Lights, camera, action…

It was a plot that would have been regarded as too fanciful, even for Hollywood. Any self-respecting studio would have rejected a script involving a big-shot movie star going to the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time at the age of 54 and coming within an ace of victory. Simply, the writers would have been told to get out of Tinseltown.

But at Le Mans in 1979 facts proved stranger than fiction. Paul Newman could have won the French enduro in that year  and probably would have won but for a jammed wheel nut. But his eventual second place, with team owner Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelen, was only the final chapter in a bizarre event. The winning machine spent an hour parked on the Mulsanne Straight as one of its drivers toiled to fix a car he and his brother had purchased — for cash — literally minutes before the start.

The idea of Newman doing Le Mans came from the man himself, according to Barbour. He proposed it after Dick Barbour Racing’s first assault on the French enduro in 1978. They’d been team-mates at the 1977 Daytona 24 Hours aboard a pair of Ferrari 365 GTBs, entered by a New York main dealer, and started driving together in ’79. They did the Daytona 24 Hours at the start of the year in one of Barbour’s Porsche 935s as a lead-in to their French adventure.

“Le Mans was something Paul was really excited about; he had a lot of respect for the race,” says Barbour. “But he was also anxious that he should go with a team that didn’t have a reputation for wheels falling off. He had a responsibility to his movie company.”

Barbour brought in Rolf Stommelen, an acknowledged 935 ace with two Daytona wins already under his belt, as their star driver. Overall victory wasn’t the target; with a pair of 935s running to North American IMSA GTX rules they weren’t going to be a match for the more powerful Group 5 versions, let alone the Group 6 prototypes.

But the prototypes went out one by one, including the two factory examples of Porsche’s 936 prototype, a car that had won at Le Mans in 1976 and ’77. That left the way clear for the best of the 935s entered.

“The money was sewn inside a pair of racing overalls”

The German Kremer Racing team looked home and dry at lunchtime on Sunday, with the car Klaus Ludwig had put third on the grid behind the two 936s. He hadn’t started the race, however, because the Whittington brothers, Bill and Don, had purchased the 935 K3 they were going to race with the German just before the start.

The Whittingtons, who ran their own Porsches in America, had bought their seats in Kremer’s lead entry and now wanted to buy the car when the team suggested that star driver Ludwig would start the race.

“Don was saying that Bill was going to start,” says long-time Kremer team manager Achim Stroth. “We were saying it should be Klaus because he had the experience. Then Don just said, ‘How much?’ We agreed the deal right there and then.”

Stroth remembers a figure of 375,000, though he can’t remember whether it was US dollars or Deutschmarks. Either way it was a lot of money, and the Whittingtons had that kind of cash on them.

“The money was sewn inside a pair of racing overalls they’d brought over from the States,” adds Stroth. “Don put it on the table and told me that I could count it if I wanted, but he was going to watch his brother start the race.”

Ludwig and the new owners of the car, who would both subsequently be incarcerated in the USA for drugs-related offences, enjoyed a lead of 15 full laps of the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe as the clock ticked past midday on Sunday. They’d had the measure of a pair of 935s entered by Georg Loos’s Gelo Racing through the night and, when their rivals hit problems, they’d been left with this colossal advantage over the Barbour car.

With three and a half hours to go, Don Whittington ground to a halt on the long Mulsanne Straight. The fuel-injection drive belt had snapped. It shouldn’t have been a massive problem, at least not for a car with such an extended lead, because there was a spare taped inside the cockpit. But the tool Whittington needed wasn’t.

It was a no-stretch belt and it broke almost the moment he fired up the car as a result of his efforts to fit it. That might have been the end of Kremer’s bid, but for Whittington’s ingenuity. He took the alternator belt off and somehow managed to make it fit with copious amounts of duct tape wrapped around one of the pulleys.

“I hit the starter and it caught,” recalls Don Whittington. “I gathered all the stuff and threw it into the car and idled all the way back to the pits – I didn’t so much as touch the throttle. The Kremer guys couldn’t believe I’d got it back.”

Whittington made it, but the Kremer car’s advantage had disappeared. The Barbour Porsche should have moved to the front of the field while the long-time leader was undergoing proper repairs in the pits, only to hit problems of its own.

The left-front wheel jammed solid. The team had to dismantle the suspension to get the rim off the car. Instead of leaving the pits in the lead, Newman’s Porsche trailed out four laps down on the Kremer car.

The eventual deficit was seven laps, after engine problems forced Stommelen to park the car on the start-finish straight with just under half an hour to go. The car took the flag as walking wounded, still with a couple laps in hand over the third-placed car.

You couldn’t have made it up.

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