Hollywood Dives Inside the History of Le Mans 1966 with “Ford v Ferrari”

In an upcoming film, Matt Damon and Christian Bale teach the rest of the world something locals have always known — nothing stops Detroit
Le Mans 1966
The GT-40 that took the prize at 24 Hours of Le Mans 1966. // Photograph courtesy of Ford Motor Co. Archive

Without ever crossing the ocean, my father had always hated Europe. He was a Nebraska country boy who despised both aristocrats and Continental high culture. Those snobs twice required American assistance ending wars, yet they kept treating us as colonials. And worst of all, they forced abstract art down our throats. 

The new film Ford v Ferrari — which arrives in theaters Nov. 15 from Fox/Disney — is too late: Walter Ahrens died in 2017. Though no movie was realistic enough for him, especially with racing scenes, he still would have been tickled by a $97.6-million Hollywood flick about Ford’s conquest of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most important sports car race. How big is the production? The almost exact duplication of the pits from Circuit de la Sarthe, the 8.5-mile Le Mans course, cost producers $3.5-million, and the set-build at Agua Dulce Airpark north of Los Angeles took months. Filming Ford v Ferrari there required closing the airport for three weeks. 

Throughout his life, Walter believed that Detroit could really do anything, and having Enzo Ferrari’s head on a platter would be a most useful accomplishment. He could not have cared less about Enzo’s humble roots: the Shah of Iran and Hollywood stars bought il Commendatore’s road-going cars. Oh, yes, we were wholly a Blue Oval family, an affiliation best expressed by Walter’s racing an old Ford on the speedways of Nebraska and Iowa. The coupe was white with a blue stripe — America’s international racing colors as pioneered by Briggs Cunningham, the sportsman who had fielded entries at Le Mans in the early 1950s. That was an odd connection, indeed, especially given our rusticity. But legions of people revered Henry Ford, first of all for the inexpensive Model T mobility. Crucially, in 1932, when Walter was born, Ford produced the “flathead” V-8, an engine whose terrific crackle dominated the track and the gravel roads where, around 1950, he learned to broadslide. Finding himself with a young family in the late-’50s, he took up stock-car racing to stay sane. He found a ’34 Ford coupe in a farmer’s field for $85 and welded roll bars into the cabin. Thanks to the Ford V-8, families like ours could enjoy auto racing, formerly the sport of Counts and Dukes. 

In the spring of 1963, when I was 7, startling developments in Dearborn animated my father and kept him talking for six years. A.J. Baime describes it so well in Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, published in 2009. It was Enzo Ferrari, whose cars ruled Le Mans, that played Ford for a sucker in an aborted corporate union, and provoked a Shakespearian moment in which Henry Ford II nobly decried, “We’ll beat his ass. We’re going to race him.” 

Now comes the big movie to pick up the story with Carroll Shelby, portrayed by Matt Damon, and engineer-driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), leading development of the mean-looking, 210-mile-per-hour Ford GT-40. Though the script is not explicitly based on Baime’s book, he does deserve credit for elevating the tale from the slough of car magazines and perpetuating it for a general audience. (Fox shuffled off the book rights to Legendary Entertainment, based in Burbank, California for serial development.) Baime says he found himself working with larger-than-life characters and an all-time sports rivalry. But there was more. “It’s a very important business story about a great American motor company trying to launch itself into Europe during the early days of real globalism,” he says.

Henry Ford II - Ford v Ferrari
Henry Ford II arrives at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. // Photograph courtesy of Ford Motor Co. Archive

General Motors was America’s most-admired corporation in midcentury, but a string of disasters started with the Chevrolet Corvair. Ford’s efforts at Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500, the latter being where the company teamed with British constructors Lotus (1965) and Lola (1966) for two big victories, brought new and needed glory to Dearborn. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) contrived the whole thing, thereby risking ill-repute to the company. Today, courtesy of producers Chernin Entertainment, we have the rather unusual circumstance of seeing business executives and a corporation exalted on the big screen — suits as the good guys!

Running at 152 minutes, Ford v Ferrari premiered Aug. 30 at the Telluride Film Festival and went to the Toronto International Film Festival in early September. Principal photography had started in July 2018. Competition scenes were shot in Southern California at the Willow Springs International Raceway, and at Auto Club Speedway to recreate the scenes from the Daytona Continental endurance race of that period. Simulating the 3.5-mile Mulsanne Strait — a feature of the Circuit de la Sarthe — the production moved to Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. “They wanted 90% of the racing [in Ford v Ferrari] to be done by race drivers, which was great,” says Paul Dallenbach, six-time winner of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Alex Gurney portrays his own father, the late and immortal Dan Gurney, and multi-disciplinary pro driver Tanner Foust plays Ronnie Bucknum, who finished third at Le Mans in 1966. Bucknum’s son Jeff was among the stunt drivers.  

Ford v Ferrari
Race car driver and designer Carroll Shelby (right) will be played by Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari. // Photograph courtesy of Ford Motor Co. Archive

Dallenbach logged 40 days’ work over three months. Drivers in the Le Mans scenes buckled into movie cars with GM LS3 V-8 engines good for up to 150 mph; the “kit” bodies replicated the GT-40, Ferrari 330 P3, and Porsche 906. “Since we were rubbing and racing, bumping and banging, it was a little cheaper to do the kit cars, but they looked amazing,” Dallenbach says. A few original GT-40s, each worth millions, were used for stationary shots. While he didn’t hobnob with the stars, Dallenbach was aware that Damon flew off to New York in September to do a Saturday Night Live parody of Brett Kavanaugh. Of director James Mangold, the driver says, “I tell you what, he was very thorough on the dialog.” 

For his part, Mangold, a native New Yorker, has directed films as varied as Girl, Interrupted (1999) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007). In Mangold’s riveting Walk the Line (2005), Joaquin Phoenix delivered a truly knockout portrayal of Johnny Cash, while Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her role as June Carter. The director told LA Times, “I’m not essentially a car obsessive, so my response to the story was really connecting to these characters. I had heard of Carroll Shelby, but I didn’t know anything of Ken Miles until I read the script for the first time.” 

Ford v Ferrari
Second place finalist at the 1966 Le Mans, Ken Miles, will be portrayed by Christian Bale in the upcoming film. // Photograph courtesy of Ford Motor Co. Archive

Indeed, early reviews indicate the racing scenes would be able to satisfy even my father. IndieWire gushes, calling Ford v Ferrari “bone-rattlingly intense,” and observing audiences being “put through the wringer with intense racing scenes. Some [members] left the theater in tears.” On the other hand, The Guardian sneers at a “handsomely produced but tiringly acted and inert sports drama,” saying the role of Iacocca is “underwritten and underimagined,” while Bale relies on a “borderline-ridiculous collection of mannerisms.”

A lesson of the story is that Detroit has always managed to transcend the limits of manufacturing to conquer challenges, expanding personal freedom and elevating the human spirit as the result. “What makes the 1960s so fascinating,” says author Baime, “is that people were doing things never before done in music, sports, politics. That’s what the Ford team set out to do.” They won the 24 Hours four years in a row starting in 1966, before bowing out with the laurels. As Enzo Ferrari had brought glory to Italy, so too did Ford reflect brilliance over its loyal customers and the small oval tracks where we lived our dreams.

On Nov. 8, 2017, Walter — who was still working at 84 years old, a veteran of two decades in Walmart’s electronics department — went home at lunchtime to let out the dog. Suffering a stroke en route, he smashed his beloved 2014 Ford Focus into a pole and died 48 hours later in the hospital, a Ford man to the end.