Motor racing in the 1960s was a heady mix of factory money and creative whiles, no matter what series you were in. While the big money names on any circuit could rule the roost over the course of a year, there would be big name winners from down home teams as the factory/privateer dichotomy was a much fairer fight. Ford v Ferrari (titled Le Mans ’66 in the UK) a Twentieth Century Fox film due in November looks at what happens when the Ford works team hands over its most important project to a Texan Hot Rodder who had turned sports car racing on its head.
The story, one of the greatest in sports, does not start there. It starts with Henry Ford II trying to uplift his grandfather’s legacy and get a dominant hold on every world market through racing. Enamoured by stories of the Enzo Ferrari calling it a day as an owner in the early sixties, Henry decided his best course of action was to buy out Ferrari and take up its race team as a subsidiary in a similar way as Holman Moody had become a dominant force in NASCAR. Holman Moody had used Ford technology with a little help from Colin Chapman at Lotus, to be proven race winners. There followed a protracted negotiation which cost several million dollars. The problem was that Enzo wanted to win the Indy 500, and needed Ford’s money to do it, he wanted to stay on as race director. Henry could not allow his loyal customers in Indy racing to have more competition and wouldn’t entertain the idea. So Enzo called the whole thing off.
Not long after Henry Ford II called a meeting of his racing division and expressed his wish for a Ford to win at Le Mans. Money was to be a trifling subject, get the job done. Ford opened up negotiations with trusted British racing teams who had experience in endurance racing and settled on Lola who would build upon their prototypes of the 1963 season for Ford and the cornerstone of the GT40 project was in place. The car that would become an Icon had an inauspicious start at Le Mans in 1964, all three cars in the team failed to finish. John Wyer who had come over from Aston Martin for the team was relieved of his duties and in came Texan Carroll Shelby.
Shelby was a pure racer, but had been sidelined with a heart issue in the 1950s. Rather than give up racing he had invested his winnings into developing his own cars, most notably the Shelby Cobra, a Ford powered variant of the AC Ace that Shelby had raced against in his career, installing a Ford V8 into the small well behaved cars turned them into world beaters. Shelby appropriated a licence for the cars in the US and his relationship with Ford grew exponentially. Influenced by the California Hot Rod scene, Hot Rod Magazine founder Robert Peterson was a close friend and confidant, Shelby applied what his friends had learned at the salt flats and drag strips to endurance racing. A proven Le Mans race winner in 1958 with Roy Salvadori for Aston Martin, Henry Ford had found their man.
Endurance racing is much more a team sport than any other form of racing. Twenty four hours of racing is a slog that saps your will, building cars for wildly different personalities and driving styles, mixed in with the sheer danger of running cars at race speeds for extended periods of time make it a unique challenge, it also makes for a great story. Sports movies are classical narrative incarnate, ruled by a set time length, a race, a game, a season. They can tell a story in well defined easy to understand narrative. What makes this project so thrilling is that you just couldn’t make it up any better. Iconic racers like Ken Miles, the car that looked like a space rocket in 1965, a true alien species in amongst the normal looking Fiats and Porsches. It begs the question why hasn’t anyone tried this as a film before? The GT40 story lends itself to a long series of films as well, thought this is likely to be a one off, but the story of the All American assault on Le Mans in ‘67 with Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt two more American icons would have also been a brilliant story to tell.
Sixties sports was, and still is, looked at with rose tinted glasses, like all eras there was as much dross as there was great stuff happening. However it was an era that burned into the consciousness because of the birth of TV and the mass participation in sports viewership that led to the developments of sport as a spectacle. It wasn’t just in motor racing where you found great men doing great things in their own way. It was a time of great hope and renewed optimism. The AFL started as Lamar Hunt and his “Foolish Club” challenged the hegemony of the NFL with a brand of football that built upon fan loyalty, and having to find players that the NFL had ignored or, to be blunt, were just too racist to hire. A young fighter called Cassius Clay was coming out of Louisville, Kentucky who seemed boundlessly talented and could talk even better than he fought, and a young President said “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard;”. When Kennedy announced that the US would put a man on the moon within the decade, some felt that was easier than Ford winning Le Mans. It was the era of Go Big or Go Home, and that is what this story can potentially embed. So many of the era’s sporting figures are defined because of the exceptionality, the talent pools was more limited back then, and as a result the standards where higher. There was less media and fewer distractions, so projects that were built around striving for excellence would become the most newsworthy issues of the day, and in so many ways Ford at Le Mans has everything exciting about the eras intentions. On the one hand it is a tale of pure capitalist insurrection; Henry Ford II doesn’t get his way and devotes a large amount of resources to vanquishing his enemy. On the other hand, the heartbeat of the narrative, Shelby, is the artisan who has perfected his craft. Ken Miles, the driver of the ‘66 based film had his own issues to deal with, and in his dealings at Ford. It is great man history, but so much of what these men accomplished in life has bearing on popular culture and on motoring to this day.
Henry Ford II wrote Ford into sporting history, but would also develop a whole new approach to car manufacturing for Ford. The Mustang would also come along in ‘66, a first sports car designed for the new female working class, which would get a race makeover by Shelby in the form of the 350GT Mustang that would go on to be a force in Trans Am Racing and is finally available in the UK some forty years after its initial design. Shelby would work with Ford and later Dodge to develop racing programmes and street cars that continued to fuel the hot rod and hobbiest racing markets. The saddest part of this story would be that Ken Miles lost his life in 1967 testing what would become the 1967 GT40 MkIV. The most potent of the GT40s it would be piloted to victory by Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt at Le Mans, but not before Mario Andretti had flipped his GT40 in the same race. Andretti escaped with minor injuries because of the new roll cage installed after the Miles accident.
Ferrari vs Ford has the opportunity to capture not just an era of racing but the whole win at all costs mindset of the men of this era, something we are unlikely to see, for good or ill, ever again.