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The Automobile Club de l'Ouest is one of the most prestigious and oldest sanctioning bodies in motor sports. It is both the creator and the organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Begun in Le Mans in the western part of France (hence the use of the phrase ''of the west'' in its name), the organization was founded in January of 1906. Its purpose was to build relationships between ''all those who are passionately fond of cars.''
While that may sound like a logical thing to do in present times, when the ACO was founded precious few cars even existed. On the other hand, Le Mans from the outset of the age of the ''horseless carriage'' was a hotbed of automotive activity and racing.
In the first international racing event ever held, a race from Paris to Amsterdam and back again, the city of Le Mans was amply represented. The voiturettes of Leon Bollee, the torpedo-style cars of his brother Amedee and entries known as De Dietrichs were all built in Le Mans. Drivers Paul Jamin (a future ACO president) and Henri Fournier also hailed from Le Mans.
It was not surprising that the passion for cars eventually led to a 24-hour race on the roads just outside of Le Mans in 1923 under the organization of the ACO. From the outset, the race was a success, drawing an international cast of drivers, manufacturers and fans.
In the present era, the ACO continues to create the rules that govern the cars entering at Le Mans, under technical director Alain Bertaut. The rulebook is voluminous in its detail, but has sustained the tradition of Le Mans regarding cutting edge automotive development.
Michel Cosson is the president of the ACO, which retains all trademark rights to the ''24 Hours of Le Mans'' as well as retaining the rule-making and organizing authority.
In an historical first, the ACO in 1998 signed a licensing agreement with American businessman Don Panoz to use both the name and the rulebook from Le Mans to promote a series in the United States, races known as the American Le Mans Series.
In addition to the licensing rights, the ACO agreed to grant pre-qualifying exemptions for the 24-Hours of Le Mans each year to four class winners in Audi Presents Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. That demonstrates the ACO's resolve to expand its brand of sports car racing through the use of its trademark and rulebook.
In all, the ACO organizes 13 events each year at Le Mans, also known by its full name of Circuit de la Sarthe. The events include a 24-hour race for trucks and a 24-hour for motorcycles as well as karting events. Still dedicated to all aspects of mechanized road travel, the club promotes highway safety and tourism. It also conducts driving schools for teens, police and aspiring two-wheel and four-wheel racers.