Cars & Racing | 3 December 2015Le Mans Won (and Lost) in 1966 Share article facebook twitter google pinterest The staged finish of the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1966 was the most controversial—and remains the most mysterious—episode in the long and convoluted saga of the Ford GTs. A dozen or so drivers, crewmen, and executives played crucial roles in the end-of-the race production, and several of them provided accounts of what happened. The problem is that all their stories can’t be reconciled. In some cases, in fact, the same source provided conflicting versions of events. At this point, it’s impossible to say with any certainty what occurred in the pits and at the finish line. Still, it’s possible to rule out some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories and see the end of the race with a bit more clarity. We take a closer look at the race in this excerpt from Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans. “We were told to finish neck and neck,” Ken Miles said shortly after the race, “and that’s what we did. If they’d let Bruce and me race for it, we wouldn’t have had all this nonsense.” This sounds self-evident and supremely logical. But like many of the statements made about the denouement, it has to be placed in a larger context. By early Sunday morning, with all of the Ferraris gone and no serious challenge to the Fords remaining, Le Mans had ceased to be a race. Drivers who’d been lapping comfortably in the high 3:30s were ordered to slow to a positively snail-like four-minute pace. “It took me something like ten laps of concentrated effort to slow down to this speed,” Chris Amon said. Race reports show the lead changing every hour as each car pitted for fuel and necessary service. But the drivers weren’t racing in any commonly accepted sense. They were more like a pair of joggers who happened to be sharing the same track. Henry Ford II returned to the circuit after lunch, gratified to see his cars dominating the race and about to settle the score with Enzo Ferrari. He was blind to the details and, to be honest, wasn’t interested in how the sausage was ground. Leo Beebe, too, didn’t really care which car won the race. His principal concern was the “You better win” notecard in his wallet, so his major objective was to avoid screwing up. By 8:00 a.m., all of the competitive Ferraris had faded, and the leading Ford was 16 laps ahead of the closest Porsche. But watching the Gurney/Grant car retire with a blown head gasket must have sent a shiver up his spine. And he must have been mortified by the prospect of a rerun of the fiasco of 1965, this time with his boss looking over his shoulder. Amon, Bruce McLaren, Miles, and Denny Hulme were ordered to slow down even further. Aside from a mechanical failure, just about the only thing that could have gone wrong now was that Miles—who had a reputation for flouting team orders—would start dicing with McLaren, causing both of them to crash. And Miles already had speeded up on several occasions. Sunday morning, Carroll Shelby had chastised Miles for cutting a few quick laps, threatening to bar him from driving any more if he did it again. Yet a few hours later, after McLaren finished his second-to-last stint in the car, he realized that Miles had made up about 30 seconds on the previous five laps, presumably by again ignoring team orders. This gave Hulme a substantial lead over Amon with less than three hours to go. Jacque Passino (center) talks with his right-hand man, John Cowley, on the plane ride to Le Mans. But it was their boss, Leo Beebe, taking notes, who made the ultimate decision about the finish in 1966. McLaren and Miles had been around endurance racing long enough to realize that the positions would be frozen at a certain point, and whichever car happened to be leading at the time would be anointed the winner. “I work for the Ford Motor Company,” Miles told Leo Levine, whose magisterial history, Ford: The Dust and the Glory, is the Rosetta Stone of the Le Mans program, in between stints, “and they pay me so much a month to do what they want. If they want me to win the race, why I’ll do it. And if they want me to jump in the lake, why I’ll have to do that too.” In his column for Autosport, McLaren wrote a sanitized version of what happened next. But a letter he sent to his father—“not printable, of course”—told an entirely different story. In it, McLaren claimed that he went to his bosses at Ford with a cheeky proposition: “Why don’t you bring the cars over the line together? It would be much better public relations,” he wrote. “I didn’t think ten minutes of politics could win a 24-hour race—but there you are. Nice guys don’t win ball games, they say. . .” Although this is a compelling story, it strains credulity. To begin with, Amon, who was one of McLaren’s closest friends as well as his co-driver, didn’t remember it occurring. Granted, Amon was only 22 at the time, and he was grateful to leave the politics to McLaren. Still, McLaren himself must have realized that a dead heat was a non-starter. No major automobile race had ever ended in a tie. The idea that persnickety ACO officials—who had nearly disqualified a Mark IIA for a harmless infraction during practice—would allow a pair of Fords to be declared co-winners sounds like the public-relations fancy of somebody who knew nothing about racing. And, in fact, that seems to be precisely how the ill-fated decision was made. Phil Remington talks to a clearly unhappy Ken Miles as a pensive Bruce McLaren (foreground) contemplates the team orders handed down by Beebe. “We had three cars running up at the front as the race was drawing to its conclusion. Ken Miles was in one and Dick Hutcherson and Bruce McLaren were in the others. All of those guys were real racers. Miles would race his grandmother to the breakfast table, and the other two weren’t much better. We figured that in order to ensure a Ford win and keep those three guys from racing each other to the end, that we would have a dead-heat finish. We didn’t want to risk those guys crashing each other or breaking the cars. In hindsight we probably should have done it differently, but we were trying to control our destiny and ensure a Ford win, and we did just that.”