Racing Game History: Sega’s Le Mans 24 Arcade

Just a few weeks ago, we hummed with twenty four hours worth of excitement as the world’s oldest endurance racing event, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, concluded for the 91st time—and on the 100th anniversary of the original race in 1923 no less! You’d think we’d deserve a little break, but our ignitions are primed for more out of Circuit de la Sarthe and we’ve only video games to fill the void. 

As the world’s oldest running endurance race event, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of games based on Le Mans, including a black and white Atari game simply titled “LeMans” from 1976. Konami (the developer behind the Castlevania and Metal Gear series) hit the arcades with WEC Le Mans in 1986 featuring a version of the arcade cabinet that would spin players around a 360 degree base if their car spun out in the game. 

Our tokens are going straight to Sega’s Le Mans 24 arcade machine, produced in 1997 during the last gasps of mall culture in suburban America when arcade machines still outpaced home consoles in technological prowess. At the time, Sega continually innovated their arcade hardware, pushing the limits of graphical fidelity and immersion with technology developed in partnership with Lockheed Martin. Le Mans 24 used Sega’s Model 3 arcade board alongside other racing games sporting polygonal graphics like Sega Rally 2 and Daytona U.S.A. 2: Battle on the Edge in 1997 and 1998 respectively. The result was a 3D racing game that may come across a little rough around the edges to modern racing game fans, but was really something to look at the better part of three decades ago. 

Officially licensed by Le Mans organizers, Automobile Club de l’Quest, Le Mans 24 simulates the real deal endurance race by having players drive through twenty four in-game hours. Time is relative however, and this virtual version of the endurance race takes about ten minutes. During that time, however, players will see the game shift from day to night and be subjected to atmospheric and weather conditions like rain and fog that causes low visibility as they rocket around the track at breakneck speeds. As conditions change, a racing engineer barks warnings about upcoming wrecks to avoid and changing weather patterns to take into consideration. 

GT1 and Group C cars like the Ferrari F40 GTE, the Mazdaspeed Mazda 787B, and the McLaren F1 GTR  fill out the playable vehicles in Le Mans 24, though a JWA Gulf Porsche 917 is playable with a cheat code. Racers would sit in cockpit style arcade machines complete with pedals, a steering wheel, and a shifter. Up to six machines could be linked together for simultaneous play (and quarter munching). 

For the most part, Le Mans 24 favors realism over video game wackiness though certain exceptions were made including a flying saucer that buzzes the track from time to time. And for the diehard Sega fans, it’s possible to unlock Sonic the Hedgehog driving a buggy from the car select screen with a secret code

While there are plenty of ways to virtually experience the glory of Le Mans, we prefer Sega’s 1997 classic for the bonus nostalgic rumination on a time when getting back in the driver’s seat for another go after shaking your parents down for a few more bucks was all the thrill we needed.