Start!

Courtesy Getty Images

As the starter dropped the French flag at exactly 4:00pm, the drivers sprinted across the road and into their cars, cranking their engine, hitting the ignition and firing their cars forward in the fiercest fight for speed racing could serve. Phil Hill had problems, though. His engine stalled, when he needed it the most! Cars flew past him into the opening straight and Hill couldn’t believe his eyes. Mechanics and Ford executives looked on, distraught.

Hill would eventually get the car moving, but he was well behind the pack, in last, by then. Surtees was enjoying a blistering start, flying down the straight, up the slight right-hand incline, and under the Dunlop Bridge. But before he could catch a breath, two other Ferraris stole speed and darted in front, leaving him in third. The race just started, and there were many hours ahead. Still, getting off to a flying start was important. Surtees wasn’t deterred, pouring every bit of focus and speed he could muster.

At the end of the first lap, Ferraris were stealing the spoils, the red machines occupying first to third. Wriggling his way past the tricky esses on lap two, Surtees saw from his rearview mirror a Ford GT40 was pacing neck to neck. Surtees downshifted into second gear, veered into the right-hand Tertre Rouge corner and onto the Mulsanne Straight. Then he unleashed speed. Third gear, fourth and fifth, Surtees was almost clocking 190pmh, but the Ford behind wasn’t moving any slower. At the wheel was Richie Ginther, who suddenly shifted to the left, finding enough power to muscle past Surtees at such speed never seen on the straight.

It was a moment of bliss for Americans. Jim McKay was in the press box for ABC, screaming  “Word from the course is that Richie Ginther, who had moved up from eighth to fourth place, has passed some more cars. As a matter of fact, the word is that Richie Ginther has taken the lead in the second lap in the white Ford with blue stripes. The American racing colors are in the lead at Le Mans! There he is on the right of your screen. Get a look at that low-slung Ford! I’ve never seen a car as low as that!”

Meanwhile, Phil Hill was out of the action, mechanics digging into the engine to fix his car. He would lose over 20 minutes before motoring back to the track. Now in forty-fourth, Hill knew he stood little to no chance catching up with the Ferraris. He had won here before and knew well how tough the circuit was. Balancing speed and safety was his forte. If there was any time he needed those, it was now. Turning in a series of perfect laps, Hill put his rev and mph counter to maximum use, summoning 185 mph, then 200 mph in his bid to make up for lost ground.

Leading the pack in first, Richie Ginther entered into the pit at 5:30pm. Spectators were thrilled by his performance. Mechanics got to work, checking the tires and filling tank.“Well, for God’s sake,” Ginther shouted, “isn’t anyone going to ask me how the car went?.” He’d go on to tell how he flew past the Ferraris on the Mulsanne Straight, reaching 7,200 rpm and 210 mph in the process – another record-breaker. It was only two months back during test weekend that Surtees set a 194mph on the Straight. It took two minutes seven seconds to haul the #11 Ford back on track. Enough time to allow Surtees in front. Ginther’s teammate Masten Gregory took his turn at the wheel.

Courtesy Porsche World
Courtesy Porsche World

Race Day

On the eve of the race, Surtees was interviewed by Stirling Moss, the latter now covering ABC’s Wide World of Sports having enjoyed tremendous successes on the track. In some quarters, Moss was considered the greatest driver to ever grace the race track, but his career was truncated in an accident three years back. And here he was, his hands holding a microphone rather than a steering wheel. Like everyone else, the challenge of Ford in the 24hr race was something Moss looked forward to. Asking Surtees of Ferrari’s concern about the American threat: “To a firm like Ferrari which produces a specialized product and sells most of its cars in America, it’s very important.” Surtees replied.

Moss continued: “Ferrari has won this race four times in a row, and if he wins this race it’ll be five times, which has never been done. You’re entering four cars?”

“Yes.”

“How many men did you bring?”

“Our team is comprised of about twelve or thirteen mechanics, one engineer, and one team manager.”

Moss looked around the garage. There were seven cars. “What are the extra cars for?”

“In case anything unusual happens,” Surtees said. “For instance, the other night we were out and we hit a fox in the middle of the road at about 140 mph. It could have damaged the car rather badly.”

“Well I imagine it damaged the fox rather badly,” Moss laughed.

The interview was over, and sleep was next on Surtees’ checklist. He’d been tired all along. Thankfully, meetings were not part of Ferrari’s strategy. Everyone was left to himself on the track. Surtees was paired with another driving maestro Lorenzo Bandini. Both were clear favourites heading into the race.

Things were different at the Ford camp, though. Wyer summoned all racers to a meeting, dishing out instructions to his team. He wanted execution to be laser perfect, according to his orders.

