Their passion for the 24 Hours of Le Mans knowing no bounds, track marshals hail from all over the world. Their history is part and parcel of Le Mans legend. We pay them a well-deserved tribute in this series that takes us from the pioneers of 1906 to today’s slow zones. Their job has, of course, changed considerably over the years, especially with the advent of the telephone after the war. The first of several technical revolutions.
In 1951, the Army laid a 100-km network of telephone cable linking the sixty marshal posts dotted around the 13.492-km circuit via seven exchanges. The efficiency of the system was changed forever. Race control, connected by a duplicate cable to an exchange, could now keep in touch with events as they were happening.
Each marshal post was equipped with a tent with two bunks, a repair kit, a 12-way telephone exchange and a radio set. In 1956, a second private telephone cable was installed by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to connect the marshal posts and timekeepers to race control. The posts received an allocation of brooms, tow ropes and hooks, sand to absorb oil spillages and, of course, flags and lamps to signal stranded cars.
When Henry Ford came to Le Mans in 1967, he offered the ACO five “Transit” trucks with trailers, revolving emergency lights, firefighting equipment from Swedish firm Ansul, and an extrication kit. They were initially manned by firemen before the marshals took over.
Probably the biggest innovation for the marshals was the installation of safety barriers around the circuit in 1969. They could now be posted on alternate sides of the track, especially along the Mulsanne Straight. Absorbent clay powder replaced sand, and reflectors developed in association with 3M were added to the marshals’ kit, shortly to be joined by seatbelt cutters and a wide range of water and multipurpose powder extinguishers.
To protect them from the rain, the ACO supplied the marshals with oilskins with reflective strips, earning them the “glow worms” moniker. The Courbe des Hunaudières kink (post 61) was manned by a chief marshal with a strong personality, Raymond Théroux, while the Changé parish priest officiated at Mulsanne (post 76), seconded by a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique. Marcel Seery ruled over Maison Blanche. In 1969, armed with just two modest yellow flags, he boldly stepped out into the middle of the track, blocked by the tragic John Woolfe’s dissected Porsche 917, to bring half of the field to a halt. These selfless heroes have sometimes paid the ultimate price in their devotion to the 24 Hours, on the Mulsanne Straight, at Tertre Rouge, or at the scene of Jacky Ickx’s 1970 accident at the Ford chicane.