Old race circuits have suffered a lower survival rate than even the brave men and women who risked their lives racing on them. Among the survivors, few tracks have had the opportunity to age gracefully. The old Nrburgring defiantly wears a gnarled game face, but places like Le Mans or Monza have undergone surgery, a nip here and a tuck there to smooth out wrinkles and allow them to still play leading roles in modern motorsport. In too many instances, their historic character is sliced away with the wrinkles.
Fortunately, a place still exists in the French countryside where it is possible to retrace the tire tracks of racing's epic heroes on a proper road course. Best of all, unlike the Nrburgring, it is open year round and there is no admission charge. Even better, you can keep both eyes on the course ahead instead of constantly looking behind for fast-closing kamikaze bikers.
The city of Reims (Americans call it "reems"; everyone else says "rahms") is a little over an hour's drive east of Paris on the A4, E50 autoroute. Most visitors are attracted to it as the "headquarters city" for France's Champagne region, a home to Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot. World history students also know that a tiny Reims schoolhouse was site of the German surrender to General Eisenhower on May 7, 1945. Traveling further back in time, the city's cathedral hosted the coronation of French kings beginning in 496.
Racing history buffs, however, will head for the outskirts of town, reached by taking highway N31 (the exit marked Soissons) west off the A4. Follow signs to Thillois, make a left on D27 (look for Restaurant La Garenne on the right) and, after proceeding about 1.2 kilometers down this rural two-lane road, prepare to pull into the pit lane of what was once one of Europe's fastest road racing circuits. Today it is an automotive archeological treasure.
The race circuit at Reims dates back to 1925, when the Automobile Club de Champagne laid out a course for the inaugural Grand Prix de la Marne. Existing roads were used to form a triangular course that became famous for its long, fast straights connected by three narrow hairpin corners. Reims' flat-out stretches put it in contention with Belgium's notorious Spa-Francorchamps circuit as Europe's fastest road course.
The precedent for a triangular race course near Reims was set in 1909. In August of that year, cashing in on Louis Bleriot's successful flight across the English Channel, the first international aviation competition was staged with sponsorship from the local champagne companies. Of the world's top aviators, only the Wright Brothers failed to show. America's Glen Curtiss set a speed record of slightly over 50 mph and bested Bleriot in a two-lap race around the pylons of a 10km triangular course.
The original configuration of the road course had the cars shoot down the long pit straight, which later became D27, and into the village of Gueux. Here they negotiated a right turn through the buildings to race out of town and through the woods toward another hard right, Virage de la Garenne, that put them on the N31 for a furious high-speed chase through the farm fields to the hairpin bend on the outskirts of the community of Thillois. Exiting this turn put them back onto the main straight.
In 1932 Reims hosted its first running of the French Grand Prix. The winner was Tazio Nuvolari in an Alfa Romeo. The French GP returned to the track in 1938 thanks to the efforts of Raymond "Toto" Roche, the kinetic and enterprising president of the Automobile Club de Champagne. Manfred von Brauchitsch won that race for Mercedes-Benz. The following year saw Auto Union claim the French Grand Prix, before World War II put an end to racing in Europe until 1947.