“We want to finish the race. We aim to keep our cars running. We all must remember, this is an endurance race, not a sprint race.” Wyer said. Leading the Ford team were Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren. The goal was to “Stay close at court,” Wyer instructed. “Speed must be as high as possible while conserving brakes and gearbox. You must stay in a position to strike if attrition takes its toll on the leaders, which it always does.” As for junior drivers Briton Richard Attwood and Frenchman Jo Schlesser, finishing the race successfully was all that was expected. The other two drivers were Richie Ginther, who was fastest in the qualifiers for the Ford team, and Masten Gregory -“The Kansas City Flash.” Ginther was ordered to make the start difficult for the Ferrari drivers. Ford needed to show the world it was capable of upsetting the best, a point clear to all drivers in the Ford team.

* * *

With race time inching closer, the city was overwhelmed from all directions. There were private planes and helicopters in the airfield, cars moving bumper to bumper past the train station, the stage was set for one of the most anticipated days in Le Mans history.

The grandstands welcomed well over 300,000 spectators, an unprecedented number in the history of the 24hr race. Flowers were piled up around the spot where Pierre Levegh crashed nine years earlier.  Hour after hour, the clocked ticked closer to start time. Shortly before 4:00 P.M., all drivers were seen geared up, donning their fireproof coveralls, racing shoes, leather gloves, and goggles. Enzo Ferrari was watching from Italy. Shelby was in the cockpit, gripped by the thought of his company’s reputation on the line. Other Ford executives were present. National anthems were soon played, silence followed, and as the final moments kicked in. A voice over the loudspeakers counted in French:

“… Thirty seconds … ten seconds …”

Le Man 1964

Beating Ferrari on his home turf – Le Mans – was something nobody had managed to do from 1960 – 1963. That an American car could rewrite the history was not even conceived, a challenge Ford was ready to take on. Finishing the race alone was considered success, much less winning it. But surprises were becoming a staple in 1964. U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year before, and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington.

The Dearborn team was an Army of specialists, tire and engine men. Every one needed for Ford’s Le Mans quest caught the flight to France. Race week was always a hive of activity, and the build-up to the 1964 Le Mans was no exception. Three Ford prototypes were moved to a paddock beside the hotel. Mechanics were on hand all night taking apart every piece, and rebuilding them. The rear end was particularly a focal point. Wyer and his team had poured significant hours modifying the cars in time for Le Mans following the unsuccessful test weekend two months prior.

Practice and qualifying days were scheduled Wednesday through Friday, with Le Mans proper starting 4:00 P.M. on Saturday. Wyer took control of things, setting a rigid schedule that left nothing to chance. While preparations were in full swing ahead of race day, there was problem back home. The deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald had sent many suits to Dearborn. Investigations were underway. But Ford couldn’t afford to halt proceedings away from home, the firm’s PR chief stating “We are all shocked and saddened by this tragedy. But I don’t think it should be a factor in making us pull out of racing. It’s dreadful that it happened. But this is built into racing.”

Practice sessions soon took center stage at Le Mans. From silver Porsche 904s to Jaguar E-Types, red Alfa Romeo Giulia TZs and green Triumph Spitfires, the pit lane was lined with top-of-the-line racing cars from across Europe and beyond. Champions John Surtees and Phil Hill were spotted, as was Carroll Shelby who, unlike the former pair, had retired from driving and was now a constructor. Shelby was bidding for glory in the GT class – a feat yet to be achieved by an American car. He was lined with Ford money, and his Le Mans weapons were his Cobras. A win would shine the light on his little automobile company, but he had to wait till race day to find out.

Speaking to a Sports Illustrated reporter, Shelby admitted “Outside of the United States, the Le Mans race has more prestige than all the other races put together. Le Mans receives throughout the world probably five times as much publicity as Indianapolis. Any automobile manufacturer who wants to make a name for himself in racing has to do well at Le Mans.” Ferrari had entered four cars, up against three Fords and two Cobras. The engines took their turns cranking revs from all directions as qualifying races began. It soon became obvious that the 1964 Le Mans was going to be about records. And Ferraris were the cars to beat. From 3:47.2 to 3.47 and then Surtees’ 3.42, Le Mans lap record was consistently broken. Surtees shattered his own lap record ten seconds faster. Simply dumbfounding! Following Surtees was a Ford driver named Richie Ginther, with Mexican Pedro Rodrigues in third and Phil Hill finishing fourth. The qualifiers held over an 8.36-mile course, but less than four seconds separated the top four. It was game on!

Comments from Paul… even the 1964 GT40 was a good looking machine…

Unveiling the Ford Mustang

While things took a rather dismal turn in Italy, Henry II and lacocca were busy in the United States. Both men were in New York to unveil Ford’s next big thing – the Mustang, at the World’s Fair. There wasn’t a better time than the opening weekend to promote their newest build. Addressing the enthused crowd at the company’s exhibit, “We appreciate your coming here to share this moment with us, one of the most important occasions in Ford division history,” lacocca said. And “Incidentally, this is Ford’s first international press introduction. While we meet here, the Mustang is being introduced in 11 European capitals to some 2,000 reporters, editors, and photographers,” he raved.

