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Now Playing: Il Commendatore v. Hank the Deuce

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 14 2019
The No. 2 Ford GT40 takes the checkered flag at Le Mans. It was a moment fit for Hollywood.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

You’ve read one or maybe two of the many books on the subject, seen the movie trailer and, as a bona fide car-guy, have Ford v Ferrari squarely atop your must-see flick list.

More to the point, if you are a car-guy of a certain age, you have memories of that time in the early-to-mid-1960s when Henry Ford II declared war on Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In France! My high school-aged recollections of that period were shaped by a series of Saturday afternoon reports on a black-and-white TV screen during ABC’s Wide World of Sports, with Jim McKay providing the commentary.

Fascinated by Ford’s “Total Performance” campaign among all forms of motorsports, what I didn’t know then was that Henry Ford II wanted to buy Ferrari in 1963. That corporate purchase initially was approved by Enzo Ferrari, “aka il Commendatore,” who then backed out of the deal at the last moment.  According to a report in the latest issue of Ford Performance, “Hank the Deuce” was so incensed over that perceived insult that he formed Ford Advanced Vehicles with the sole purpose of building race cars that would defeat and humiliate “The Old Man” and his fancy blood-red cars at Le Mans.

“If that’s the way he (Ferrari) wants it, we’ll go out and whip his ass,” Ford snarled, quite famously. That history has been exquisitely detailed in Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans by author Preston Lerner _ a former colleague at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram _ in a coffee table book released in the fall of 2015.

The Automobile Club d’Ouest (ACO) invited Henry Ford II to start the race in 1966. Here, he strides through the pits with his glamorous Italian wife, Cristina, and his teen-age son, Edsel, in tow. (Photo by Dave Friedman)

Ford commissioned Shelby American and Holman & Moody of NASCAR fame to work with FoMoCo on the “Confidential GT — Sports Car Project.” That paper file still exists in the Ford Archives, housed inside the Ford Engineering Laboratory building on its Dearborn, Mich., campus.

Scheduled for release today, Ford v Ferrari chronicles Ford’s 1-2-3 podium sweep of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 1966. Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, both of New Zealand, co-drove the winning black No. 2 Ford GT40 and its thundering, 7.0-liter V8 to a controversial “staged finish” over Shelby American teammates Ken Miles of Great Britain and Denny Hulme, also of New Zealand.

Matt Damon is cast as “Ol’ Shel” hisself and Christian Bale portrays Miles, whose mercurial relationship with Shelby is the crux of the story. Recall that in June 1965, Ford entered a six-car armada at Le Mans, where a Shelby American Mark II qualified on-pole at an average speed of 141.37 mph around the 8.365-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. However, various mechanical problems sidelined all of the Fords before Sunday morning dawned, prompting Miles to call it “the greatest defeat ever suffered by a team in the history of motor racing.”

The Le Mans program had been handed-off from FAV in Great Britain to Shelby American in Southern California in late December 1964. Shelby was one of the first Americans to successfully race in post World War II Europe. Shelby, a native of Leesburg, Texas, was wearing his signature bib overalls when he won at Le Mans in 1959 sharing an Aston Martin with Roy Salvadori. When Shelby’s driving career was cut short by a heart condition after winning the U.S. Auto Club’s road-racing championship in 1960, he quickly morphed into a world-class salesman/self-promoter. The executives at Ford world headquarters knew him as a “snake-charmer.” The birth of the Cobra _ the mating of a British-built AC roadster with a Ford V8 _ soon followed.

A no-nonsense test driver for Carroll Shelby, Englishman Ken Miles was brimming with confidence in the cockpit of his Ford prior to starting from pole position in the first 24-Hour race run at Daytona International Speedway in 1966. (Photo by Dave Friedman).

A native of Birmingham, England, Miles had joined Shelby American in January 1963 as Cobra driver/shop manager. In his book, Lerner describes Miles thusly: “A transplanted Englishman who’d driven a tank across France during World War II, he’d retained his scathing British wit more than a decade after moving to the States. Even his friends agreed that he could be aloof, arrogant, fiercely independent and brutally sarcastic.

