Henry II, Shelby and Daytona

The American speed revolution continued to blossom in 1965. Now open to the thrills they could only dream of a few years earlier, the young kids of the 50s craved for adventure, and speed. Ford responded with the Mustang – a big hit. Equally popular were the Pontiac GTOs and Plymouth’s Barracuda. In 1964, racing competitions were attended by fifty million spectators, eclipsing baseball games in popularity and only behind horse racing in spectator numbers.

By 1965, Ford’s quest for speed and dominance yielded unprecedented gains. “The company is now enjoying the most successful operations in its long history,” Ford II announced in a stockholders meeting. Sales reached an unprecedented high- $9.67 billion worldwide over twelve months, with profit at an all time-record of $505.6 million. Some 333,841 people were now in the company’s payroll. The Mustang was on course to becoming the most successful car launch of all time. The racing version was already in the works with Shelby in charge. Iacocca’s hard work paid off, he was rewarded with a promotion to vice president of Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln cars and trucks. Don Frey was also installed as head of the Ford division, a promotion that brought him to limelight after an extended period working behind the scenes. But other news soon followed. It had to do with the boss himself; Henry II had filed for divorce. “Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford II have decided upon legal separation,” his lawyer’s statement read. Not long after the split, on February 19, 1965, Henry II married the same Italian woman long believed to have swayed the boss’s attention to Europe.

At a press conference unveiling the company’s plan for the new season, Leo Beebe announced that Shelby American would be taking over the building of all sports cars Ford would be racing in the coming season. The move, according to Beebe was “to consolidate the construction and racing of all our GT-type vehicles within the same specialist organization.”

Built to race across major competitions in America and Europe throughout the season, the GT 40 was every inch America’s Ferrari fighter. It was designed specifically to challenge for the big three – the Daytona Continental, the 12 Hours of Sebring and LeMans. Having debuted his car, the Cobra, at the New York Auto Show three years earlier, Shelby’s reputation soared in the racing scene; his car sales toppled all other independent manufacturers in the country, employing nearly 200 people in the process.

It was eight weeks left for Shelby’s men to have a ready GT40 for the Daytona 500. The team took the existing car apart, starting from the ground up to redesign a winning race car. Over the next weeks, they rebuilt the air ducting system and lubricating systems, Halibrand magnesium wheels in place of the Italian wire-spoked tires, fixed larger front brakes, and installed an engine delivering 450 horsepower. “We have several advantages over other people who have played with the car,” Miles said addressing a reporter days before Daytona. “We can react to a suggestion—we can do something right now. We don’t have to go through elaborate procedures of putting through formal design changes. If we decide we don’t like something, we can take a hacksaw and cut it off. Practically everything we do is a panic operation. But if anyone can do it, we can.” Laid out over a 3.81-mile road course, the Daytona Continental 2,000 Kilometers was America’s longest race.

On morning of raceday, Shelby summoned his team, dishing out instructions and pep talk. Leo Beebe made the trip from Dearborn.  “This is a team effort,” Shelby began, and “The goal is to finish as many cars as high up as possible. Just let things take their natural course. If you happen to be in front, fine. If you happen to have an extra-long pit stop that puts you back to fourth, I’ll give you instructions as to whether you should try to pick up time or hold your position.”

Thousands gathered to watch from the grandstands. By 10:00 am, three dozen cars thundered down the opening straight. If there was one man to keep an eye on, it was Surtees, who comfortably took the lead. Shelby knew stopping him would require something unusual. And it happened: Surtees blew one of his tires on the bank, fishtailing in a cloud of smoke and dirt, away from the track and onto the grass. With the car’s bodywork damaged, the Ferrari man was done for the day, giving Miles and his Ford teammate Ruby an advantage. The sight of Miles speeding past the grandstand at 190mph was simply surreal. The race came to an end after 10:00 pm, and as the checkered flag waved, Shelby’s cars finished first through fifth. It only took eight weeks, and the elusive checkered flag was finally delivered to Ford II.

Daytona 1965

Aftermath

The Ford team gathered at the Hotel de Paris the Monday morning following race day. Awaiting them was Ford executive Leo Beebe. The forty-six-year-old was Ford II’s trusted man for progress reports. Sure, the prototypes didn’t hit a home run, but Wyer believed there were positives to take from the team’s debut at Le Mans. Leo Beebe didn’t think so.

