66 may 2015
om Kristensen was already a living
legend when he climbed from his Audi
R18 e-tron quattro for the final time in
Sao Paulo last November. The smalltown
boy from northern Denmark whose
legacy would be his unassailable record at
the 24 Hours of Le Mans – a staggering
nine wins from 18 starts in the world’s
greatest endurance race – was calling it a
day, retiring. But on his own terms – still
relevant, still competitive, and still fast.
As the 47-year-old uncoiled himself
from the cramped cockpit, his eyes
bloodshot as decades of extreme
pressure sought an emotional release,
memories flooded in of a man and a body
of work truly unrivaled in his field. Tom
Kristensen, the hero of La Sarthe, the
best of his generation, a worthy equal to
Michael Schumacher or Valentino Rossi
on the modern era’s Mount Rushmore of
motorsports. He came in as a curly-haired
kid from Hobro and left as “Mr. Le Mans.”
And to think that, but for several twists
of fate, it almost never happened.
The son of Danish rallycross champion
Carl-Erik Kristensen, “TK” demonstrated his
vast potential at an early age, yet lacked
sponsorship to move beyond karting. Stuck
in limbo, young TK was losing valuable
time and ground to his contemporaries.
“I was brought up in my father’s gas
station,” Kristensen says of his humble roots.
“I was second in the world championship
in karting, won the Scandinavian
championship, but nobody was looking to
Denmark for drivers and no companies were
helping, so everything stopped very quickly.
“It was close to 1,000 days from when
I left karting to the time I found another
drive, so I studied for those three years to
become a bank clerk!” he laughs,
pondering a life spent counting coins.
“A lot of people who I karted against
were going off to better things; I won that
Scandinavian championship against Mika
Hakkinen, but he was in the Marlboro
sponsor pool and I wasn’t. I lost three years
to him because by the time I made it to
Formula 3, he was already in Formula 1.”
Persistence would eventually find
Kristensen quitting his financial studies
for a shot in German F3, and by the end
of 1991, he’d earned his first significant
title. But the celebrations were short lived
as a funding shortfall meant he was left
wondering what happened next.
Success in Germany did manage to open
an unexpected door for 1992, and he
packed his bags for Japan. In ’ 93, he added
the Japanese F3 title to his résumé, but
offers to return to Europe hardly flooded
in. What was meant to be a quick detour
began to take on a more permanent feel.
Presented with paying rides in Japan’s
thriving F3, Formula 3000 and touring
car scenes, Carl-Erik’s blue-collar
sensibilities connected on a profound
level with Tom; he was simply trying to
earn a living. A hero? A legend in waiting?
Hardly. For a decent stretch during the
1990s, the great Tom Kristensen could be
charitably described as a lost talent.
“At that time I was just thinking about
“It was close to 1,000 days
from when I left karting to
when I got another drive, so
I studied to be a bank clerk”
(LEFT) For Tom
Kristensen, the call
to join Joest’s 1997
Le Mans lineup was a
career lifeline. Little
did he know that the
resulting win would
put him on the path
to legend status.
They used to say Le Mans was a corner of
England during the week of the 24 Hours.
In recent years, the emphasis changed,
with up to 30,000 Danes heading south.
Here they help celebrate TK’s 2004 win.