During the jubilee edition of Le Mans Classic, we had the pleasure of accompanying two teams. Tom and his victorious Jaguar No. 6 Racing team, as well as the three extraordinary gentlemen from Poland – Marian Stoch, Jan Potocki, and Bartosz Balicki.
They were the only Polish team to participate in this year’s classic race at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Together with them, we experienced wonderful emotions, peeked behind the scenes of the century-old machine competition, and felt like a part of a unique team.
Access to the racing world
The Chrysler 75 first participated in the 24-hour Le Mans race in 1929. The Grand Garage Saint-Didier Paris team, consisting of Robert Benoist and Henri Stoffel, finished in an excellent sixth place overall and fourth in their class. However, the reliable Chrysler with its robust inline six-cylinder engine of just over four liters had to yield to the massive Bentleys that dominated the competition at the Circuit de la Sarthe. The successes of the model 75 did not end there. In the same year, Gioacchino Leonardi and Ezio Barbieri finished 22nd in the Mille Miglia race, triumphing in their class. These accomplishments make the Chrysler model 75 a highly attractive car for collectors today. Its participation in remarkable past events grants its current owners access to numerous international events.
Falling in love with racing
Besides having the right car to gain entry into the world of racing, experience is essential. It’s not like the Polish gentlemen’s team participated in Le Mans Classic simply because they had no other plans for the last weekend of June. Their involvement was preceded by various beautiful races and rallies, fueled by a fervent love for competing behind the wheel of classic cars. Mr. Marian Stoch took his first steps in the racing world over 10 years ago with an Aston Martin 15/98 from 1937 at the Poznań Circuit. This was encouraged by Mr. Jacek Balicki, Bartosz’s father, who was also part of this year’s team. That marked the beginning of his great adventure with real racing! Encouraged by the owner of Ecurie Bertelli, Andego Bell, it was time for foreign races and rallies. First, Mr. Marian and his Aston Martin competed at the Nürburgring and then at Silverstone. Finally, the driver from Krakow participated four times in the Mille Miglia, successively in Argentina, Japan, the USA, and, of course, Italy. After selling the Aston Martin 15/98, it was time for the next one – another Aston. This time, it was the very rare 1930 International Le Mans model.
From the American Land to Poland
In 2016, this Chrysler was brought from the USA with the idea of participating in the Peking to Paris Rally. It was first restored in Great Britain, but that took a very long time, and the English turned out to be unreliable. The work was eventually completed in Poland – explained by Mr. Jan Potocki in the paddock. We talk a bit loudly as roaring Group C race cars have just gone out on the track behind our backs. Today, the beautifully restored beige Chrysler 75 with a red and white flag on its side, next to which we are conversing, is the result of titanic work carried out by the Bielsko – Biała based company Classic Group, of which one of the Polish team’s drivers, Mr. Bartosz Balicki, is a co-owner. Ultimately, due to the pandemic, the participation in the Peking to Paris Rally did not happen, but another idea emerged to make use of the potential dormant in the Chrysler.
1000 miles to Le Mans
Before Mr. Marian and the team started with the Chrysler in Le Mans Classic for the first time in 2022, as the only Polish team in the classic race on the Circuit de la Sarthe, the car had to be thoroughly checked after a comprehensive renovation. First, it underwent the 1000 mil Československých rally. Together with Mr. Bartosz Balicki, they secured the first place in their class and sixth overall among 200 pre-war cars that participated. This shows that the Chrysler is well-suited for long-distance driving. Rallying is different from racing. During a race, the car works for a long time at high revs, and factors like maximum speed, low weight, and minimal air resistance are crucial. Therefore, unnecessary elements are removed from the car for racing, the front windshield is laid down, and the cooling, lubrication, and brakes must be taken care of – commented Mr. Balicki while tightening the windshield with pliers. The first qualifying session is about to start. We head to the pit lane!