“I don’t know anything about racing,” he began. The transmissions failed, “You could lay it to a gearbox,” Beebe said, “but if the gearbox didn’t work how can we know anything else would work?”

They had to remember Henry II parted with a lot of dollars on the prototypes. Anything less than a win was a bad performance. The team had another chance, though – the 12 Hours of Reims. It was only a fortnight away. This came too early for the drivers. If they were going to race against Ferrari’s men without enough time to fix the car, results couldn’t be any different. Besides, the 12-hour race started at midnight with many undulating straights to contend with. The chances of success were simply stacked too high on the negative. But Beebe’s word was final.

And so two weeks later, the Ford team, led by Phi Hill, took on the challenge at Reims. Again halfway through the race, by sunrise, the Ford team was done. Mechanical failure after mechanical failure, all three cars pulled out of the race. Enzo Ferrari coasted to success, his cars finishing first to fourth.

But Ferrari wasn’t done, yet. The Grand Prix at Monza was in his sight, followed by the Italian Grand Prix. Politics played out leading to the 1964 Grand Prix, though. Surtees was Ferrari’s flagship driver, Lorenzo Bandini was number two. Having come up through the ranks working in Milan, the hometown of team manager Eugenio Dragoni, Bandini was naturally more favoured than Surtees.

Surtees’ quest to win the Grand Prix on two wheels and four saw him up against his teammate late in the season, with barely any press support from his own team manager.“Any right-thinking Italian should be able to see that in Bandini, Italy has a true World Champion,” Dragoni said to reporters. Still, Surtees fought his way through, winning the Monza battle in record speed and with Bandini finishing third. His quest achieved, Surtees headed to the podium with chants of Il Grande John from the crowd.

Back in Dearborn. There were brewing concerns over the GT40s. None had finished a race, even after the third attempt. The only consolation was Shelby’s Cobra success in the GT class. Beebe wanted a change, something had to be done if they stood a chance to stop Ferrari the following year.

An idea came up, there was a 427-cubic-inch engine available, the same engine that had displaced other racers at the 1963 Daytona 500. The engine had a size more than twice the one Surtees raced at Reims. But Wyer didn’t feel the problem was all in the engine department. No constructor had ever injected such massive engine in a lightweight sports car. Sure, “More power is always welcome,” Wyer said, “but not at the expense of development and durability. I understand the 427 engine weighs 600 pounds. This would result in a car weighing 3,000 pounds. For practical purposes it would be a new car. We’d be putting back the clock exactly 12 months and running the risk of going to Le Mans again with a car that was untested and untried.” From fuel consumption to the braking system and the transmission, a number of problems also had to be addressed if the idea was to materialize.

The Nassau Speed Week was only weeks away, and so Wyer headed back to London to get two Fords ready in time for the duel in Bahamas. It was a minor race, and the Ferrari threat wasn’t there, a win was all but expected this time. But things only got worse under the pounding Carribean sun; mechanical failures ushered Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren to an early exit.

This was the peak of it all for Leo Beebe. Beginning his post race meeting “I don’t know anything about racing.” He said addressing Wyer, “But there is one thing that has become increasingly apparent to me in the past few months. You don’t either!” Beebe went for the change, stripping the responsibility of constructing Ford’s Le Mans prototype off Wyer’s hands and handing it over to Carroll Shelby. Shelby brought in his trusted technician Phil Remington, hired Carroll Smith as project manager and signed on Ken Miles as competition manager.

With the 1964 season coming to an end, all eyes turned to Mexico City for the Mexican Grand Prix. Surtees only needed to finish second or better and he’d be World Champion. As the race entered it’s final lap,  Surtees trailed in third, but he still had enough muscle to outrun his teammate Lorenzo Bandini to finish in second. And that did it! He officially became the first man to be crowned World Champion on two wheels and four. So many hands awaited Surtees, including those of Prince Philip of England. He was also given a Longines watch by the president of Mexico. But dinners and pleasantries over, Surtees switched focus. Ahead lay the 1965 season.

