Archive: How an ingenious fix prevented a movie legend from winning Le Mans
It's one of the great what-if stories in Le Mans history. Paul Newman finished second in the 24 Hours in 1979, but it could easily have been a famous victory were it not for the resourcefulness of the late Manfred Kremer. In the build-up to the 100th anniversary edition of the endurance race, we revisit a story first published in April 2021
The idea of a fifty-something Hollywood megastar, a future Oscar winner no less, pitching up at the Le Mans 24 Hours and winning the thing on his debut sounds absurd. But it nearly happened in 1979 in a plot line so fanciful that it would have been laughed out of Tinseltown.
The reality is that Paul Newman was deprived of victory in the French enduro by the ingenuity of Manfred Kremer.
The younger of the Kremer brothers, who died in March 2021 at the age of 81, came up with the fix that enabled Klaus Ludwig and another pair of brothers in Bill and Don Whittington to take the victory ahead of a car co-driven by Newman, a movie legend but also a handy pedaller good enough to go on to win a couple of Trans-Am races. He and team-mates Rolf Stommelen and Dick Barbour would have celebrated victory had Kremer Racing's Porsche 935K3 stayed where it was, parked at the side of the road on the Mulsanne Straight late on Sunday morning. That it didn't was down to Herr Kremer.
Kremer's lead entry had been 15 laps up the road on the second-placed Dick Barbour Racing 935 when it ground to a halt after the fuel-injection drive belt failed with three and half hours left on the clock. It wasn't so much the belt failure that should have put the Group 5 class contender out of the race, rather the fact that the spare carried on board - taped to the rollcage - broke after the elder of the Whittington brothers, Don, shoehorned it over the relevant pulleys.
That was the problem, recalls longtime Kremer team manager Achim Stroth: "It was a non-stretch belt, so it was somehow damaged when Don fitted it."
Ludwig/Whittington/Whittington Kremer 935/K3 Le Mans 1979
Photo by: Motorsport Images
That's not to blame the driver. He had few tools with which to complete the job and had to work in adverse conditions on a grass verge made sodden by the heavy rain that arrived over the Circuit de la Sarthe in the small hours on Sunday morning and continued almost to the end of the race.
When the K3, the third in the line of Kremer's 935 Group 5 silhouette specials, stopped again after a few yards on the failure of the spare, that should have been it for the Cologne-based team's bid for Le Mans victory. But with a more than handy margin at the front of the field, Manfred racked his brain and devised a Heath Robinson solution to the problem.
What he came up with involved using the spare alternator belt also carried in the car. And as much tank tape as was required to make a component designed for one job perform another.
"It was Manfred's idea to use the alternator vee-belt and tape," says Stroth. "He was the real mastermind behind the '79 Le Mans victory. He was a great mechanic."
The fix somehow held, to the surprise of everyone involved. That went for the team and driver, as well as Porsche
The exact nature of the instructions he communicated to Whittington over the radio appear to have been lost in time. Stroth remembers the idea was to use the adhesive tape to make the belt stick to the pulleys. Whittington's slightly different recollection, in an interview with this writer more than 20 years ago, appears the more plausible of the two theories.
"I wound tape around the cam pulley to take up the slack," remembered Whittington in 2000. "I just kept messing around until I got it on."
Whatever actually happened, Stroth is adamant that it was Manfred Kremer's idea: "He was on the radio telling Don what to do."
Mention of the radio is important in the story. The pits-to-car system had been brought over to Le Mans by the Whittingtons. Such systems were a rarity in Europe at the time.
Manfred Kremer (left) in 1985
Photo by: Porsche
The fix somehow held, to the surprise of everyone involved. That went for the team and driver, as well as Porsche.
"I hit the starter and it caught," said Whittington. "I gathered all the shit and threw it into the car and idled all the way back to the pits - I didn't as much as touch the throttle."
