Go Like Hell | A.J. Baime

Summary of: Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans
By: A.J. Baime


Get ready to be whisked away into the high-stakes world of international car racing with the thrilling story of ‘Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans,’ written by A.J. Baime. This intense rivalry between established European Ferrari and underdog American Ford captures the spirit of innovation and determination as two automotive titans duke it out on the racetrack. As you journey through this gripping tale, you will come face-to-face with passionate figures like Enzo Ferrari, Henry Ford II, and Carroll Shelby, and witness the industries of car design and racing revolutionized by their struggle for victory. