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Le Mans 24 Hours Race Under Fire

January 5, 1990

PARIS (AP) _ A dispute over television rights, a power play by the sport’s governing body over safety standards and a tampering with the most famous straightaway in automobile racing.

People say there will always be a Le Mans. But the future of the race in the world championship program is now in serious doubt.

To many sports fans, the gruelling endurance classic is as much a part of the sporting season as Wimbledon or the Kentucky Derby.

In auto racing terms, it rivals the Indianapolis 500 for prestige and tradition.

The sights and sounds of Mercedes, Porsches, and Jaguars racing day and night, in sunlight and moonlight, rain and fog, is part of the glamor of Le Mans.

On the famed Mulsanne Straight, highly-tuned machines hit speeds of more than 250 mph on the notable backstretch - more than 4.2 miles long - before making a sharp right-hand turn.

But the straightaway is now the center of concern for both the organizers, the Automobile Club of the West and the sports governing body, the International Automobile Federation, both of which are more popularly known by their French initials, ACO and FIA.

FIA, through its sports governing body FISA, is manufacturing new safety code standards this year, specifically targeting hazardous safety rails and the length of the Mulsanne.

But ACO officials say it shouldn’t be touched.

″The uniqueness of Le Mans is the straightaway,″ Jean-Marc Desnues, the press spokesman of the ACO, said. ″It is like a cathedral. A Mount Everest of auto racing.″

Jean-Marie Balestre, the president of FIA, is using the speeds obtained on the Mulsanne straight as a springboard for another round in his bid for improving safety standards.

″In 1989 the record set by Jean-Louis Schlesser on the straight was established at 407 kph (254 mph). For 1990, information received from the manufacturers announces that the new cars will exceed 420 kph (261 mph),″ Balestre said in a statement.

″For 19 years and in spite of the promises made by the ACO, the circuit has never been modified. And during this time there were nine deaths on the circuit.

″Certain French drivers declared that this year, on the straight, they were ‘terrorized’ by the speed and no longer in control of their cars.″

The future of Le Mans could come to a head next week.

Balestre already has discussed the case with Roger Bambuck, France’s sports minister, and indicated there will be ″elements″ of a solution before Jan 15.

Five days earlier, on Jan. 10, Balestre has promised a news conference at which FISA will report on the progress of keeping Le Mans on the circuit.

Although Balestre has been an advocate of safety standards for a number of years, Desnues said that the security element cited by the FIA president was just an smokesceen. The real problem, he said, was television rights.

″The last visit by FISA was in February 1989 and nobody told us about the straightaway,″ Desnues said. ″It was just a question about the height of the security rails. Now Mr. Balestre thinks it (the length) is important.

″Basically they want to stop us from being part of the world championship because of the television problem,″ Desnues said. ″Since they couldn’t find anything they decided to find something outside the security regulations.″

The two organizations met head-on last May over TV rights. Le Mans officials wouldn’t budge when FIA wanted a bigger cut of the pie. So, less than a month before the race last year, both sides issued a joint statement.

″Taking into account the personality, specific nature and heritage of the Le Mans competition, it was decided by mutual agreement that is in the interests of the event to remain outside the World Championship for 1989,″ the statement read, signed jointly by Raymond Gouloumes, the president of the ACO, and Balestre.

When FISA withdrew the race from world championship status, Le Mans was still run, attracting more than 200,000 spectators and gaining major headlines when Mercedes Benz returned in triumph after 33 years.

In another attempt to replace Le Mans in 1990, FISA announced in December that members of the World Motor Sport Council had decided unanimously not to certify any course for safety with a straight longer than 1.6 miles.

Since the Le Mans circuit did not meet that regulation, FISA said, the race once again could not be counted as part of the World Championship.

A short time later, on Dec. 20, FISA provisionally issued its 1990 calendar - without Le Mans. No other circuit was affected by such a decision.

After issuing the calendar, FISA rolled back on its initial stand and said it would protect the traditional date of Le Mans until January 31 on request of the French Auto Sports Federation.

Desnues said things may sort themselves out quickly.

″The mayors of the towns have agreed to put two chicanes in the road and finance the building,″ he said. ″If the two chicanes are built, they can still have us in the World Championship for 1990 if we reach an agreement by Jan. 15.″

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