—Jacque Passino According to the commonly accepted and most plausible—version of events, Beebe and company came up with the idea of stage-managing the finish about two hours before the end of the race. Bill Reiber, the head of Ford France, conferred with ACO officials, who confirmed that a dead heat could be arranged. Shelby reluctantly signed off on the decision, though he said afterward that he’d made a mistake—a position he maintained vigorously until he died in 2012. “I’ve regretted it ever since, but I went along with what they wanted,” he told his authorized biographer, Rinsey Mills. “I didn’t defend Ken’s position, even when they came out with that stupid crap about him starting in front, which they said meant he’d have to be that way at the finish —and he was my friend.” But there were cynics who felt Shelby was crying crocodile tears. As Brock Yates wrote caustically in his race report in Car and Driver: “Shelby was later to say wistfully, ‘I would have given $50,000 to have Ken win.’ All it would have taken was a pit signal.” In his defense, Shelby was under tremendous pressure at the time. (Amon remembered him “looking pretty gray, actually.”) And Beebe was the one who did most of the talking when McLaren and Miles were called over for a chat before their final stints. After some persuasion, Miles agreed to run slowly enough to let McLaren and Hutcherson catch him for a three-abreast finish. By that point, the atmosphere in the pits was so tense that even people who weren’t directly involved in the decision realized something was up. After Miles swapped seats with Hulme, Carroll Smith poked his head in the cockpit. “I don’t know what they told you,” he said, “but you won’t be fired for winning Le Mans.” Miles and McLaren returned to the track. While they circulated at a reduced pace, Reiber hurried over to the Ford brass with disconcerting news from the ACO. “Leo,” he said, “the officials now say a tie isn’t possible.” Instead of calling the race a dead heat, they planned to award the win to the car that had covered the greatest distance. Since McLaren had qualified at a slower speed than Miles, he’d started the race about 20 feet farther back on the grid. Therefore, if the two cars crossed the finish line side by side, McLaren would be declared the winner. Carroll Shelby chats with Ken Miles and Denny Hulme during the No. 1 car’s last pit stop. “I don’t know what they told Ken during that final pit stop, but he wasn’t very happy as he entered the car to finish the race.” —Carroll Smith After the race, a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks slammed Ford for not knowing the rules governing the finish. Actually, it’s hard to believe that the ACO had a regulation covering a dead heat. At Le Mans, cars rarely finished on the same lap, much less a few feet apart. In any case, it would have been easy to adjudicate a photo finish, if necessary. (“How the French love to complicate things!” John Blunsden complained in Sports Car Graphic.) Moreover, as Dennis Jenkinson pointed out in Motor Sport, Le Mans is a timed race. So, theoretically, the winner wasn’t the car that crossed the finish line first. It was the one that had covered the most distance when the 24th hour passed. Of course, all of these issues were academic, not to mention meaningless. Once events were set into motion, there was nothing anybody could have done to stop them. These were the days before in-car radios, and it’s easy to imagine things going calamitously wrong if Shelby had tried to rearrange the finish through pit signals. Miles and McLaren were so far ahead that they could have been called in to discuss the situation, but, then again, unscheduled pit stops came with downside risks that were impossible to justify under the circumstances. In the end, Beebe made the call to leave well enough alone. “I’ve been accused and abused about the final results of that race and the circumstances that surrounded that win for years, but I stand by my decision,” he said. “I was always fond of Ken Miles and I had great respect for him. In that race, Miles was devilish, not only for himself but for others. The decision regarding the outcome of that race was mine as the manager of the Ford racing effort at Le Mans.” The Miles/Hulme Mark II sits abandoned a few yards from the victory podium. So close, yet so far away! Immediately after the race, the buzz in the pits was that Miles had gotten the shaft for failing to suck up to Ford executives. Years later, staff engineer Bob Negstad even claimed that Ford officials had gone to Timing and Scoring to request that Miles be denied credit for a lap so that McLaren would be guaranteed the win. Like most conspiracy theories, this one came with no proof, nor have any of the many people, both French and American, who would have been in on the fix come forward to confirm it. Also, none of the hundreds of media types covering the race or hundreds of thousands of spectators watching it ever said anything about the Miles/Hulme car inexplicably being docked a lap. More to the point, Miles was by no means a black sheep at Ford. Yes, he could be difficult, and he didn’t always toe the company line. But he was an American, and he’d done more of the development work on the Mark II than anybody in the world. He was coming off wins at Daytona and Sebring, and a clean sweep of the three longest endurance races on the schedule would have been a great story. All things being equal, it’s