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Larry Roberts

June 19, 1998

There must have been great jubilation at the Porsche headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany (and to a lesser degree, in the Atlanta headquarters of Porsche Cars North America) on June 7th. And since Porsche owners are an enthusiastic and loyal group of owners, I'm sure that cheers could be heard emitting from a multitude of upscale homes around the world.

On that day Porsche won the world-famous 24 Hours of Le Mans road race in northern France.

But then, the win was not without precedent. The round-the-clock race was won by Porsche last year and this year is the 16th time in the past 20 years that a Porsche has been in the winner's circle.

This year things were a bit on the close side and more stressful, however. The Anglo/French driving team of Allen McNish, Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aiello had to hold off a strong attack by teams from Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, among others.

And then there was the additional political pressure exerted by Porsche CEO Engineering Doctor Wendelin Wiedeknin who let it be known in no uncertain terms that he wanted a win at this year's Le Mans for marketing reasons. This is the 50th anniversary of the founding of Porsche as a stand-alone company and another win at Le Mans would almost literally be frosting on the birthday cake.

The race also has historical glamour attached to it and that glamour traditionally rubs off on the winner. The first modern races held on the streets of Le Mans were Grand Prix events for single-seaters and the first of these, the French Grand Prix of 1921, was won by American Eddie Murphy driving an equally American Duesenberg.

It wasn't until 1923 that the event became the 24 hour battle of attrition that we know today. It was designed to be a test of the endurance of cars that the public could buy and drive in everyday use. The originators of the event had this in mind when they included night racing to prove the electrical reliability of the four-place touring cars competing in the race.

Seventy-five years later "production" cars are still battling it out for 24 hours straight over the 8.5-mile track. The racers are officially known as Grand Touring (GT) cars, and although they are ostensibly two- seaters with minuscule luggage space, road lighting, windshield wipers, etc., the GT title is a misnomer. The Nissan R390, McLaren/BMW F1 GTR, Toyota GT-ONE and Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM cars, and the first-and-second place Porsches would have a hard time being used for a weekend dash down to Monte Carlo for a few days of gambling and socializing. Both the driver and passenger would find them more than a bit cramped and the trip less than comfortable.

But the distance and the need for speed on a quick trip wouldn't be a problem for a GT-1 98 Porsche. The winning car covered 2966 miles in 24 hours at an average speed of 124 MPH and did a single fast-lap of 137. The second place Porsche driven by another international team, was a scant eight miles behind the winner. This after a race that is just short of the distance between San Francisco and New York City.

And while the Porsche team won the 1998 24 hours of Le Mans for "Herr Doktor" Wiedeknin, there was another engineering doctor that would have been even more pleased - had he lived to see the feat. Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche, the man who put his name on the company and its first car in 1948, died just a few months short of witnessing this momentous Porsche victory.