in 1954. And on July 4, 1965, the Shelby Cobra team scored enough points at Reims to sew up the FIA GT World Championship, ending Ferrari's long reign at the top of the sports car world.
The track officially closed in 1970.
Today, blighted by peeling paint and faded advertising signs, the concrete grandstands (called tribunes by the French), timing tower and pit garages of Reims stand watch along D27 as a steady stream of more mundane machinery flashes past. Thick weeds and crumbling 70-year-old concrete make exploring the ruins risky business, especially on a rainy February morning, like our most recent visit. The real adventure at Reims is that, but for two stop signs, it is still possible to do a lap of the triangular circuit.
Appropriately, I am driving a streamlined Mercedes-Benz-not a W196R but a five-cylinder 270 CDI sedan, a few cylinders and about 110 hp shy of what Fangio drove here 48 years ago.
Accelerating out of the pits, I pass through a sweeping right turn that is posted at 45 mph but can be taken easily even in the rain at 75. Coming out of the turn, I proceed through an intersection where the road to the left leads to Gueux. But this is the newer track configuration, so I continue straight for almost a half mile before navigating through the esses where poor Musso's car flew off the track in 1958. A tight right leads to a short straight where we see 85 mph before a left then a sweeping right leads to the stop sign for N31. The two-lane N31 is a heavily traveled truck route in the process of being widened. I am lucky to hit 30 mph on the long, undulating straight that tips downhill near the end of its 2-mile stretch. The surrounding fields, edged in by low-lying hills, look the same as they did 50 years ago. The trees that lined the highway, however, have become victims of the roadwork.
Jesse Alexander fondly remembers the sight of the silver Mercedes racers along here.
"I was just blown away by the sight of the streamliners," he recalled. "I had never seen anything like that before. On those long straights, they would disappear behind the trees, then suddenly reappear."
Continuing with my lap, I can see how the hairpin at Thillois demanded heavy braking to get around it at about 30 mph. Today you come to a complete stop at a triangular intersection before continuing to the right onto D27. From here it's almost a mile to the start-finish line, and 1.5 miles to the first turn.
Standing in the pitlane after driving a few laps, I feel surrounded by an air of quiet, peaceful tranquility. The structures on either side of the road may be deteriorating, but still they retain their dignity. Despite the occasional Renault that whizzes past and the circuit's aggressive and violent history, calmness and serenity prevail. In one of his few lines of dialogue in "LeMans," Steve McQueen's alter ego Michael Delaney philosophized, "Racing is life; anything that happens before or after is just waiting."
Maybe those faded tribunes remain standing knowing that their wait will be rewarded each time someone comes by to do a few ceremonial hot laps.
(One in a continuing series on the world's great race circuits.)