I consider the pit lane the most beautiful part of any race track. It is here that dramatic scenes often unfold, with mechanics acting like battlefield medics, fighting against time to mend the war wounds. Standing in the pit lane of the Circuit de la Sarthe, I reflect on how much these boxes have witnessed over the century of 24 Hours of Le Mans tradition. We are waiting for our Chrysler. I feel my eyes stinging and tearing up from a mixture of scorching sun and unburnt gasoline particles expelled from the exhaust of the roaring Bentley passing by. Mr. Balicki looks nervously at the stopwatch. He majestically dons a balaclava and helmet. With immense focus, he watches for the beige Chrysler which suddenly appears at the beginning of the pit lane. He’s coming, he’s coming! Wave to him! – he calls out, fastening the helmet strap under his chin. Together with Mr. Potocki, we step onto the middle of the pit lane and signal our driver where we are positioned. According to the regulations, the pit stop, including the driver change, must not take less than 60 seconds. In this very brief moment, a phenomenal mechanical ballet unfolds around us, with the rhythm provided by the roar of century-old machines and the sound of socket wrenches. Thick steam pours out from under the hood of the beautiful Delage D6-3L. The Bugatti team hurriedly scatters tools on the ground, searching for something amidst the frenzy of fighting for precious seconds. Mr. Balicki has no intention of waiting for anyone! He turns around, disappearing down the long straight. At the same time, Mr. Stoch approaches me, slowly removing his helmet. He shakes my hand warmly, as if in celebration. I ask excitedly – Mr. Marian, how was it?! In one swift motion, he takes off the balaclava, revealing a huge genuine smile – Fantastic!
In the evening, we return to the paddock. It’s much calmer now. The air is heavy with a mixture of exhaust fumes and buzzing adrenaline. It resembles an image of a camp behind the battle lines, which can be heard in the distance, where warriors are inspecting their weapons, fixing broken axe handles, and sharpening arrowheads. Everyone is tense, waiting for the next clash. Le Mans is an endurance race – those who reach the finish line are the victors. It’s okay, the oil is clean! – Mr. Bartosz says, crawling out from under the Chrysler and taking with him a tin bowl full of used engine oil. We watch him work on the car with pleasure as he carefully inspects it. The car must be fully ready for the night free practice, which Mr. Jan Potocki will start behind the wheel. We talk about the car itself, and who could know more about it than the person who has already disassembled and reassembled it several times – The Chrysler is, in general, a straightforward car. It has a very high torque, so driving is enjoyable. It has very modern suspension and brakes for 1929. Shock absorbers and brakes are hydraulic – these components were so good that Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg companies bought them from Chrysler. This makes the car very good to drive, but its gearbox lacks synchronization, so gear changes require attention and skill. Its biggest drawback is that it only has three gears, which affects suboptimal gradation and low top speed.
No running allowed
The next morning, the stands are filled with thousands of spectators. According to official statistics, as many as 235,000 spectators attended the event throughout the weekend! The crowd fills the places near the barrier that separates the spectators from the drivers lining up on the heated asphalt of the starting straight. Since 1923, the first-ever long-distance race in Le Mans, the competition began with the drivers running to their cars and starting statically. This kind of race start was eventually banned after a series of accidents that showed drivers were not fastening their seat belts or closing the doors to save time. The last straw was the tragic death of John Woolfe in 1969, who paid the highest price for such haste at the beginning of the competition. From the following race, the start with drivers already seated in their cockpits was introduced, and over time, the formula that is still in use today was implemented. This year’s Le Mans Classic race in Group 1 (cars competing from 1923 to 1939) began in the traditional style with drivers running to their cars. The ceremony master was Rafael Nadal, who signaled the start with the French flag. Mr. Marian fired off towards the Chrysler with all his might! The deafening silence, full of tension, was interrupted by the euphoric applause of the crowd of several thousand people gathered vis-à-vis the starting straight. Only the roaring of nearly a hundred pre-war machines tried to drown it out. Standing with the rest of the team in the pit lane, I inquire about the night session that took place the previous day – It wasn’t that difficult. The track is mostly illuminated, and it’s a bit like driving on the streets. The biggest discomfort was due to the windshield. The helmet creates a lot of wind resistance. Last night, Mr. Stoch commented on the matter quite differently, jokingly replying – I passed someone, but I have no idea who because I could hardly see anything in the darkness.
To finish means to win
The competition in the oldest group of cars this year was dominated by devilishly fast Talbot AV105s, which claimed the first two places. Talbot and many other competing cars are racing designs – they were designed to race, so their center of gravity, gear ratios, brakes, and aerodynamics all make them much faster than ours. Our car was not designed by the constructor for racing. – Mr. Balicki explained the results of this year’s race. The beautiful BMW 328 roadster finished in third place. The team consisting of Marian Stoch, Jan Potocki, and Bartosz Balicki finished the race in 53rd place out of 84 classified teams that started in Group 1. This is an improvement of two positions compared to last year’s start. It’s a great result considering that the Chrysler 75 roadster is a car whose DNA has little in common with racing on the racetrack. Very experienced drivers, a calm strength, and a well-prepared car that once again did not disappoint in the most challenging conditions – this is the recipe for a fantastic team!
Photos by Maciej Jasiński / Rafał Pilch
Words by Sławomir Poros