The 24 hours of Le Mans is not an automobile race," remarked Carroll Shelby only half jokingly. "It's a spectacle." To see the spectacle every year great throngs of Continental automobile fans, including a sizable contingent of American soldiers from Western Germany, make a holy motoring pilgrimage to the French city. They stand up most of the time, sleep on the hard, cold ground and gobble up Breton cr√™pes (light pancakes) the way Americans eat hot dogs. Actually, the spectators do not see much of the racing cars because they are out of sight most of the time. That is why the most fervent fans have to be amused by Coney Island-type stands and outdoor movies. There is even a golf tournament inside the circuit during the race.
All the same the Le Mans race and the county fair which springs up for two days around it are more than just a spectacle. Not joking at all, Shelby also said: "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."
As manufacturer of the Ford-engined Cobra Grand Touring cars, Shelby went to Le Mans last week to battle for a share of that prestige. He got what he went for. A fastback Cobra coupe driven by Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant outsped every other GT car, shaming two from the mighty Ferrari factory on the way, and seized fourth place overall.
But the big news at Le Mans and the reason for a record attendance of 300,000 was the presence of some swift new Detroit iron. Bored with a dreary succession of Ferrari victories, the crowd came to cheer three low, lithe, blue-and-white Ford V-8 coupes that promised, at last, to give Ferrari's fastest—four rakish red prototype sports cars—a real scrap.
America had tried before. In the years between the world wars there were assaults at Le Mans by Chrysler, Stutz, Du Pont, Overland and Willys-Knight, but the best the Yanks could do was a second by Stutz in 1928. The gallant and costly postwar expeditions by Sportsman Briggs Cunningham and his Cunningham cars yielded two third-place finishes.
Now here was Ford embarking on no gentlemanly adventure but a lavishly financed all-out war against the conquering Ferraris. Designed in Dearborn, built in England, equipped with the rugged aluminum pushrod V-8s first sprung at Indianapolis in 1963, the trio of Ford prototypes lifted patriotic American hearts with their speed in practice.
Only 40 inches high and 13 feet long, the new Ford is of steel monocoque construction with fiber glass panels in the doors and body ends. It weighs 1,820 pounds dry and is independently sprung on all four wheels. The 4.2-liter engine, developing 350 hp, is mounted behind the driver but forward of the rear axles. Later this year the new 425-hp overhead camshaft Indianapolis engine will replace the pushrod unit.
By using the resources of the small British Lola racing works and computer analysis of trial runs, and by heeding the lessons from the crackups of two preliminary models—they were aerodynamically unsound—Ford cut some six months from the time it normally would have taken to launch so ambitious a project.
At Le Mans the Ford men were cautiously optimistic. "Primarily," said Team Manager John Wyer, "we want to finish the race. We aim to keep our cars running rather than take part in a dogfight. We have no background of experience; there is a lot still to find out about the cars. Our real future lies in the medium to long period. History has shown that Le Mans is won by cars which are fully developed and almost approaching obsolescence. The possibilities are there; the basic engineering is superlative. I have no hesitation in saying that it is the best car I have ever been associated with. It has come closer to being raceworthy in a shorter time than any car I've ever known."
Said Ford Engineer Roy Lunn: "Our problem is that we have tried to jump on a moving tramcar going 50 mph. This year we simply plan to prove our potential and learn a lot."
"It would be a miracle," said a seasoned racegoer, "if they should beat the Ferraris in their debut at Le Mans."
Precisely at 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon the race began—and for one gorgeous hour it looked as if the miracle might come to pass. Peering through the broad expanse of windshield before him, perky little Richie Ginther of California sprinted out ahead of the Ferraris and everything else in the 55-car field, and stayed out ahead until time to trade off with co-driver Masten Gregory.
Pit mechanics took a good two minutes to refuel the Ford; as they dawdled, the Ferraris swept past, sounding the shrill, piercing exhaust note for which they are famous, and dreamers of miracles came back to earth. Phil Hill, thrice winner of LeMans in Ferraris, had started tardily in a second Ford and was far behind. The third Ford, driven by Britain's Richard Attwood and France's Jo Schlesser, was being outpaced.
Meanwhile, Shelby's Cobras were doing fine. "They're running first and second in GT," he exclaimed. "I don't care about the overall standings." Shelby's only concern was that his two Cobras, promising to repeat a GT victory at Sebring, were going a bit too fast. "The fellow who can keep his foot off the accelerator is the one who wins," he said. "It's a very long race."
Suddenly there was an accident that nearly became a tragedy. A green Triumph Spitfire, driven by an American, Michael Rothschild, went out of control at 100 mph, struck an earth barrier and bounced back onto the track. Pedro Rodriguez whipped by between the Triumph and the embankment, missing Rothschild literally by inches. An hour later Rodriguez was himself forced out of the race when his Ferrari blew a gasket.
At the Ford pit Phil Hill lamented his slow start and five stops for carburetor trouble. "I'm four or five laps behind now," he said, "but by the 23rd hour I'll be back among the leaders." Few took him seriously.
Less than an hour later, Hill's car was the only one of the three Ford prototypes left in the race. On the 58th lap, while in sixth place, Attwood's Ford inexplicably caught fire. Attwood escaped injury, but the car was out.
On its 64th trip around the circuit Gregory's car pulled into the pits with transmission trouble. For an hour mechanics desperately sought to fix the gearbox. They were unable to do so and out went Ford No. 2.
Disappointed fans settled back for another Ferrari walkaway. Then Shelby's Cobras began to move up and occupied fourth and fifth places, behind three Ferraris. Once in 28th place, Phil Hill, too, gained on Ferraris and by midnight he was eighth.
Toward midnight a British-entered Ford Cobra and a Ferrari collided. Three teen-agers standing on a forbidden section of the track were killed by debris from the collision.
And, alas, around 1:30 in the morning Hill's transmission selector went on the blink and could not be repaired. The third and last Ford prototype was out. Before it expired, though. Hill carved out the fastest racing lap in Le Mans history: 3:49.2. The only real question remaining was which Ferrari prototype would win. In the end it was the 3.3-liter V-12 of France's Jean Guichet and Italy's Nino Vaccarella. Followed by two other Ferrari prototypes, the winners in their wonderful, durable racer had set a record worthy of Enzo Ferrari, covering 2,915 miles at an average speed of 121.49 mph.
The Gurney-Bondurant Cobra might have finished third but for an oil-line break shortly before dawn on Sunday which took 35 minutes to fix.
"But," said Shelby, "fourth isn't bad at all'. Maybe America didn't hammer any nails in Ferrari's coffin this time, but we threw a scare into him. Next year we'll have his hide."