When a car race comes up and grabs you again
Appeal' entertainment and GO page editor
You never can tell when your past is going to come out and grab you by the elbow, like last Saturday in Reno at the Shelby Ford Cobra car roundup.
Some 200 Cobras were lined up around the Sparks Nugget casino, and I was there with old friends Marilyn and Bob (who’s buying a Cobra).
The cars were like jewels, each polished and buffed to mechanical beauty, engines masses of gleaming chrome. Not a dent, not a scratch to be seen. Wandering among the cars, I came to one that was clearly not a Cobra – it was a coupe with a massive rear-mounted engine. I eyed it, feeling like I’d seen the car before. I asked the nearby owner, Kevin Tanner of the Bay area, about it.
“It’s a Ford GT40,” he said. “About 11/10ths the size of the original. Bought it in a used car lot when it had 700 miles on it.”
That’s when the past reared its worn head. I said to Tanner, “I’ll bet I’m the only person here who saw the original GT40s win the 24 hours of Le Mans race in 1966. I was covering the race from the Ford pits, where team manager John Wyer invited me.”
What a race that had been. Ford had built the GT40 after Enzio Ferrari had backed out of a deal to sell Ferrari to Ford, possibly out of a snit. I had been covering the F1 race circuit in Europe that year, and had added the Le Mans outing because it was so different from the tight courses of Formula One, where the cars are all open cockpit and open tires on circuits such as Monaco or the Neuerberg Ring in Germany.
The 24 Hours takes place outside of the north French town of Le Mans. Some 50 cars of widely varied size and power take to the 8.5-mile course, much of the track on ordinary country roads with some race stretches spliced in. Many of the cars have no hope of winning, but just finishing gives them some promotional muscle.
But it also mixes cars such as the factory-prepared Ford GT40, Ferraris, Lola and Porches with those such as Peugeot, Alfa Romeros and other smaller cars. This makes for some dangerous driving as the big cars swirl past the chuggers – in road racing, you never know what is going to be just round the next bend. (Mercedes was at one time with the SR300R gull wings, but a Mercedes crash in 1955 killed 50 people, and the company dropped out of racing for several years, also allowing Phil Hill to become the first American F1 champion.)
I learned about that when California Porsche driver Richie Ginther gave me a ride in his factory Porsche at the Neuerberg Ring in the Vosages. He was only going 8/10ths of his normal speed, but I was terrified at each bend, wondering what was waiting around the corner for us. That’s when I realized I could never be a race car driver.
The scene at the 24 Hours is part race course, part carnival, with fireworks thrown in. Thousands show up for the race, and the food and the Ferris wheel and bump’em cars. Of course, it starts at around 4 p.m. and runs nonstop, so the crowds thin out around midnight, but return for the finish.
In 1966, I was in the GT40 pits with Wyer and his crew. At 4 p.m., the drivers lined up on one side of the track, the cars on the other. When the French tricolor dipped, the drivers raced across the track, jumped in their cars and dashed off – always tricky, with the little ones often getting out first only to block the real runners. (They changed the start after seat belts became mandatory; drivers rarely fastened seat belts in the rush to get rolling.)
The start got off with the GT40s in the pack, but they quickly came up along with the Ferraris to lead. They kept that lead for the 24 hours involved, with drivers Chris Amon and Bruce McClaren switching places. The pit crews lounged around, the “birds” (as women were called then) kept track of the laps, and Wyer scowled around.
By 10 p.m., it was clearly a GT40-Ferrari race. Cars were getting pranged and limping into the pits to have dangling pieces of bodywork removed. The noise was like ocean waves, and by 11 p.m., I told my photographer I was going to crash in the car. Sleep was fitful at best; the noise level was so high.
By noon, I was back in the pits, after brunching on crepes and cafe au lait. The GT40s were out front, three of them roaring along. As the finish neared, Wyer signaled to the lead GT40 to slow down to allow all the GT40s to cross the line together. Which they did, doing a victory lap before being greeted by Henry Ford Jr. in the pits.
I had been working on a feature story while the Paris bureau was doing the bulletin filing. Years later, I met the Paris reporter, Rod Angove, at a ski outing. We became fast friends, but never saw each other at the race.
So there I was, with 41 years behind me, looking at a spiffy version of the GT40 (so called because of the 40-inch height of the roof). The new version was much more refined, with an engine that put out 700 horsepower, according to the owner. I remembered the original GT40s, gray (or is memory at fault?), reeking of gasoline and burned rubber, the drivers oil-stained and exhausted after the finish.
Amon and McClaren both died in race accidents. Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt drove in ’67, and I don’t know who took the last two victories for Ford. But the Americans never really mounted another serious challenge; the Japanese came in, but didn’t win four in a row. And Ferrari and Porsche returned, plus new marquees.
But that 1966 race was one to remember.
• Sam Bauman is the Appeal’s entertainment and GO page editor.