What It’s Like To Take On Le Mans With A Pair Of Race-Prepped Gullwings
Photography by Laura Kukuk
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of joining the team at HK-Engineering, and one of the biggest highlights so far was our trip to Le Mans classic with two of our race Gullwings. If you want to know what the experience was like, this is my take on the weekend.
The atmosphere of the Le Mans Classic provides for one of the most authentic historic motorsport experiences in the modern era. This is no surprise to anyone who’s even heard of this bi-annual weekend of pre-‘80s racing wherein the drivers still do “Le Mans starts” and the cars are fired up with keys rather than computers. I attended this year with the HK-Engineering team (which I joined earlier this year) and two race-prepped Gullwings running in the 1949-1956 class known here as Plateau 2. The weekend was severely lacking in sleeping hours, one Gull lost its wing, and though we returned exhausted and smelling a bit more like exhaust than when we’d left there isn’t anything I’d change about it.
Our journey starts off in Polling, as small town outside of Munich where our headquarters are located along with over 80 300SLs on site being worked on, stored, or posted for sale. Located in an old monastery, HK-Engineering uses the space around the courtyard for the engine department, interior upholstery, other mechanical work, a showroom, and so on… inside the courtyard sits a revolving group of both beautifully restored and fully original Mercedes-Benzes from 300SLs to W111s.
I am lucky enough to be able to call this my workspace now, but what makes HK-Engineering really special in my opinion isn’t the cars or the location, but the people. It always is, isnt’ it? Over 70 employees work here in various capacities and yet it feels like one team, like a family where everyone is fully vested in their work and the project as a whole.
On Monday we start loading the cars on the trailer for Le Mans (a unique trailer, custom made to transport two 300SLs), pack supplies into the race truck, collect the food truck and motorhomes, and say good bye to everyone staying behind before we hit the road. 1,030km ahead of us, a maximum speed of 80km/h means it’s quite a ways to go, even with the help of a few unrestricted Autobahn sections.
On Monday night we finish the first leg of the tour with 400km to go the next day, and are looking forward to a good night’s rest on the side of the motorway prior to a week of sleepless nights in the fields surrounding the circuit in Le Mans. We arrive eventually and park after navigating even more queues to get in, and just as we arrive it’s time to head back out to the grocery store. The BBQ is calling, and our stomachs make noises louder than any crying baby at the tills, so the shopping trip takes on the urgency of a timed pit stop.
At 11AM the next day, the gates are open to hit the campground to secure a spot to build up your team’s basecamp. We need to wait another two hours to be able to finally enter the grounds, but luckily a few of us got in as early as possible on foot in order to secure our spot and play Türsteher for motorhomes.
Our first customers and drivers arrive around noon the same day, and so it begins: another year at the Le Mans Classic. Together with our customers, we finish setting up the campground compound of haulers and tents and food trucks, and some of us head towards town to stock up on food and drink for 12 of us over the coming week. Three hours later, 800€ further away from rich, and with four trolleys loaded with food and drinks, we hope it’s enough to keep everyone going. Our chef, Berti, starts preparing an amazing dinner while we start prepping the cars for scrutineering the next day in between talk of race strategy with our four drivers.
For me it was the first time joining the team for a race, apart from Goodwood, and therefore the first time meeting our drivers too. The silver race-prepped Gullwing was to be driven by Bernardo and Guido, and the grey one by Erich and Georg, a father and son team. Guido, who arrived in his T2 VW Camper and insisted on camping out in it the whole time, was such a kind soul who immediately had my attention upon his arrival in the sunflower yellow “Bulli Bus.” Same with Erich and Georg. I mean come on, a father and son racing, from the Panamericana over to Italy for the Modena Cento Ore and then France for the Le Mans Classic—how cool is that?! And then there is Bernardo, a character unto himself, very engaging and present who knows literally everyone and better yet, is able to get them all to together. They take it seriously—are true petrolheads in other words—but we don’t lose sight of the main goal which is simple enjoyment, whether that comes from a strong finish or just the ability to get out on the track at all.
The following morning begins the scrutineering and driver registration day, and after a good breakfast we all head towards the paddocks. Part of the team stays here, finalizing some prep work and double-checking the scrutineering schedule, while the others head towards the registration area together with our drivers. It’s beyond crowded, as you can imagine, and the but after an hour of patience and some jostling in the crowd and we are successfully registered and soon return to the paddocks with the famous “driver” wristbands. Loaded with energy and fresh motivation, we wonder about and then answer the question of “How many people can fit on the quad that pulls our tool box?”
After having a nice impromptu driving tour of some of the cars in the adjacent areas, it’s time for our cars’ scrutineering next, and we find ourselves in a stifling hot queue of cars and people. It’s hovering around 90°F thanks to a clear blue sky and a noon sun, and though one can’t complain too much let’s just say it felt like boiling, especially in a Gullwings, which aren’t exactly famous for their interior temperature regulation.
Anyways, after around an hour of roasting like this we are finally next in line. The cars are quite literally being ripped apart (we don’t seem to have luck with our inspectors this time) and yet we pass without any major issues… after over two hours of inspection. Cold drinks and ice cream are in order after this painful procedure.
Later on it’s an early bedtime for our drivers and a late one for our mechanics. I am excused from the late-night shift though, and plan to attend the Le Mans Classic Club Party. My red evening dress sort of fit the black-tie dress code, but no worries, as I’ll be arriving in plenty of automotive style. Katarina Kyvalova invited me along as her evening date, and while planning how to get to the party we bump into Anthony Reid who wants to join in as soon as he finds out we’re taking Katarina’s 4.5L Bentley. Karim also turns up, a close friend from Sema Racing, our campsite neighbors, and though we’re all running a bit late thankfully Katarina is too, having just returned from the grids where she was prepping her E-Type for the next day’s racing.
