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What to expect at this weekend's 24 Hours of Le Mans

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At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there’s a point at about 4:00 in the morning where the delirium and fatigue kicks in. Save for the glare of the headlights and the glow of the brakes, everything is shrouded in darkness. Keep moving, your body tells you, as the rhythm of racecars lulls you and stirs a painful longing for sleep. You trip over a lump of sleeping fans. The June air is damp and foul with the funk of filthy journalists. The caffeine from the strong espresso curdles in your stomach. You long for your petite French hotel room and the warmth of the cozy duvet that seems a million miles from the damp cool of the track.

Suddenly there is a whoosh, a whir, and a stir among the spectators — and because you are a racing fan, you forget your quibbles as the adrenaline kicks in. The cars scamper past you on the Dunlop Curve vantage point, past the parking lot of private jets, past the trance party in the grass, past the grazing fields of cows, headed toward the plane tree-lined Mulsanne Straight, and for that moment there’s nowhere you’d rather be.

This annual exercise in motorsports overkill is an 84-year-old tradition

This annual exercise in motorsports overkill is an 84-year-old tradition held on public and private roads just outside the French village of Le Mans on the weekend of the summer solstice to maximize sunlight. Even for superfans, it’s daunting to keep up with the battle on the track as 60 cars and drivers from 30 countries jockey for position. Multiple classes race side by side on the 8.4-mile circuit, changing position and lapping one another as day turns to night turns to day.

This year, in the speediest LMP1 class, it’s likely to be a wild and unpredictable three-way face-off between Audi, Toyota, and reigning champ Porsche. These are outrageous, extensively over-engineered and purpose-suited cars that produce 1,000 horsepower at speeds that hover around 200 miles per hour.

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(Drew Gibson)

But for motorsports purists, the most significant race at Le Mans will be in the LMGTE-Pro class, as a legendary 1960s rivalry is resurrected. The Ford GT40, a car that became the most dominant American sports car in the history of the race, returns (as the Ford GT) where it will battle its longtime nemesis Ferrari. In the late 1960s, the Ford GT40 racing program led by Henry Ford II, Carroll Shelby, and Lee Iacocca took on Enzo Ferrari’s dominance, ending Ferrari’s championship reign.

AJ Baime, auto journalist of Playboy, The Wall Street Journal, and The Drive fame, authored the book Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans. He says that he first became fascinated by the rivalry at Le Mans from an article he read in Sports Illustrated. "The GT's presence at Le Mans commemorates what is without a doubt the most important racing victory in American history," he tells me. "Ford winning Le Mans in 1966, 50 years ago. No American car manufacturer had ever won Le Mans, which is more than a race. It's the most important marketing tool in the sports car industry, arguably. If you win Le Mans, in class or overall, you have proven to the world that your brand's engineering is sacrosanct, that it has beaten all others in the most critical test."

Le Mans is a physically grueling endeavor

Le Mans is a physically grueling endeavor; the drivers literally sweat away pounds at the wheel. Three drivers divide up seat time, strategically alternating at pit stops. Joey Hand will be one of the 12 Ford GT drivers — Ford is running four cars at Le Mans, numbers 66 to 69, and he was on the Ford team that placed first in the early qualifying round. I first spoke with Hand moments after his third-place podium finish in the 2011 race for the BMW factory racing team. In the week leading up to Le Mans, he’s trying to keep a cool head. "We try to treat it like any other race. I use a simulator at home to learn the tracks," he says. "In the case of Le Mans it’s a review because I’ve already been there, but I want to get reacquainted with the track. I do CrossFit every day of the week. I always tell people I’m pretty racecar fit from 25 years of racing, so it’s about sticking to my routine. For us, we’re traveling from the US, but I try to keep everything I do the same even when I’m in another country, or as close as I can get it. You don’t want to go to a new country and change everything. The routine starts here, but you take it with you."

But even for the drivers, Le Mans presents unique pressures. "It's such a big deal for Ford, with the history and everything," he says. "I think it would be so unbelievable to win this deal on cue 50 years later. The theory is great. Doing it would be tough, but the impressive part is we started this thing, all of us, six months ago, and we really have the chance to go there and win and make history, which would be really cool." Thus far, the underpowered GT hasn’t been a contender — nor has last year’s champion, the Chevy Corvette.

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(Brian Cleary / Getty Images)

Yet several elements of the modern race harken back to its storied history. "The new program shares three things with its heritage, to my mind," Baime says. "One, the car is obviously different. But you can see when you look at it that the designers have attempted to keep that GT40 DNA. The new car is clearly the old one's grandson. Also, Henry Ford II was chief executive of Ford in the 1960s, and it was under his orders to go win Le Mans. Now, Henry Ford III is running the Le Mans program's marketing arm. I think that's pretty cool. Finally, there's the race itself. It's still the toughest race to win in the world, and it's still a contest that pits the greatest brands in sports car manufacturers against each other. Ford versus Ferrari, Ford versus Chevrolet, and Porsche and Aston Martin and of course Audi. It's about brands and nations clashing."

Some sports are better to watch on TV, but the 24 Hours of Le Mans — where fans gather to party through the night in a sea of automotive camaraderie — is not one of them, because the grueling IRL experience is part of its charm. But in case you’re not one of the 250,000 fans trackside, Fox will be broadcasting the entire 24 hours on FS1 and Fox Sports Go.