hard to believe that Beebe would have deprived him of a victory out of spite. It took a while to cajole Hulme and Miles onto the victory podium, where they glumly downed their flutes of celebratory champagne. As the race wound down, Miles dutifully slowed to let McLaren catch up. On the final lap, the black and light-blue cars were side by side on the final stretch from White House, with Hutcherson lagging slightly behind. McLaren seemed to surge forward at the finish, and photos clearly show him a few feet ahead of Miles as the flag dropped. Some people—though not McLaren—claimed that McLaren goosed the throttle at the last instant to steal the win. Others—though not Miles—said that Miles eased off the gas to signal his disgust over the arranged finish. As he climbed out of the cockpit when the race was over, Miles muttered, “Screw it.” After that, the Associated Press reported, “At a victory celebration where the atmosphere was heavy with tension, Miles said, ‘I’m disappointed, but what are you going to do about it?’” Miles never told anybody—not his friends, not his co-workers, not even his son, Peter—exactly what happened. But during an interview on Los Angeles radio station KRHM a month after the race, Miles insisted that he and McLaren had done their best to be dead-even at the timing strip, which was a few yards before they reached the waving flag. He also provided a remarkably lucid and even-handed précis that applauded the ACO for making the correct ruling. As for Ford’s decision to stage-manage the finish, he said, “It’s up to them. If they have the information, they can say, ‘Well, under the circumstances, we feel that there’s no reason why Bruce shouldn’t win the race.’ Or, ‘Under the circumstances, we feel that Miles should win the race.’ It’s up to them to make a decision and nobody will make it for them. They’re running the cars; it’s their money. They’re paying the piper. They can call the tune.” Ken Miles is besieged by spectators seeking autographs and reporters seeking answers. “In 1966, Ford didn’t cost Ken Miles the race at Le Mans. I did, and I regret it to this day. Leo Beebe came up to me and said, ‘Who do you think should win the race?’ I thought, well hell, Ken’s been leading for all of these hours, he should win the race. I looked at Leo Beebe and said, ‘What do you think ought to happen, Leo?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, I’d kind of like to see all three of them cross the finish line together.’ Leo Beebe did not tell me what to say or do, so I said, ‘Oh hell let’s do it that way then,’ not knowing that the French would interpret the rules the way that they did. Ken should have won the race, and in most everyone’s mind, he did win the race. That was my fuckup, I take full responsibility for it, and I’m very sorry for it because, as you know, Ken was killed at Riverside two months later.”—Carroll Shelby Amon was as surprised as anybody when he belatedly realized that he’d won the race. Standing on the victory podium with McLaren and Henry Ford II, he looked more bemused than elated. Hulme swallowed his disappointment and slapped McLaren, his fellow Kiwi, on the back. “You beauty, good on you, mate!” he said cheerfully. But the next week, at a test session, Hulme ran into John Horsman, who naturally asked what had happened at Le Mans. “We wuz robbed,” Hulme told him. McLaren, though, saw the results as poetic justice. “Ford made no bones about it,” he wrote to his father. “They were pleased [by] the way it had come out, partly because I had been in the thing from the start, partly because we didn’t race the hell out of the car at any stage, and partly because it was Denny’s first ride with Ford and Chris had worked with them for a year and we got the bad deal at Daytona.” In retrospect, Jacque Passino regretted how events played out. “You think about the decision now and it seems kind of dumb, but we’ve all done a lot of dumb things in our lives before,” he said. “It’s one of those things that happens, but we were trying to control our destiny, and looking back, maybe we should have done it differently.” But how? No matter what Ford did, there were going to be two enormously unhappy drivers. What mattered most to the company was not the finishing order but the finish itself—Fords, 1-2-3, Ferraris, nowhere. And that’s the way most people remember it. Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans Author: Preston Lerner Photographer: Dave Friedman Henry Ford II, “the Deuce,” wanted a race car capable of winning top-flight sports car events in Europe. Specifically, he wanted to win Le Mans. Ford learned that Enzo Ferrari would consider selling his company and negotiations quickly ensued. But after Ford spent considerable time and money reviewing Ferrari’s operations and negotiating with Enzo, Ferrari abruptly backed out of the talks. The Deuce took Ferrari’s actions as a personal insult. Word was sent down from on high: beat Ferrari. Ford settled on UK-based Eric Broadley’s Lola GT, a cutting-edge car that featured a mid-engine chassis and small-block Ford V-8 power. The Lola GT would morph into the Ford GT. Carroll Shelby helped shape it into the “Mark II” GT40. The result was one of the most legendary wins in racing history: Ford’s 1-2-3 sweep of Le Mans in 1966. Ford GT celebrates the 50th anniversary of Ford’s iconic victory, providing the detailed back story leading to that historic win, as well as the follow-up win in 1967. The GT40’s last two competitive seasons in 1968 and 1969 are also covered, for a complete view of this remarkable era in racing. Author Preston Lerner details the ups and downs of Ford’s GT program, accompanied by Shelby American photographer Dave Friedman’s historic images. Come re-live one of the most exciting stories in all of racing history! Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.