Armed with millions of Dearborn dollars, lacocca was fully driving the Mustang into public awareness. By the following Thursday, Ford had launched an unprecedented presence in broadcasting – securing prime time half-hour programs on all three major television networks. According to Time: “With its long hood and short rear deck, its Ferrari flare and openmouthed air scoop, the Mustang resembles the European racing cars that American sports car buffs find so appealing.” Landing the cover page of Time and Newsweek, all attention was on lacocca – the marketing veteran. It all seemed he was the real deal, and Ford II was playing second fiddle in the media space.

Days later, on the eve of Indianapolis 500, lacocca had dinner with racing driver Eddie Sachs. Sachs was set to compete in a car running a Ford engine. Sach’s career had been a roller coaster – he had suffered over a dozen accidents, and was wearing a face that had been worked on by reconstruction surgeons. Still, Stachs was perfectly at ease heading into race day. His mission – to conquer the Indy 500.

Lacocca and a host of Ford executives made their way into their seats in the Penthouse Paddock the following day, the grandstand welcoming some 250,000 spectators. Track owner Tony Hulman ushered in the start of the race and the pack of thirty-three cars jetted away, the pace car – a Ford Mustang convertible with Henry II’s younger brother Benson commanding the wheel. The cars paced quickly into lap two. But something was going to unfold soon, unpleasantly. It was Dave “Mr. Sideways” MacDonald. Racing a Ford-engined car, the Indy rookie lost control of his machine on turn four, smacking its nose hard into the retaining wall and right back into the middle of the track like nothing happened. Behind and coming at full speed was Eddie Sachs. He had suffered many accidents in the past, but this was going to be worse. With a full tank and moving at 150 mph, there was little Sachs could do to avoid the mishap. He broadsides into MacDonald, giving off a deafening blast with a thick mushroom cloud in the aftermath. The sight was dreadful. Ford executives in the Penthouse Paddock were stunned. They had come to watch a racing competition, but leaving with a memory of two “powered by Ford” cars turned into fatal disasters.

Comments from Paul… See below video of the above crash… not a good day for Ford…

Closing in on Le Mans

The Ford GT40s were designed for speed, unlike any other to have ever graced the race track at Le Mans. The goal was to have them loop through the Mulsanne Straight at 200 mph. Two months before Le Mans proper, public roads were treated to a slice of the June showdown. It was April 18, 1964. Granted access to the pits, journalists and spectators gathered around the widely anticipated Ford GTs. That weekend, however, there was a competition in England – the Aintree 200, and Ford had entered with its top drivers including McLaren and Hill. Both were expected to be back in time before the test weekend was over. In their absence, Wyer had asked two other drivers to test the Ford GTs. They were Roy Salvadori and Jo Schlesser, the former was Le Mans champion in 1959, and Schlesser, a Frenchman with more crashes than successes under his belt, was brought in to spice up French presence in the Ford team. 

Salavodori was first to try out the Ford GT, firing the engine, putting the car in gear and getting the clutch to action on a slippery wet pavement. Off he went and the Dunlop tires gripped the 8.36 miles long track in style. It was an edgy moment for Wyer and Lunn. Any serious issues could put their Le Mans hopes in jeopardy. Flying past the Dunlop Bridge and down through the Essess and 3.5 mile Mulsanne Straight, Salvadori was back into the pit in minutes and his look spelled something was wrong.

“I can’t believe this, John, but I think we’re getting rear wheel spin at 170 mph,” Salvadori informed Wyer. That was enough speed to lift the rear off the ground, not the safest ride for any Le Mans driver. Was there some fault in the suspension system, or aerodynamics? Lunn and Wyer deliberated. The former was identified as the culprit. Mechanics got to work, but Salvadori wasn’t going to risk a second drive, he already had his fill and test day was over for him.

Taking his place was Schlesser, who Wyer instructed “Do not take chances. Bring the car back in one piece.” At the wheel, the Frenchman was off quickly, moving under the bridge in no time. A minute passed, and another, Schesser wasn’t seen turning the corner. He never did. A phone call came in informing there was an accident. Schlesser survived, thankfully. At 160 mph, Schlesser had lost control as the car fishtailed down the straight. Now the test day was over for both Lunn and Wyer. The only other GT40 crashed the following day with Salvadori at the wheel. Salvadori wasn’t hurt, but the car was totaled. The Ford Team had to regroup, headed back to England after test weekend.

News of the Ford failure spread quickly. The title credentials of Ford were put to the test, and things looked more bleak than promising. The New York Times reported on Monday morning: “In trials that ended yesterday, a Ferrari car driven by John Surtees was clocked at 194 miles per hour down the three-mile Mulsanne Straight. Nothing has ever traveled here that fast before. And two Ford prototypes crashed. These Fords were new, unbelievably sleek and expensive … People who know money think Ford can build a winner. People who know car racing are not so sure.”

Comments from Paul… wheel spin at 170mph!!! Looking forward to that!

Roy Salvadori