The 24 Hours of Le Mans is an ancient rite of spring, French style. It always starts as a road race. Then through daylight and darkness it becomes an exercise in survival, shattering the best drivers and the most beautiful cars in the world. More than 325,000 people stay up all night just to see the flash of headlights and hear the thunder of engines. There is extreme exhaustion and very little prize money, only an awful lot of glory for those who prove to be the best survivors.
This year the glory belonged to America. At 4 p.m. Sunday, on a blocked-off section of blacktop highway just outside town, a chunky Ford Mark IV wheeled triumphantly across a white line painted between a solid wall of spectators. Behind it came two Ferraris and a Ford held together by strips of tape: proud, battered and still beautiful. And scattered down the road behind them trailed just 12 other cars, the remnants of the fastest field and some of the most hectic hours in Le Mans history. In twisted piles of expensive junk—the battered monuments that men dedicate to endurance racing—lay 38 cars that had broken or crashed or burned.
The winning Ford was a 500-horsepower sports prototype, as red on the outside as any old Ferrari, and it had been driven in shifts by the inimitable new team of Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt of Indy 500 fame. They are the first all-American pair ever to win this solidly European event, and Foyt is the first driver to take both the 500 and Le Mans. To win they had charged along for a record 3,220.5 miles at an average speed of 135.40 mph—through splashes of sunshine, into a foggy night and back into a chill day.
It all began at 4 p.m. on Saturday, with 54 cars lined up in promising array. Le Mans is actually several races within one giant race, complete with little cars buzzing and snapping around the monster prototypes and a sneaky middle-sized Porsche lurking behind every hay bale. Still, a European road-racing fan is no different from anyone else: offer him a choice between little cars and big cars, and he will go for the heavyweights every time.
And they were heavyweights: America's Ford Motor Company, which had swept the race one, two, three last year, rolled in with six monsters—four new Mark IVs and two Mark IIs—all painted in deceptive lollipop colors. Ferrari, which had won the race six consecutive years before all this upstart nonsense from the States, shipped in three P4s of its own and had four strong racers in private hands. There also were two winged Chaparrals from Texas, which had not won much of anything but were so swift they looked as though they might at any moment, and a pair of Lola-Aston Martins in tones of British racing-green as dark as their hopes.
The first nine cars on the starting grid—six Fords, one Chaparral and two Ferraris—had all gone faster in practice than the track record of 142.980 mph. Ford's agents had signed and delivered 14 of the world's top drivers to play this deadly corporate game. Besides Gurney and Foyt there were two-time National Driving Champion Mario Andretti, Lloyd Ruby and Roger McCluskey from Indy, and from the road circuits such cool old hands as New Zealand's Bruce McLaren, Belgium's Lucien Bianchi and America's Ronnie Bucknum. It was so luxurious a situation that Dearborn could afford to spend the talents of Gurney and Foyt on the same car.
There was quite a bit more to the Ford cavalcade than name drivers. Ford people had wheeled in on Le Mans aboard what had to be every rental Fiat available at the Paris airport. They leased the Peugeot garage and installed huge tiers of toolboxes, a coffee machine and a Coca-Cola dispenser. By rough count there were no fewer than 119 Ford men at trackside, plus a guerrilla team of windshield experts flown in from the U.S. at the last moment to fix some glass that was cracking.
During practice, platoons of newsmen created such a pitside traffic jam that Jacque Passino, Ford's special vehicles manager, had to limit the number with special passes. "It's incredible," said Passino. "When one of our cars pulls in for a routine pit stop the newsmen collapse on it in a gigantic heap. Someone dangles several microphones, and if the driver says something mundane like, 'Jeez, I really have to go to the bathroom,' it's broadcast to everybody in the stands."
The clampdown stirred up a certain amount of bitterness among the natives, who regard all Le Mans cars as personal property with tires to be kicked with impunity. The tabloid France Ouest said, in rough translation: "We give you guys the Statue of Liberty, and now you won't even let us into your pits."
Despite such potshots the Ford front line was regarded more as colossal than colossus, and there was French sympathy for the Americans as well as for the more familiar European Ferraris.
The long Le Mans course twists for 8.38 miles through woods where trolls must surely lurk waiting for any driver who fails to negotiate the tricky bends. There is a straightaway that runs on nonracing days right into the village of Mulsanne. The course also threads past a few peaceful pastures, and on race day the smartest farmers are the ones who keep their cows in the barn.
Statistically, the race shaped up as France's alltime dandy. Enzo Ferrari's four-liter P4 prototypes were well-reared grandchildren of his successful 1963 racer—all bundled into new aero-dynamic bodies. Beneath each siren-red rear deck lay an engine stuffed with 12 dwarf cylinders and 36 valves—a fantastically complicated engine, as full of moving things as a Diners' Club computer, but one that looked as if it might run well into the next week without trouble. In fact, Ferrari's long suit for years has been the building of engines so strong that a crew chief has to beat one with a tire iron to shut it off. Every curbstone expert in town knew the P4s were turning out 450 hp at 8,000 rpm, and that Ferrari had had months longer to tinker with the basic design than had Ford with the Mark IVs.