Ferrari LM250 at Reims 1964

Attrition, Speed and the Finish

Led by Dan Gurney, Shelby’s Cobras were outperforming other cars in the GT class. But would his cars hold up until the end? The Texan could only hope so. Shortly after the race entered its fourth hour, a concern sprung up for Wyer’s team. A GT40 had caught fire on the Mulsanne Straight. But there were, thankfully, no casualties as driver Richard Attwood had climbed out safely before getting hurt. It was over for one of the three prototypes Ford entered into the race. The fuel hoses were later identified as the culprit. They were made of plain nylon instead of an ultra durable synthetic material. “It was a miracle the other cars were not affected,” Wyer later commented.

Meanwhile, the race for first was heating up between Surtees and Gregory. Gregory soon overtook Surtees as he blitzed past the grandstands again, fuelling morale in the Ford pit. Leaning to Wyer, “It is enough” Frey said. “If we do nothing more in this race, I am satisfied.” But things another twist – Gregory pulled into the pit minutes later, there was problem with the transmission. Efforts to get the car back on track proved fruitless, and so Wyer was forced to withdraw the second Ford. Hill was in the last Ford, but he was trailing the leaders by a long stretch with 19 hours racing hours left. Disappointing!

With increasing loss of visibility, there was more danger in the mix as racing entered night time. Hill came down for McLaren at midnight, the former later describing the four-hour shift as “the best 500 racing mile I’ve ever covered.” The gathered mass turned to sausages, oysters, and French fries served in the busy sideshows to ward off boredom at night. Others curled up in their cars, and some slept in the fields turned camping ground.

ABC’s Jim McKay was still woke though, screaming “It’s the middle of the night here, and the leader is the favored car, the factory Ferrari driven by John Surtees and his partner Lorenzo Bandini, who was one of the two winning drivers last year. That first-place car is followed by two more Ferrari’s. However, of very much interest is the fourth-place car, the #5 Cobra driven by Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant of the United States. That car is not only in fourth place but is leading the GT division. And in fifth place, a remarkable story is the one remaining Ford in this race, driven by Phil Hill and his partner Bruce McLaren from New Zealand. That car has moved up from forty-fourth place. It’s going faster than any other car by far, lapping faster and faster every time …”

It had been a largely safe race until midnight, but an accident soon occurred. The clash involved a Cobra V8 and a Ferrari V12. Both drivers were struggling for position when things went out of control. The drivers miraculously survived, not so the three young men that were entangled under the wrecked cobra.

The race continued. At 5:20 am and despite the morning fog, Hill set a race lap record of 3:49.2. Not long after, he faced gearbox problems and pulled into the Ford pit. The Italian-made transmission was the culprit, again. The race was only reaching halfway, and Ford had to pull out its last car. It was over for the Americans. 

Not long after Hill’s exit, Surtees pulled into the pit, his 330 P was leading the race until then. By the time technicians would get his car fit again, he was trailing in third. Moving in fourth place was a Shelby American Cobra. Dan Gurney was signaled to pull in the #5 Cobra into the pit for repairs and driver change. Gurney was ahead of the pack in the GT class, slamming a new lap record in the process. In his place following some mechanical work was Bon Bondurant.

As the 24hr race slowly ticked away, the order of finish was all but assured. Drivers cruised slowly to seal their finish. The car in first-place was five laps ahead of the one in second, and the second was seven laps ahead of the third. There was nothing to fight for as the fiercest automobile race in the world came down to its final minutes. The weary spectators only awaited the waive of the checkered flag and the crowning of the new champions.

First to roll over the finish line was Ferrari’s Sicilian Nino Vaccarella and Frenchman Jean Guichet. Surtees was third. Five Ferrari cars finished in the top six, with a Shelby Cobra coming in fourth – and winning the GT class. Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren could only watch as spectators. National pride restored, it was five in a row at Le Mans for Enzo Ferrari.

Shelby and his men surrounded the winning Cobra, and ABC’s Stirling Moss was on hand to interview drivers Gurney and Bondurant.

“Congratulations, Bob,” Moss said. “History I reckon has been made here today. How are you feeling, how much sleep did you get?”

“About five hours,” replied Bondurant. Turning to Gurney “How about you?” Moss said, “About three, I think.”

It soon became obvious it wasn’t only the Americans that wanted to beat Enzo Ferrari. Huschke von Hanstein, competition manager of the Porsche team couldn’t but express his delight: “Thank you for beating them,” he said hugging Bondurant.

Shelby Daytona

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 …”