The 24 Hours of Le Mans is an endurance car race held each June in the town of Le Mans, France. The purpose of the race is for car manufacturers to focus on manufacturing sporty cars which are also reliable. The winner in this race is not the driver who crosses the finish line first, but the driver who covers the most distance in the 24-hour period.
Although 54-year-old Leonard had raced cars since he was a teenager, he was new to professional race car driving. He was considered a rookie. Leonard wanted to prove that he was a serious driver, and Le Mans was the perfect opportunity.
Leonard was roughly 20 years over the average age of the other race car drivers in the 1979 Le Mans. He and teammates Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelen took turns driving their Porsche 935 turbo. Rain poured on the racetrack for hours, but Leonard and his teammates were gaining ground. With each passing hour, they came closer to victory. Just 2 ½ hours from the end of the race, Leonard and his teammates were in second place. Then, the lead car, driven by brothers Don and Bill Whittington, stalled with a broken injector pump belt. If they were unable to fix the car quickly, Leonard and his teammates would take first place. Don Whittington fashioned a replacement belt and got the car back in the race, but Leonard’s team was catching up. In the last hour of the race, Leonard’s car developed engine trouble which required them to drive slower than the other cars just to finish the race. Some of other cars reached speeds in excess of 220 miles per hour. Finally, the race was over. Of the 55 cars which entered the endurance race, only 22 completed the race.
When the results were in, Leonard’s team had completed 299 laps, but the Whittington brothers were declared the winners with 306 laps completed. The Whittington brothers won by a distance of only 58 miles in the 24-hour race. Don Whittington commented that Leonard’s coming in second place “is sure going to take some of the limelight from us.” Leonard, the rookie race car driver, was better known for movies in which he appeared such as “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Sting,” “The Color of Money,” and “The Hustler.” Leonard, that rookie racecar driver who nearly won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in his first attempt, was the middle name of actor Paul Newman. Not bad for a rookie.
1. The Daily News, June 11, 1979, p.20.
2. The Odessa American, June 11, 1979, p.9.