Two of the world's more fascinating capitalists are Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II. Enzo builds deluxe touring cars and swift racing machines in a tiny Italian factory. Henry, boss of an industrial empire with assets of $6 billion, builds racing cars, too. Last week the motoring world was on tiptoe for what was billed as a titanic struggle between these men for victory in the classic French sports car race, The 24 Hours of Le Mans. Henry, spending like a Ford, flung six sexy new GTs into the battle. Enzo, reaching for his sixth consecutive Le Mans triumph, countered with four factory prototypes and had in private hands seven other brisk models bearing his famous prancing horse emblem.
As Ford knew, every previous thrust for a Le Mans victory by an American car had failed. There were attempts by Stutz, Chrysler, Overland, Willys-Knight and DuPont between the wars. The highest any of these cars placed was second—a Stutz in 1928. Then in the 1950s the American sportsman Briggs Cunningham attacked with Chrysler-and Cadillac-engined racers designed especially for him. Cunninghams placed third twice and won much goodwill for America but never came close to snaring the first prize.
"This is now a 100% battle," said Ferrari Driver Mike Parkes, a Briton who also works as a Ferrari engineer. "A Ferrari win is important not only for the prestige of Ferrari but also for Italy and the Italian car manufacturers."
The battleground—a rectangular 8.36-mile ribbon of asphalt stretching over rolling country just outside of town—annually imposes a fearful strain on cars and drivers. Engines overheat and tear themselves apart, gearboxes shatter, axles crumble. Drivers fight fatigue and, more often than not, rain or fog rolling in during the long hours of darkness.
The weather was fine for a change last weekend, but so frantic was the battle that not one factory Ferrari or Ford made it through the 24 hours. It was a glorious outing for Enzo Ferrari nevertheless. Three of his privately owned racers rolled across the finish line at 4 p.m. Sunday in tight formation, sweeping the top places, and in the Ford pit Team Manager Carroll Shelby moaned, "It's a bad day at Black Rock."
Out of the winning car stepped a jaunty little American, Masten Gregory, blinking like Mr. Magoo behind heavy specs and grinning hugely, for this was his first real blockbuster of a victory in 13 years of racing. He gulped champagne on the victory stand with Co-driver Jochen Rindt of Austria, one of those unknowns who sometimes surface in Le Mans-style endurance races.
Gregory, a man with the weakest eyes and fanciest tastes in racing, knows tough racecourses and fine restaurants on five continents. As a young driver with more foot than finesse, he cheerfully went through his $500,000 share of a family insurance fortune. He bounced from one racing team to another and won fame of a sort for twice bailing out of crashbound racers at better than 100 mph. Although he never lost the nasal twang of his native Kansas speech, he long ago deserted the Midwest for the more cosmopolitan life of London and Paris, and he is as familiar with the wine list at a small but sumptuous two-star restaurant near Le Mans as with the Arnage and White House corners of the racecourse.
During the prerace scuffling between Ford and Ferrari, however, Gregory was all but ignored. The star of the Ferrari camp was Britain's world champion Grand Prix driver, John Surtees. He was not notably alarmed by the fact that two Ford GTs boasted the largest, most powerful engines in the race—seven liters of piston displacement against four liters for the biggest Ferrari. Reviewing the Ferrari sweep of 1964, he said, "Basically, the car that won wasn't going the fastest, but it kept going while the others had silly troubles." Surtees calmly ate dinner while a howling storm blew out a practice session scheduled for Wednesday evening and rattled the windows a few feet from his table. "I'll have to get out my slide rule," he said, "and check on the flexibility of glass."
In the Ford encampment Shelby huddled frequently with his ace, Phil Hill, the world champion for 1961 and three times winner of Le Mans for Ferrari. First practice runs revealed a tendency of the GTs to fishtail. "If we could get them a little more stable," said Hill, "we could go like a bat out of hell." Shelby had some fins bolted to the Fords' noses, and Hill thereupon shattered the lap record with a run of three minutes 33 seconds, hitting better than 200 mph on the long Mulsanne straight. "Whatever's been done," he exclaimed, "it's great. It's a beauty. I could drive the car that fast for 24 hours."
At 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon, with the usual enormous Le Mans crowd of 300,000 at trackside, French Sports Minister Maurice Herzog dipped the starting flag and 51 drivers sprinted to 51 silent cars, started engines and sizzled away in the indescribable traffic jam characteristic of Le Mans races.