Editor’s note: The following article includes information revealed in the current box-office film “Ford vs. Ferrari.”
The legend of the Ford racing machines tied to Carroll Shelby is featured in the current movie “Ford vs. Ferrari,” and also in a documentary, “24 Hour War,” from 2016. These films cover Ford’s effort to overtake Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, starting in 1964 and concluding with four straight Ford victories from 1966 through 1969. The Shelby Ford also started a rivalry with General Motors’ Corvette in Sports Car Club of America racing in the United States. Above, Dick Roe, racer turned president of Brainerd International Racing starting in 1973, is shown in an Italian magazine centerpiece driving his Shelby Cobra wide-body that he raced in 1966.
Ford vs. Ferrari
Sebastien Buomi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso drove a Toyota hybrid to victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the middle of June. Maybe you already knew that. I had to look it up.
“Ford vs. Ferrari” offers many lessons to moviegoers in its 2½ hours, including a big one: the manner in which sports car racing at its highest level of performance has basically disappeared from the consciousness of America’s sporting public. We can’t put up with a four-hour ballgame, much less wait anxiously on updates from a 24-hour endurance race in France.
What took place when Henry Ford II decided to take on Enzo Ferrari for endurance racing supremacy in the early ’60s did help to bring a brief golden age of sports car racing to this country.
This included the Can-Am series that brought the world’s most famous drivers to North America from 1966-74, including Can-Am championship races at Donnybrooke (now BIR) from 1970 to 1972.
The heroes of the movie are Ken Miles, driver and master at finding speed (played by Christian Bale), and Carroll Shelby, promoter and master at hiring mechanical wizards (played by Matt Damon).
Ford’s first try at a full Le Mans effort in 1964 failed, Shelby was put in charge of the program, and then in 1966 the Shelby/Ford creations blew away Ferrari. You’ll find out how Miles got robbed by Ford’s contrived plan for the finish by watching the movie.
Shelby helped to promote a sports car race sponsored by Land O’Lakes in the Met Stadium parking lot in July 1965.
Shelby’s Fords had failed to hold up against Ferrari a month earlier in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but he did win the 12-hour Grand Touring race and the World Manufacturers trophy in Riems, France.
“I’m very proud that we at Shelby American were able to give America its first international manufacturer championship with a Cobra,” Shelby told the Minneapolis Tribune’s Bob Fowler.
A year later, the Shelby-prepared Fords finished 1-2 at Le Mans, and the man under the cowboy hat had pride that decades later became movie-worthy.
Dick Roe: racer, track operator
Dick Roe bought a well-used race car from Jerry Hansen as a teenager, and then, in 1959, the pair received their racing licenses from the Sports Car Club of America.
They were both successful in the Twin Cities and the Midwest region. Hansen won a record 27 national championships in Sports Car Club of America divisions. Roe was also a winning driver, until Dick (40%) and Hansen (60%) bought the closed Donnybrooke track from owner George Montgomery in 1973 and reopened it as Brainerd International Raceway.
“I watched the movie, and it hit close to home,” said Roe, 82 and living in Chanhassen. “I was the Ken Miles character, doing the work, and Jerry was the Carroll Shelby character, promoting the product.
“I didn’t have time to race anymore. I ran the track. I was there every day, working.”
Earlier, Roe had some wonderful race cars, including a pair of Shelbys. The first was in 1965, a Shelby Mustang GT 350, one of about 150 that were produced.
Roe showed the receipt: a base price of $3,646, with a freight charge of $39.35. “It was a great car,” he said. “And then I got a letter from Lew Spencer, from Shelby American, offering me a chance to buy a 1966 Shelby Cobra.”
Roe sold the ’65 and bought the Shelby Cobra wide-body, meaning flared rear fenders.
“They made 29 total and only two had the wide fenders — my VIN number was 2557, and the other was 2558,” Roe said. “The Corvettes didn’t have a chance against that car.”
General Motors had great influence with the Sports Car Club of America, and it didn’t like the Corvettes getting smoked. Roe received advance information the wide-body Cobra was going to be banned from SCCA racing, so he sold it for $5,500 in April 1967 and bought a Yenko Camaro.
“It was the first time I ever raced a car and then got the same price I had paid,” Roe said. “I thought I’d pulled a fast one.”
The Shelby Cobra, VIN 2557, has changed hands several times. On its 50th anniversary in 2016, it was sold again.
Yes? “It sold privately for $2.1 million,” said Roe, smiling sheepishly. “If it goes to auction next, it might be $3 million.”
Carnage on the track
There is a scene early in “Ford vs. Ferrari” where Walter Hansgen is involved in hard racing against Carroll Shelby. This is in the late ’50s before Shelby was forced to retire from driving because of a heart condition.
Then, in the documentary “24 Hours War,” Hansgen is shown crashing in a fatal test run at Le Mans in April 1966. He was driving one of the Fords prepared by Holman and Moody, not by Shelby.
It is amazing to look back at the carnage of top-end, high-performance racing — at Le Mans, in Formula One, in Indy Racing, in test runs — in the 1950s and well into the 1970s.
The sports car racing craze that traveled from Le Mans to the U.S. hit Minnesota in 1968, when George Montgomery opened the 3.1-mile Donnybrooke track that’s now BIR.
The biggest racing seasons for Donnybrooke were 1970 to 1972, when there was a Trans-Am race in July and a Can-Am race in September. The drivers in the Can-Am series included Jim Hall, Mark Donohue, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren, Jackie Oliver, Peter Revson, John Surtees … even Jackie Stewart ran a Can-Am season.
The crowds were large, even with football in full swing in September. Yet, this is what strikes you in looking back at those star-powered grids:
Donohue won the Trans-Am at Donnybrooke on July 4, 1971. He came out of retirement to drive in Formula One for Roger Penske and died in practice in Austria on Aug. 17, 1975.
Revson won the Can-Am in 1971 in a narrow finish over Hulme (1970 winner). He had been the “young hotshot” Penske wanted to start his Formula One effort, but then the owner lured back Donohue after Revson was killed in a testing crash in South Africa on March 22, 1974.
France’s Francois Cevert was the winner of the final Can-Am at Brainerd in September 1972. He died in a qualifying crash for the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen on Oct. 6, 1973.
And Ken Miles, hero of “Ford vs. Ferrari,” died in a testing crash at Riverside, Calif., two months after the Shelby triumph at Le Mans.
Eventually the era of recyclable drivers ended and safety became a priority with these wicked machines.
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