“He was 44-years-old when Shelby hired him to drive the Cobra. Lean and hawk-like, with a wicked sense of humor, Miles kept himself in impeccable shape, and loved to demonstrate how much fitter he was than his younger rivals. He was, if anything, more valuable to Shelby as a test driver.”

Prior to the 1966 Le Mans race, every senior employee working on the project received a 3×5 card with a handwritten demand from Mr. Ford:  “You better win – HF.” As noted, McLaren emerged as the winner of what Ford officials on-site envisioned as a hastily contrived “dead-heat finish” involving the cars driven by McLaren, Miles and NASCAR import Dick Hutcherson. 

Shelby acknowledged in Lerner’s book that Miles should have won the race, and took responsibility for the confused outcome and its blot on an otherwise historic victory. Shelby’s regret deepened two months after the Le Mans result. Miles was testing the Ford J-Car _ the planned successor to the Mark II featuring a lightweight aluminum honeycomb chassis _ when he was killed in a crash at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway on Aug. 17, 1966. He was 47-years-old.

The Le Mans-winning Ford GT 40 MKIV heads to victory lane with A.J. Foyt and team riding along.

Shelby, who favored an array of international models among his seven wives, received a heart transplant in 1990 and a kidney transplant in 1996. He died on May 10, 2012 at age 89. 

While I’ve never interviewed either Damon or Bale, my career at the Star-Telegram provided opportunities to interact with the key characters from Ford’s follow-up victory at Le Mans in 1967 _Shelby, A.J. Foyt Jr. and the late Dan Gurney.

Ford entered a seven-car armada at Le Mans in ’67. Included were four 427 cubic-inch V8 MKIVs shared by a world-class roster of drivers _ Americans Foyt, Gurney, Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue and Lloyd Ruby; the aforementioned McLaren and Hulme and Lucien Bianchi of Italy.

“We were sort of voted the ‘least likely to succeed,’ because either he (Foyt) was going to burn it up or we would try to fight each other,” Gurney said in various remembrances. “But it dawned on me that his approach was better than mine. So when we finally did do it, we not only won the race but we also busted the average speed record by over 10 miles an hour. It was a fantastic win for both us.”

Foyt’s longtime PR representative, Anne Fornoro, noted this week that “Super Tex” originally was scheduled to compete in that 1966 race, but was sidelined by injuries suffered in an Indy car crash during practice at The Milwaukee Mile. The following year Foyt was invited to join the Ford team by Californian Gurney and fellow-Texan Shelby.

Gurney and Foyt rocked the motorsports world on June 11, 1967, when they became the first/only All-American team to win the world’s most prestigious endurance race behind the wheel of the No. 1 Ford GT40 MKIV. It remains the all-American motorsports moment _ two American drivers in a genuinely American-built chassis powered by an American V8 winning on the world stage. Ford’s 1966 Le Mans entries were built by FAV in the United Kingdom and driven by a contingent of international drivers.  

A.J. Foyt and fellow American Dan Gurney got a satisfying win at Le Mans in 1967.

Ironically, Foyt never tested and had logged few practice laps in the little red No. 1 car prior to the race. Despite all that, he and Gurney and the car entered by Shelby American led an incredible 22.5 of the 24 hours, or just under 94 percent of the distance. They completed 388 laps/3,251.57 miles around the Circuit de la Sarthe at a record average speed of 134.865 mph.

In April 2017, Gurney and Foyt reminisced about their victory during a special 50th anniversary event which reunited the drivers with the No. 1 Ford MKIV for the first time since 1967. During that April evening in Long Beach, Calif., Edsel Ford II presented Foyt with the Spirit of Ford award, the racing division’s highest honor, which Gurney had received in 1999. The award recognizes lifetime achievement and contribution to the industry both on and off the racetrack.

Sitting with Gurney and Ford, Foyt entertained the idea of returning to Le Mans for the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1967 victory. Two months later, he did go back as a guest of Ford and was amazed at the changes in the venerable venue. He was driven around the track just before the race by four-time INDYCAR champion Sebastien Bourdais’ father, Patrick, a longtime competitor at Le Mans.

Racing fathers and sons figure prominently in the filming of Ford v Ferrari. Gurney’s son, Alex, a two-time national champion in sports car racing’s premier Daytona Prototype division, worked on the film in two capacities _ as a stunt driver/consultant in the on-track racing action and as an actor. Alex portrays his dad, Daniel Sexton Gurney, who died on Jan. 14, 2018 at age 86 in Newport Beach, Calif.