Whittington crept back to his disbelieving crew at the end of a lap that had begun more than an hour before. Kremer's advantage had all but disappeared and the Barbour 935 should have moved through to the front of the field while the long-time leader was undergoing proper repairs in the pits, only for the American entry to hit problems of its own.
The left-front wheel jammed as the Barbour crew attempted a tyre change. The team had to dismantle the suspension to get the recalcitrant rim off. More than 20 minutes were lost: instead of leaving the pits in the lead, Newman's Porsche trailed out four laps down on the Kremer car.
The efforts of Stommelen, by far the quickest of the drivers in the Barbour IMSA GTX class Porsche, to make up the lost ground rooted the flat-six engine. The margin between the top two doubled as the Whittingtons and Ludwig led home a 935 1-2-3: a second Kremer entry, though not a K3, driven by Laurent Ferrier, Francois Servanin and Francois Trisconi ended up third a further two laps in arrears.
The Porsche factory, which had one of its 936 Group 6 prototypes disqualified that year for external assistance when an ignition belt was passed to Jacky Ickx at the side of the road, was sceptical that Whittington's pro temps repairs had held around the remainder of the long Le Mans lap.
"The factory didn't believe what we had done was possible, so they tried to simulate it on the dyno - and it worked!" recalls Stroth.
Ludwig/Whittington/Whittington Porsche 935/K3 Le Mans 1979
Photo by: Motorsport Images
That's the tale of how the backroom boy in the long and successful partnership between Manfred and Erwin Kremer prevented movie star Newman from winning Le Mans in one of the more unusual editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the slowest edition of the 24 Hours since 1958. It was unusual not just because a star of the silver screen was on the grid. (He was joined there by the Hawaiian Tropic girls from the sun lotion brand sponsoring the Barbour car: they would go on to become a fixture at the event.)
The Whittington brothers offered a hint at the colourful lives that would result in both later spending time behind bars as the 2pm start of the race approached. The Kremers had decided that Ludwig, who'd put the car third on the grid, should take the start, but the pair of Americans who'd paid for their drives had other ideas.
The car was already lined up on the start-finish straight when they offered to buy the car in return for Bill starting the race. Erwin Kremer didn't take their offer seriously, and told them that of course they could buy it if they had the cash on them. Which they did - sewn inside spare sets of overalls!
Had it won Le Mans with Newman and completed the triple crown of endurance, Porsche 935 #009 00030 would have been sold for a whole lot more. Ingenuity, perseverance and good old tank tape meant that it didn't
The elder Kremer, who died in 2006, once told this author that they handed over $375,000. Stroth reckons it was that figure in Deutschmarks, around $200,000 at the time. Whatever, it was a lot of green and folding to find on the spot.
There's an interesting historical postscript to the weird and wonderful story of Le Mans '79. Manfred Kremer's resourcefulness that day not only prevented a household name from winning Le Mans, but it nipped what would have been a unique record in the bud.
When the Porsche raced by Newman, Stommelen and Barbour finished its contemporary racing career in the mid-1980s, it had outright victories at the Daytona and Sebring enduros on its resume. Had it have won Le Mans in '79, it would have completed the triple crown of sportscar racing. No single chassis of any type has ever achieved that.
Porsche 935 #009 00030 would go on to win the 1981 Daytona 24 Hours under new ownership and run by Bob Garretson, who had overseen the Barbour operation before it folded after John Fitzpatrick had claimed the 1980 IMSA title. The car's IMSA successes came after its conversion to Kremer K3/80 specification, yet two years later in 1983 it came through to win a battle-torn Sebring 12 Hours as a Porsche 934. New owner Wayne Baker had down-specced the car for what turned out to be a successful assault on the GTO class of the IMSA series that year.
The well-travelled Porsche, restored to its Hawaiian Tropic livery, sold at auction for in excess of $4million a few years back. Had it won Le Mans with Newman and completed the triple crown of endurance it would have been sold for a whole lot more. Ingenuity, perseverance and good old tank tape meant that it didn't.
Rahal/Redman/Garretson Porsche 935 K3 Daytona 1981
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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