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The Phantom of the Mulsanne Straight

by Brian Dunning, Jul 30 2009

I’ve always been fascinated by a little-known ghost story from racing lore. I must have read a small book about the tale a hundred times as a junior high schooler, a book I have tried to find since, but it seems to be as ghostly as its content.

The story began with the worst disaster in racing history. It happened at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, the famous race that runs through an entire night. A Mercedes 300 SLR was launched into the grandstands at Le Mans in 1955, killing driver Pierre Levegh and 80 spectators. The car, a ball of blazing magnesium, tumbled through the crowd so fast that many did not even know it had happened. Mercedes, in utter shell shock, did not race after that season for 30 years.

And so, how strange it was when drivers reported seeing 300 SLRs winding through the French forests in the dead of night, more than a decade since a 300 SLR had been seen at the track. During a night practice session for the 1969 Le Mans, John Woolfe driving a Porsche 917 was frustrated by his inability to catch a smaller car. He could see only its lights but thought it looked like an SLR. Woolfe told his crew there must be someone driving a vintage entry, but the crew said no other cars had come by. Woolfe had little time to ponder the mystery, as he was himself killed on the first corner of the actual race a few days later.

Two years later in 1971, David Weir in a Ferrari 512M had a much closer encounter, being repeatedly bumped by a wildly swerving silver car in the “Esses” section of the track. He complained one of the Corvette Stingrays – the car that probably looked most like the 300 SLR – was driving dangerously, but at the time, all the Corvettes in the race had already retired. Helmut Leuze, driving a Porsche 908, reported a vintage Mercedes on the track to his co-driver. It was not seen again in that race.

In 1973, Jean-Pierre Paoli in a Ligier Maserati reported an unmistakable Mercedes 300 SLR drive past him in the wrong direction on the Mulsanne Straight in the middle of the night. Other drivers reported it parked alongside the straight. By morning, it had vanished.

While I’ve always loved the romance of the story, I’ve also managed to love its quality as a mystery. It’s hard to imagine professional racing drivers misidentifying a car as famous as the 300 SLR. It’s much easier to imagine their willingness to perpetuate a legend of motorsport.

If I were to task myself with explaining this mystery, I would default to the position of there being no well-evidenced mystery to explain. “How do you explain a 300 SLR on the Mulsanne Straight in 1973, Mr. Skeptic?” presumes that there was indeed such an event. What we have is third, fourth, and fifth hand anecdotes. Such a story is good enough to be always worth the telling, and certainly worth a gilded detail or two.

This story would be worth explaining if it was first hand, and the eyewitnesses could give detailed accounts of what they saw. Misidentification of Porsche 911s (mainstays of Le Mans since the 1960’s) strikes me as always a good candidate for a 300 SLR lookalike, certainly by a driver who’s been in the seat for hours in the middle of the night. And I see no great reason to put any of these drivers above telling a tall tale.

So I won’t bother trying to explain it away. Instead I’ll enjoy the images of these beastly cars, some with more than 1500 horsepower, thundering through the night at 250 mph, winding and chasing, and wondering which of them are real, and which are specters.

9 Responses to “The Phantom of the Mulsanne Straight”

  1. Cambias says:

    This is something skeptics often forget: sometimes you just have to enjoy the story. Nobody is being bilked of their savings, nobody is skipping vital treaments for quackery, just a good old-fashioned ghost story. Appreciate it and move on. Debunking this is like shooting a hummingbird.

  2. Alex says:

    To be honest, I just love a good ol’ ghost story or reading about some interesting “mystery”, sure it’s probably not true, but let’s forget that for a second and enjoy it as just a good story.

  3. No Mystery says:

    Sorry, folks. It’s not okay anymore to say, “Well, it’s okay to look at the world uncritically and allow people to believe whatever they feel like.” People aren’t a homogeneous group of equals. There are now three groups, Skeptics, Gullibles and the Exploiters. The Gullibles are being killed, injured and bankrupted by the Exploiters. I can’t stand back and risk my children or my friends’ children growing up to be part of the Gullibles.

    • Cthandhs says:

      I disagree, narrative plays an important role in teaching critical thinking and skepticism. It teaches that you can enjoy a story, play with it in your mind as if it were true and still know that it is not. Indulging in fantasy does not loosen one’s connection to reality, as long as you understand that they are different. Thinking about and talking about a delightful little tale like this is the same as discussing a good movie.

  4. QrazyQat says:

    It’s important to remember that back in the days of the accounts you mention, it was almost always just two drivers per car for 24 hours (later often 4 drivers per car were used), and while you’re supposed to able to sleep during your off time, that’s not so easy as might be imagined. So with the concentration involved, the dark, and the traffic (overtaking cars at night which are going 60-80 mph slower than you on a two lane road) there was a lot of driver fatigue. It’s easy to hallucinate in those circumstances, and easy to make a mistake.

  5. LovleAnjel says:

    It could also be someone, knowing of the circumstances, messing with the drivers. That’s the first thing that popped into my head.

  6. AJ Ball says:

    While we’re on a racing theme we could mention the Brooklands Ghost.

    “During an attempt on the world speed record in the 1920’s, a tyre of the vehicle burst throwing Lambert and his machine towards the massive assembly works, killing the driver and wrecking the car. John Wall, a member of the committee of the Brooklands Society confirms that the outer door of the main gate office frequently opens of its own accord, a ‘Swirling blackness and the horrendous sound of crashing and splintering was heard by a warden when near the club house’, and a phantom motor cyclist has been seen, and heard, near a building on the Railway Straight several times.

    One young boy living near the Byfleet Banking saw, ‘The figure of a man staggering around with his head half hanging off’, and was so severely shocked that he had to be given medical treatment. It was in this area that Captain Toop crashed in Brocklebank`s Peugeot many years ago. In explicable footsteps have also been heard in front of the old fire station.”

    If there’s ever a Skeptoid on Weird/Cool places to go in Europe, I’d recommend the remains of Brooklands. Even without the ghost story it’s still a pretty cool place to go.

  7. AJ Ball says:

    “How do you explain a 300 SLR on the Mulsanne Straight in 1973, Mr. Skeptic?”

    Probably because Levegh is by far the most famous fatality of the Le Mans race. So when a race track needs a ghost story who are we gonna call? Why the man who crashed in the most infamous racing crash of all time of course. Is this the same phenomenon that causes all ghosts on ghosthunting shows to speak English? Any reports of ghost sightings of Jo Gartner, Sebastien Enjolras, Jo Bonnier, Lucien Bianchi, John Woolfe or Walt Hansgen? Any phantom 1986 Kenwood Kremer Porsche 956s haunting the Mulsanne?