Foyt  _voted “Driver of the Century” by The Associated Press _may not see the film in any Houston theater. Fornoro reports that the last film Foyt, now 84, witnessed in a theater was (spoiler alert) The Godfather in 1972. If and when he does watch it, it surely will rekindle fond memories of a magical period in his motorsports life-and-times.

The Ford pits prior to the start of the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt drove the Mark IV J-6 in the foreground to the win. It was the first time an all- American car had won at Le Mans. (Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company)

Following in question-and-answer format is an edited interview with Foyt and Gurney from April 2017 conducted for Ford Performance, Ford’s motorsports division, combined with another session with Foyt for RacinToday.com at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth in June 2017:

QUESTION: After Ford won at Le Mans in 1966, did you feel pressure coming into the 1967 race?

A.J. FOYT: “At the time, I was supposed to go over in 1966 with the Holman & Moody bunch, but I got hurt at Milwaukee, burnt real bad. Ford lost three or four of their drivers before Le Mans that year: Walt Hansgen _the boy from the East Coast, was killed testing in the rain (at Le Mans), and (fellow-Texan) Lloyd Ruby was supposed to drive and he crashed his airplane taking off from Indy. I can’t remember who else. (Note: The fourth driver was Scotland’s Sir Jackie Stewart, who was involved in a horrific crash during the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix the same weekend as Foyt’s crash.We went over there to blow Ferrari off. That’s what Ford wanted us to do and that’s what Dan and I did.”

QUESTION: Fifty years later, you’re still the only All-American team to win Le Mans _ car, engine, drivers. Are you surprised at that? How do you feel about it?

A.J. FOYT: “I feel great about it, mostly because a few of my races were overseas and I was fortunate enough to win some of them, but most of them were in the U.S. I’m an American so it means a lot. I was invited to go back more than once but I said I went over as a rookie and won, so I have no reason to go back. It was great.”

DAN GURNEY: “Does it surprise me? Yes, it sure does. But all those wimps haven’t come back. I don’t know what’s stopping them. For us, Ford said they were going for it and they went for it. I’m very proud to have been part of it, just like A.J. is.”

QUESTION: You both competed during a special time in the history of American motorsports, an era probably never to be equaled. A.J., you won the Indy 500, then went over to France and won Le Mans. Dan, you won at Le Mans and then won the F1 race at Spa in Belgium in a car you built, the first and only time an American has done that. How do you each feel about that period of your careers?

A.J. FOYT: “I don’t think the boys (today) realize what they’ve missed. When Dan come up, and when I come up, it was altogether different racing. It was a great time in your life. Back then when I raced, I loved racing the Midgets and Sprints and stock cars and everything, like Dan loved to go over there and run (Formula 1) and he did a great job and I respect him highly for it. And for picking up a little Texan like me to go over and run the 24-hour, I give him a lot of respect. I know at that time, a lot of them thought I was kind of wild, so Dan had faith in me, and I knew if he got the car set up, I thought I could hang onto it for him.”

DAN GURNEY: “Of course, looking backwards, that was a pretty high peak in my career. I think racing drivers, a lot of people, want to have bragging rights and certainly A.J. and I have them now and that’s a fabulous feeling.”

QUESTION:  Neither of you raced at Le Mans again after that historic win. Why had you not gone back as a spectator, A.J., until 2017?

A.J. FOYT: “They finally talked me into it after 50 years. I told ‘em ‘No!’ every year. I went over there as a rookie and we won, I had no reason to go back.”

QUESTION: What did the 32-year-old A.J. Foyt think about Le Mans and its history and traditions and that course? That was the 35th edition of the race and it wasn’t much older than you. Were you overwhelmed or what?

A.J. FOYT: “It’s just another race _ but a great race. Actually it was like two teams _ two Ford teams _ fighting each other. I was glad to be driving for Carroll Shelby, he was from the Dallas area, and he was always about road-racing. He had a Ford team and Holman & Moody from (NASCAR) stock car racing, they had Mario Andretti and all them. So our goal was to win Le Mans but also beat Holman & Moody, and that was the whole deal.”

