The real story behind ‘Ford v Ferrari’

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 15, 2019

The start of the 1966 24 Hour of Le Mans. Having waved the starting flag, Henry Ford II (first suit on the left) hustles across the track while the drivers spring to their cars.

The start of the 1966 24 Hour of Le Mans. Having waved the starting flag, Henry Ford II (first suit on the left) hustles across the track while the drivers spring to their cars. (Photo: Ford)

Track-side at Road Atlanta where Ford’s blindingly quick 2019 GT race car was competing in October, I asked Ford performance chief Mark Rushbrook if his company had contributed to the “Ford v Ferrari” movie that’s opening this weekend.

“We had nothing to do with it,” replied the man who oversees Ford racing. “I hope the Ford still wins.”

I’ve seen the movie and Rushbrook can rest assured that the 1966 GT40 still crosses the line first at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. The movie is not always so historically accurate. Produced by Disney/Fox, it takes broad artistic liberties with the story of Ford’s epic battle with Ferrari in order to create an action-packed, fist-flying, testosterone-fueled Hollywood buddy movie. Good ol’ boy racers Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles (played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale, respectively) win the world’s greatest endurance race in spite of the stuffed suits in Dearborn.

It makes for an entertaining 2½ hours at the theater.

But the real story of Ford’s historic win is just as compelling, even if it can’t be condensed into a 153-minute blockbuster. Ford’s dominance of the 1966 Le Mans under the management of the wise-cracking Shelby not only made racing history — it remade Ford as the performance-car company it is today.

Today the Blue Oval competes across the globe in endurance supercars, NASCAR stock cars, Focus rally cars, even NHRA dragsters. The latest Ford GT is a state-of-the-art carbon-fiber rocket. And Joey Logano took his Team Penske Mustang to last year’s NASCAR title.

So it’s hard to imagine that 60 years ago, Ford didn’t even race.

The company was founded in the early 1900s on Henry Ford’s driving skills — winning races to attract investors. But in the post-World War II era, that racing spirit had been snuffed out. In one of Washington’s regulatory spasms, Congress pressured the Big Three to agree to a “Safety Resolution” swearing off racing as morally irresponsible. The fragile truce unraveled as General Motors secretly poured money into NASCAR racing.

As Pontiac and Chevy dominated NASCAR, sales followed. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. Feeding a post-war Boomer generation’s need for speed, GM captured 61% of the market share by March 1962.

Ford CEO Henry “The Deuce” Ford II – at the urging of his ambitious marketing guru Lee Iacocca – exited the Safety Resolution in June 1962. Eight months later, Ford dominated the Daytona 500 and sales soared.

Then Enzo Ferrari came knocking.

Competing not on ovals but on tree-lined road courses, European racing was fast and often fatal. Ferrari drivers dominated the winner circles – and the obituaries – leading to a public outcry. Governments opened investigations into Mr. Ferrari’s enterprise. Once hailed for his automotive genius, Ferrari was scorned as the “Monster of Maranello” (home of Ferrari).

Suddenly Italians awoke to prospect of their national jewel being sold to Americans. The public rallied behind Ferrari and its founder yanked the rug out from under Ford. The unsigned contract that would have created the FeFo Corporation (short for Ferrrari-Ford) sits in Ford’s archives today.

Livid, The Deuce swore to beat Ferrari no matter the cost. In its backyard. At the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans 24, where Ferrari had dominated for a decade.

“It’s a great story because it works on so many levels,” says AJ Baime, author of “Go Like Hell,” the definitive book on the Ford-Ferrari clash. “It’s a great sports rivalry, a great business story about Ford trying to relaunch its brand in Europe, about two huge auto companies facing off.”

“Ford v Ferrari” screenwriters translated this epic battle into a fictional culture clash between the free-spirited Shelby and Miles, and corporate overlord Henry II (played by Tracy Letts).

But the reality was different.

Ford struggled to make its GT40 race car reliable in long races. So the company turned to Shelby and his competition director Miles to lead the team’s assault on Le Mans. The 1960s marked the birth of modern racing where corporate money seeded fledgling racing icons like Shelby, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Mario Andretti and a young competitor named Roger Penske.

“(The movie) does a good job of selling the story,” Shelby’s grandson, Aaron, said at the Shelby Museum in Las Vegas while standing next to the Ford GT40 that Miles drove in ’66. “It will open people’s eyes who have never heard of Shelby.”

Contrary to the movie’s portrayal of Ford as untrusting of the California mod shop, Iacocca had built a healthy relationship with Shelby, providing his Cobra team with Ford engines.

Indeed, Shelby disliked Ferrari as much as The Deuce did. A former Le Mans winner himself in 1959 for Aston Martin, Shelby had seen how Enzo Ferrari pushed his drivers to the ragged limit.

When Ford-powered Shelby Cobras beat Ferrari in the GT-class at Le Mans in 1964 – while Ford’s GT40s struggled against Ferrari in the premiere prototype class – Ford handed the reins to Shelby and his brilliant competition director.

“It’s a remarkable piece of history that a company with unlimited funds wound up relying on these World War II-veteran hot-rodders,” says author Baime.

The pairing thrust Miles – a skilled-but-unknown driver played to the hilt by Bale as a quirky, ornery Brit – into the international limelight where he thrived.

Contrary to the film, Ford did not conspire to keep Miles from driving at Le Mans. Nor did Shelby shame The Deuce by reducing him to a shaking puddle of tears after a tire-smoking test drive. In truth, Ford’s technical resources meshed with Shelby-Miles’ racing instincts. Ford II communicated only one message, hand-scrawled on small cards: “You’d better win.”

Miles piloted the 1966 GT40, stuffed with Ford’s brutish 427-cubic inch NASCAR V-8, at speeds over 220 mph against the sleeker 12-cylinder red Ferraris. He barely missed out as endurance racing’s first triple-crown winner of the Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24-hour due to a late race technical error.

Miles would perish in a crash – like many of his peers – just two months later. But Fords would win Le Mans three more years running, taking Dearborn to the racing summit it still occupies today.

On the 50th anniversary of Ford’s 1966 win in 2016, Rushbrook’s team led Ford to victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans’ GT class after an epic duel with a Ferrari 488. The win has helped sell Fords like the Mustang globally, making it the best-selling sports car in the world.

One of the Mustang’s trims is called the Shelby GT350 in honor of the race shop that built Ford’s reputation.

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