This weekend is the 82nd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest active sports car race in endurance racing which has held annually since 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France, and considered to be the most prestigious automobile races in the world. The race has a special place in Blue Oval history as well!
As the 1960’s began motorsports were gaining in popularity among the public and among auto manufactures. In Europe it was quite common for car makers to field racing teams with full factory backing in many forms of racing and the idea began to gain footing in the States with the increasing interest in speed in a country full of open roads and back yard tinkerers. Ford Motor Company Chairman Henry Ford II was no different, he had the racing bug and wanted the Blue Oval to be a dominant force in the winner’s circles of the racing world and set out to make it happen. While building a team to compete in the most famous American form of motorsports the Indianapolis 500 he received word early in 1963 that famed Italian auto maker Enzo Ferrari was interested in selling his company. Negotiations were entered into almost immediately and for a short time it looked as though Ford would end up owning the exotic prancing horse car company however, Mr Ferrari’s real passion was also in racing and when Henry Ford II told negotiators that the Italian company would NOT be allowed to field and entry in the Indy 500 due to Ford supplying engines to their own team the Italian called off the whole purchase! Henry Ford took it as a personal insult and committed to doing whatever it would take to completely destroy Ferrari on the track, where they were the most proud of their achievements!
A partnership with chassis builder Lola was already in place as the Indy Racing effort took shape so it was easy for Ford to extend that into the endurance race car effort as well and a mid engine design was quickly put forward. The Ford Advanced Vehicles Ltd team under the direction of Aston Martin’s former team manager, John Wyer, competing with the first generation of the new racer, the GT40, and failed miserably at Le Mans in ’64 & ’65, as Ferrari finished 1-2-3 both years. To ensure failure would not be an option it was decided that the effort needed a serious infusion of racing know how and Ford turned the entire effort over to legendary Texas racer Carroll Shelby. Mr Shelby had more than proven himself on the track as a driver and his little pocket rocket, the Ford Cobra had shown his hot rodding way of looking at design could create some unbeatable combinations! The entire team was moved to the Shelby headquarters in Southern California and the prototypes immediately began undergoing the Shelby ‘improvements’! Carroll was a huge fan of the phrase, “there is no replacement for displacement” and the original GT40’s 289 engines were taken out and the massively powerful Ford 427 engines installed in their place. Along with many suspension and bodywork changes the final versions were tested at the famous Riverside International Raceway, just a stone’s throw from our location here at Raceway Ford, and on the straights 200 mph was easily reached! The engine was borrowed from the Ford’s stock car racing effort and was so powerful that even when refitted with lighter aluminum heads with smaller valves with a lower output it is estimated that while racing at speed it was only running at around 60 to 80 percent of full output! To win at endurance racing longevity is key and with the help of famed engine builders, Kar Kraft, the Shelby 427 was Built Ford Tough and gained fame as being nearly indestructible! Another famous racing team, Holman and Moody were also working with one of the GT40 prototypes and when it came time for the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race Ford had a contingent of EIGHT Gt40’s ready to go! From the start of the action the Fords were untouchable, early into the race the new racers from Ferrai, the P3’s, were involved in an accident and the older more seasoned P2’s literally burned up their engines trying to keep up with the blistering pace being set by the big-block Blue Oval race cars! After 24 hours of complete dominance three of Fords amazing GT40’s took the checkered flag nearly together in the famous photo finish below!
The incredible GT40 went on to win at Le Mans in 1967, 1968 AND 1969 and well after Ford’s backing was gone private teams won with the ‘supercar’ in 1998 and 1999. In fact, the Ford GT40 has won more prestigious endurance racing events than any other model road-racing car in the history of motor sports! Never before or since has there been a racing effort that involved so many legendary names as the Ford GT40 project. A few of the iconic racing names that helped shape the GT40 include; Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Holman and Moody, Kar Kraft and of course the man whose single minded obsession made the effort possible, Henry Ford II. Although the checkered flag may have faded, the glory still shines brightly and there is nary a race face who doesn’t immediately recognize a GT40 from nearly any angle! An amazing car built by an amazing group of racers for an amazing car company, the Ford GT40.