DAN GURNEY: “We wouldn’t tell them the time of day. But they were prepared, so they were going to do very well. They were all good drivers and we were friends until they became even better. Then we didn’t like them anymore. Typical thing.”

QUESTION: The field in ’67 featured seven Ford Prototypes, seven Ferraris and two of fellow-Texan Jim Hall’s winged Chevrolet-powered Chaparrals. Among the 12 Ford drivers, the Foyt/Gurney entry started ninth. Were you guys considered among the pre-race favorites?

A.J. FOYT: “No, I don’t think so. Ferrari (pronounced by A.J. as Ferreri) was the one winning everything (with the Ferrari 330 P4). And Henry Ford had married an Italian girl (Cristina) and I guess she told him, ‘There’s no way y’all can beat Ferreri’…and he said, ‘We will!’ And that’s where the champagne spray bottle come from _ Dan Gurney was the first one to spray him and her and all of us with champagne.”

QUESTION: What was your shared strategy before the race?

A.J. FOYT: “Dan (and I) had the same idea. We knew we couldn’t tear the car all to pieces. We knew we had to take care of it and I think Dan felt the same way I did. We had to nurse it, then when we had to run hard, we could run hard. I think that’s how we won the race.”

QUESTION: What was it like flying down the Mulsanne Straight without the current Michelin Chicane designed to slow the cars before the sharp right-hander at the end?

A.J.FOYT: “The only thing I didn’t like about it _ we was running about 250 mph in that car _ and they had the damned trees (lining the course) whitewashed about 7-foot…and I thought, ‘Boy, if your brakes  go out there, you’re in a lot of trouble.’ I mean, that’s where most of ‘em got killed. And where I got in trouble was probably around 5-6 or 7 o’clock that morning at the White House bridge _ (the virages Maison Blanche, since bypassed by the Porsche Curves) _ you know, near where Mercedes went across (into the crowd in 1955) and killed about 80 (84) people? That was a wooden bridge and that thing was slick. Well I went through there…I saved it but I don’t know how. After that I made damned sure I was safe when I went across it.”

QUESTION: How many of the 24 hours did you drive in ‘67, approximately?

A.J. FOYT: “I think it was about 14-and-a-half hours or so. They couldn’t find Gurney on one of the (pit) stops. They were looking for him and he wasn’t where he was supposed to be and he said he was…and that was a shift around from 2 (a.m.)…we was running four-hour shifts. And my arms were hurting so bad because Gurney (at 6-foot-3) was so much bigger than I was (at 5-foot-10) and we didn’t have adjustable seats in there. We had a bubble on the top because he was taller. So when I’m driving, I had to have both my arms straight out. The pedals we split the difference because Gurney was a lot bigger than I was. But nah, it was great. I always tease him, ‘You knew the shift you wanted to miss’ because that’s when it was always foggy and they (traditionally) had a big wreck. That’s when Andretti didn’t race.”

QUESTION: Dan, you made history during the post-race celebration with the famous spraying of the champagne. How did Henry Ford II react to that?

DAN GURNEY: “We were up there celebrating, and everyone was up there, Michael Parkes from Ferrari and all the Ford people. We didn’t call him Henry II, we called him ‘Hank the Deuce.’ He was an imposing figure and if he looked at you the wrong way, you kind of shriveled up and tried to disappear. He was there with a new bride, I think, on their honeymoon and when I started spraying him, I’m not sure he liked it or not, but he was a good sport about it and we had a wonderful time spraying champagne, A.J. and I both.”

QUESTION: The champagne spray. It was a spontaneous moment, right?

A.J. FOYT: “That’s true. I think Dan was as happy as I was. Now you see all the Formula 1 drivers doing the same thing, but we did it 50 years ago. It was just a great victory, I think, for both of us.”

QUESTION:  A.J., clear up this bit of apocryphal Le Mans lore. You have been widely quoted after winning that race as saying, ‘Le Mans is just a little ‘ol country road. We got plenty of them in Texas.’ Is that quote accurate?

A.J. FOYT: “I don’t recall saying that, but there are a lot of country roads here, I can tell you that.  I might have said it, I don’t know. It’s possible I did.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 14 2019
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