Down the line the Mark IVs sat in magnificent seven-liter array. There is not too much you must know about a seven-liter engine except that you can fill its cylinders with seven liters of a good Beaujolais, which is capable of producing quite a performance in man or machine. Each engine weighed 560 pounds, wore eight barrels of carburetors and tended to generate so much power that the mechanics had to detune them to keep them from running off into the forest. At Le Mans the experts had managed to strap them in and hold them down to a modest 500 hp, which, nevertheless, provided more speed than the average French taxi driver would ever need in his most extravagant dream.
It was clear last weekend that anyone who ever speaks again of hare-and-hounds racing strategy had better go back to high-button shoes. Everybody wanted to be the hare, and to be the hound was to be in real trouble.
Gurney bounded across the track to his No. 1 Mark IV with long strides, doubled himself inside and proceeded to run every other rabbit silly. From that moment—even through the scary events that were to follow—Ford led all the way, with one car or another. Usually it was the No. 1 of Gurney and Foyt.
"Boy," Gurney said over his lunch break, "it's really something when you wing around that first corner and on into the Mulsanne straight and then glance down and discover that your seat belt is not locked. I began to steer with my knees—I held the speed down to about 195 or so—and I buckled myself in and then I really stood on it."
On the second lap around, four Fords were out in front and pulling away. The Ferraris were nicely bunched but hanging back, some experts said, waiting for the sky to be filled with exploding Ford engines. But that was not to be. There were accidents, yes. Explosions, no.
Three scant hours after the start everybody was still flying at the near flat-out pace of the opening minutes. Gurney was streaking along in front, averaging nearly 140 mph and playing tailpipe footsie with the Chaparral driven by Phil Hill. They were followed at that stage by another Ford and then the first Ferrari. Bianchi's Ford, bursting down the Mulsanne straight, hit 213.003 mph to record the top speed of the day.
Andretti sat comfortably at midday in fireproof coveralls and unruffled hair. "Man, I couldn't believe we would smoke off the Ferraris like this," he said. "I can pass any one of them anytime I want, anyplace on the track I want. People may say they're hanging back. All I know is that Chris Amon is really winging it, because his back end gets all squiggly when he goes around corners. He is obviously going as fast as he'll go."
Ferrari's Ludovico Scarfiotti, the terror of the Italian tracks, was trying as hard but not doing any better. About midnight Saturday he and Teammate Mike Parkes inherited the heaviest burden of pursuit. Amon's car had a mishap and burst into flames. Amon barely escaped.
A black, chill night settled over the woods and several hundred thousand Frenchmen had settled down with loaves of bread, cheese and wine to watch the Fords go by when suddenly, at 3:32 a.m., the entire character of the race changed.
Andretti, fresh from a nap, replaced Bianchi—who had been holding the car solidly in second place—and pulled away from the pits. As he sprinted savagely uphill and into the first turn at more than 150 mph the right front brake grabbed the car and swung it sickeningly into a spin. It bounced off dirt barrier walls, spewing coachwork and wheels, and pounded itself into something that did not resemble a Mark IV at all. The only thing left really intact was the honeycombed driving compartment.
Andretti scrambled out of what was left of the car, leaped atop a wall and sat there, stunned. He had a rib injury, cuts on his right knee and hand and a sore chest where he had slammed the steering wheel.
In the next instant McCluskey burst over the same hill, going full blast, and as the car settled into the turn he spotted Andretti's wrecked Mark IV sitting in the middle of the track.
"I didn't know if Mario was still in the car, and I knew I would kill him if I ever hit him," McCluskey said, "so I had to put her into the wall."
McCluskey's car slammed around and shattered, and Roger scrambled out and jumped up on the bank. McCluskey had been in 10th spot. Now there were two down, but one more was coming. Another Ford, a Mark II entered by Ford of France and driven by Jo Schlesser, arrived on the scene, spotted both wrecked cars, and it, too, went into the wall.
In those fast seconds, half the Ford backfield was wiped out. Not too many hours later, the entire back deck blew off McLaren's car and flew up toward the trees. McLaren made one lap around with his naked engine showing and retrieved the missing deck; back in the pits his crew riveted, pinched, welded and taped it into place. It made for the world's longest pit stop, but McLaren took the car back out, ragged as it was, and finished the race in fourth place. Then Bucknum's car broke, and the eyes of Texas, France and any other place you would care to name were all focused on Ford's remaining hopes, Gurney and Foyt.
By this time the Chaparral was out with transmission problems. Scenting the possibility of victory, the hounds of Ferrari now occupied the second, third and fourth positions and began the long wait for the Ford to fold.
They waited and waited and waited. Scarfiotti in the second-place car lay five laps off the pace. He waited all morning, tooling along. He waited as Gurney and Foyt periodically changed chairs, smiling broadly at each other. He waited in vain.
Foyt drove the winner home past a row of Ford pits piled deep with vice-presidents, top executives, engineers, the chairman of the board and his lovely wife, and past all the wreckage of the disasters. Then Gurney jumped up on the fender for the ride into the victory circle. Standing on a platform surrounded by an adoring throng, he and Foyt did what any happy new racing song-and-dance act would do. They popped open their bottles of champagne and sprayed the whole crowd, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford II included.
The Fords did not seem to mind. In fact, Chairman of the Board Ford allowed as how he would have liked to drive one of his own cars himself.
"But I'm just too old," he sighed. "I would probably put it into one of these hay bales and lose the race."