1966 marked Ford’s first victory ever at Le Mans, but even if you’re not a Ford fanatic, it was still a remarkable achievement for a few reasons. It was the first time an American automotive manufacturer had placed at the prestigious race. It also was one of the closest races of all time, with a finish so controversial that over fifty years later people are still obsessed with it.
24 hours of Le Mans
Le Mans is a 24-hour endurance race, and if that sounds absurd that’s because it is. Most races test top speed. For a drag race, it’s not even necessary that a car can run for a full minute.
Endurance races test speed, but also reliability. No major repairs are allowed during the course of the race, and the winner is whoever completes the most laps at the end of the race.
Le Mans also tests teamwork. In the early days of the race, drivers could enter solo vehicles, but soon that practice was abolished due to well-founded safety concerns.
If you wanted to compete today, you would need a minimum of three drivers, but in 1966 drivers drove in teams of two. When they chose to swap out was up to the drivers, and they needed to know each other’s strengths and be able to balance appropriately. Likewise, drivers needed to have a good relationship with their pit crew. Since big repairs weren’t allowed, every small shimmy or shutter needed to be addressed before it became a catastrophic failure.
The track itself is a little under eight and a half miles long and is situated outside of Le Mans in France. Though part of the track is always dedicated to racing, a significant portion is an active road that is only shut down for this event. That means that those sections are especially slick due to a lack of rubber.
Race cars have soft rubber tires that leave rubber behind on roads, making them a little tackier. Unfortunately, streets don’t get this sort of treatment, and the transition of seasoned track to slick passenger road has caused more than a few drivers to lose their bearings.
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Shelby and Ford
In 1965, Ford asked Carroll Shelby to take over their performance division, which included the work on the GT40 and running several teams.
1965 was a disaster, and not a single Ford finished.
For 1966, Shelby and Ford came prepared.
Shelby had three teams to run, and his roster of drivers was fairly eye-popping.
Ken Miles and Denny Hulme; Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon; and Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant were all on Team Shelby, while Holman Moody ran three additional Ford GT40s.
Two of the Shelby-led teams came in first and second, but who should have been awarded the trophy is a matter of significant discussion.
Ultimately, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon were the most deserving according to the Le Mans officials, and Ken Miles and Denny Hulme were the unfortunate victims of a brilliant marketing scheme and a rule that had never before been needed.
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Coming in first is great, but taking first, second, and third? It was the kind of absolute victory that Ford had wanted from the start. They decided to have the cars finish at the same time.
That meant asking Ken Miles to slow down.
It’s been said that Miles was a true racer. A man who would have raced, and beat, his own grandmother to the breakfast table. No one was sure how he would take the news that he needed to dim his own achievement in order to help the rest of the team shine. It wasn’t an easy choice, and in photos, it’s obvious that Miles struggled with his choice, but he did it just the same.
Miles may have been a true racer, but first and foremost he was a true teammate.
When Miles and McLaren finished, they both headed to the winner’s circle but Miles was waved aside.
Le Mans does not allow for ties.
In the event of a tie, whichever vehicle had traveled the greater distance won, and since McLaren’s starting position was eight meters behind Ken Miles’, McLaren was the victor.
Ford at Le Mans
Ford competed at Le Mans for several more years, and returned to Le Mans in more recent years as well, but that first victory is the one that people remember, both because it became one of the most memorable finishes in the history of the race, but also because it was the start of a four year long winning streak.