There aren’t any cars available to meet up at the rendezvous point, but it’s no problem because the trusty quad is still around! So we hop in evening dresses and tuxedos—we couldn’t stop laughing, nor could anyone we passed on the way! Arriving at the main entrance Katarina is already awaiting us in an image of supreme style, and needless to say she knows her Bentley by heart, driving it smoothly with heels as if the car was light as a feather… all of us are impressed by her skills and simultaneously enjoying the sunset and breeze in our hair. Nights like this make memories.
A church had been converted to host the party, and it was a great evening all around, but I think getting there was by far the best part! Returning back to the motorhomes we find that most of the team has gone to bed—it’s an early start to a long weekend ahead, and sleep in the coming days is not guaranteed.
It’s Friday now, practice day, and there’s a freneticism in the air that was absent earlier. Engines have been firing since sunrise, increasingly large crowds are forming at the entrances, a general hustle and movement permeates, and the first qualification event is about to start. Ours isn’t until later in the afternoon, and so we get to relax a little longer, which means going over everything one final time before we start heading up to the paddocks.
The whole team is assembled around the cars, which have been assigned box numbers 75 and 76— our HQ over the next 48 hours. A mix of pre-race tension and the joy of being a part of it defines our morning.
Race strategies, jokes, and stories from previous events are exchanged, everyone is tired but motivated, and together we form a superb team that will be doing everything it can over the days ahead to finish strong. Of course, everyone is aware of the situation on the grid though, and as much as everyone wants to win, the Gullwings are just too heavy and underpowered to really be able to compete with most of the grid, especially cars like the D-Type at the front of it. In Plateau 2, the 1949-56 classification, Jaguar C- and D-types are pitched against early Porsche 356s, and more exotic machinery such as Maserati 250S mix in with wildcard entries from Skoda and Deutsch-Bonnet, and then there is our team, the the only two 300SLs in the whole event.
Guido started the race on Saturday, sharing the car with Bernardo who was going to get in at roughly the halfway mark, and in a flashback to the the day before we are again sitting in and around the sweltering hot cars as the sun beats down on us and the tarmac. All the umbrellas, water, ice creams, and jokes didn’t help to cool down much so eventually we hopped out of the vehicles and tried to catch at least the tiniest bit of breeze before a sign is held up near the front saying the race is about to start. Drivers reenter their cars, we surround them and make sure everything’s fitting properly in the helmet and belt and HANS department, and while we’re still snugging the last strap on Guido’s harness the procession starts to head towards the circuit proper. Just as we are about to close the door of the driver’s side he starts pulling away.
The latch isn’t shut properly, so Sven immediately starts running after our #76 car, desperately trying to close the door. He gets stopped by a marshal who isn’t letting him run any further after the car, and the next marshal in the row stops Guido and tries to push the door down the rest of the way—from where we stand it looks like the door is properly sealed, and we have no choice but to hope for the best. Sven is jogging back and giving us the “good news” thumbs-up, and we head to the pit boxes. As soon as we arrive, the cars drive past for the start of the race and we hustle over to the screens to monitor the progress of our Gulls, #75 and #76. We immediately notice a problem with Guido’s #76, as the car is running slow, very slow, in the first few corners. Later on, it picks up speed again but there must have been some kind of an incident earlier. We weren’t surprised then, to see Guido pulling back into the box after the first round, but what we were surprised by the fresh breeze blowing through the vehicle! The driver’s door was missing, and though proper repairs would have to made later on, we spent less than two hours getting it back together for the rest of the weekend.
The marshals were great, and we got the lost door back less than 30 minutes after the incident, meaning that we could start mending the lost wing immediately after the race. If you were near our tent and ever took an interest in body work, you had the chance to experience it first-hand at the HK-Engineering tent where two of us started working the door to form it back into the right shape. Afterwards you could barely tell it had come off.
The night’s practice session and subsequent race went by with less drama, but in our last round, our last race, we were unlucky once again and lost a tire. As if the incident itself wasn’t bad enough, Guido was the driver again and now needed to wait trackside in the unadulterated sun in his flame suit for the service vehicle to pick him up from the track. We were devastated about the tire, but happy to see Guido returning with a smile on his face all the same. Here is a man who seems incapable of being upset. We get him an ice-cold beer and quickly change the tire so that the car is ready once the gates are opened for us later that day to start loading the trucks back up for the drive home.
After all the incidents we had, and bearing in mind that we were heavier than most of the vehicles in our group (like the Lotus, Maseratis, Jaguars, etc.), we still managed to close the race with an 8th and 18th place between the two cars, an achievement we are more than happy with.
A weekend where the ranks of navettes, or service shuttles, are filled with WW2-era Jeeps and huge fleets of VW Type 2s; where swarms of Vespa-type scooters skirt around vintage buses and are overtaken by cafe racers; where one of the most famous races in the world relives its history at speed in front of 135,000 eager faces—this was hard to top.
Talking Gullwings, a 300 SL Gullwing with ostrich leather was stolen at the Nürburgring very recently. Sometime during the night of August 11th, a black 1955 300SL with brown ostrich leather was stolen in front of the Dorint Hotel. The chassis number is 198040 5500434. The car can be easily identified as it has a chopped roofline, double bubble doors, integrated bumpers, and side pipes. Please share this information and help our friend to get his car back. If you have any information please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.