Le Mans is racing's World Cup -- but the Americans could win

If the FIFA World Cup has a sporting relative in motor racing, it's the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The annual mid-June gathering brings together the planet's finest sports car teams and drivers in the French town of Le Mans, positioned two hours south of where the D-Day landings took place in World War II. Dating back to 1923 at the delightfully named Circuit de la Sarthe, a reckoning has been spread over 24 unending hours where wickedly fast hybrid Hypercar prototypes and thundering Grand Touring machines fight to endure. Staving off fatigue, mental errors, crashes and mechanical breakdowns is the key to finishing.

The best, or the luckiest -- and sometimes its both -- tend to win the globe's greatest motorized honor and get to stand atop the podium, feted as racing kings and queens for the next 364 days. The automobile manufacturers they represent advertise the hell out of those wins to sell more cars; Le Mans is the victory that holds the most meaning for car manufacturers, evidenced by the $100,000,000 or more they spend each year to try and win a single motor race.

Beneath it all, the underpinnings of the race has been fueled by homespun pride. This weekend's running of the great race -- on its 101st anniversary -- will pit 62 cars with three-driver squads, 186 drivers in total, against each other for competitive glory and national honor.

Like soccer's great tournament for the world, those teams and drivers descend on Le Mans representing the colors of their flags and the hopes of their racing-mad peoples. It's France vs. Germany vs. England vs. Italy vs. Japan vs. Poland vs. Belgium vs. Portugal, and more, including the U.S., using vehicles to settle the score.

Michigan-based Corvette Racing, the factory team dispatched by General Motors to Europe for the past three decades to plunder Le Mans' spoils, took the art to new levels in the 2000s. The Americans decided hanging the Stars and Stripes in their garage and placing stickers of the flag on their cars didn't speak loudly enough about who they are, so Mike West, one of their mechanics, had an idea.

Amid the relative quiet in the days before cars hit the track, West walked out onto pit lane, placed a folding chair in the spot where he and the crew would add fuel and change tires dozens of times in the upcoming race. Then he went back and brought out a powerful amplifier and plugged it in. His next and final trip produced an electric guitar, which he connected to the amp, then spun all knobs to maximum volume, sat down, and ripped into Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner.

For good antagonistic measure, West turned the amp towards their rivals, some of whom were amused, while others were less appreciative of the brazen display. It became an annual tradition for West, and while the bold and semi-deafening declaration of independence wasn't universally popular, it spoke to the mindset of how multinational teams and manufacturers view the 24 Hours of Le Mans as an opportunity to win for one's country as much as it can be for personal achievement.

"It doesn't get any bigger for an American than a win at Le Mans," Ford factory driver Joey Hand, told ESPN. The Californian was part of the Blue Oval's big return to Le Mans in 2016 with its Ford GT supercar, 50 years after the marque's first win at Le Mans in 1966 with the GT40 in the battle chronicled in the movie "Ford v Ferrari," where he and teammates Dirk Müller from Germany and hometown hero Sebastien Bourdais from Le Mans were victorious in the top class for GTs.

With their cars painted in red, white and blue, and the well-known history of Ford's cross-Atlantic efforts to draw from, this was another raiding party -- sent a half century after the first -- to reap the same giant rewards for brand and country.

"The whole project was built on winning Le Mans," Hand said. "Everything was built on calling our shot. The odds were not in our favor to win just because the whole Chip Ganassi Racing team hadn't even raced in Europe. We didn't run under their rules before, and there was way more opportunity for us to get it wrong than to get it right. And so the fact that we got it right on all aspects, from the team, the drivers, the endurance of the car, and to win just makes it even a bigger deal.

"To win on the anniversary was the most special thing. We had Edsel Ford on the podium with us, and it was special enough to where the winning car was taken and put in the Henry Ford Museum. Dirk and I just went and saw it two weeks ago, and no BS, when I walked in there, I literally got goosebumps."

This weekend's Saturday-through-Sunday race provides more opportunities for U.S-based or U.S.-flagged teams to add more to the nation's long history of success at Le Mans. Ganassi's group from Indiana no longer represents Ford; it's part of GM's advances with the Cadillac brand and its howling V8-powered hybrid V-Series.R Hypercar prototype squadron.

It's led by Bourdais, New Zealand's Scott Dixon -- the six-time IndyCar champion -- plus his two-time IndyCar title-winning teammate Álex Palou from Spain. Co-drivers from the Netherlands and England round out the driver rotation; nary an American in the two cars, but its pilots know who they're racing for.

"I definitely feel the USA vibe, for sure," Dixon said. "When you get to Le Mans, the fans really love it and know the history of Ford and Corvette and all the years of the USA taking on this race. And with our Cadillac, everybody just loves the sound, man. It sounds like nothing else with that big V8 and that's what they go crazy over, that big vibration is caused when it goes by. It's definitely hugely received over there and I think that's what also makes it very special."

The international dynamic of Le Mans is also found in another domestic team with Roger Penske's Porsche Penske Motorsport (PPM) program, which is based in North Carolina where its factory IMSA GTP effort is housed, and in Mannheim, Germany, at its other base, which fields the brand's FIA WEC Hypercar effort with the same hybrid Porsche 963 prototypes.

In this unique blending of cultures that debuted in 2023, Porsche Penske Motorsport competes under the German flag while being overseen by Americans like Team Penske president Tim Cindric, PPM director Jonathan Diuguid and others in partnership with Porsche's executive racing leadership. Winning for Porsche and Germany -- to capture the marque's 20th overall victory -- at Le Mans is Job No. 1, but there's also a strong drive to triumph for the home team.

"For us, being a global team makes us a bit different than what's out there," Cindric said. "To be able to pair with Porsche and all the history that they have there, we're trying to win their 20th, and we're trying to win our first and we're trying to do that with a group of people that are influenced on both sides of the Atlantic. There's an IMSA team that we're taking over there, but our base in Mannheim makes it unique."

PPM has been on a tear this year, winning the season-opening IMSA race at its Super Bowl, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the opening WEC event in Qatar. Team Penske also won last year's NASCAR Cup Series championship, has numerous Daytona 500 victories, and just won its 20th Indianapolis 500 in May. There's a single trophy missing from "The Captain's" collection, and that's from Circuit de la Sarthe.

"For Roger, you know, it's the one thing that he hasn't been able to accomplish, although he really hasn't made that many attempts at it," Cindric added. "People forget that he hasn't run here a bunch like he has at the 24 Hours of Daytona, but it's awesome to be able to go to Le Mans, with the Porsche history and Roger's history, put them together, and try to get the win."

And if Porsche and Penske, or Ganassi and Cadillac, or any of the other U.S.-centric teams and drivers are fortunate, they'll get to look out and see something that surpasses anything found inside a stadium after a massive win.

"That was the big moment for me," Hand said, recalling the view from eight years ago. "I stood on the podium, and that sea of people that's out there, that they let come pouring in from the stands and wherever they come from, I would say if you were brave enough, you could crowd surf for about a quarter mile, probably break some records.

"Literally as far as you could see, there were people from the podium to Turn 1, you could easily crowd surf all the way there. It's that many people in one spot. And the second thing is to win that race is a big deal, of course. But that's not our race, it's not the Indy 500 or Daytona. We're over there in their biggest deal, their biggest race. So for me, being an American, winning in an American car, being the only American in that car. There's a lot of American history over there, so being part of it stays with you forever."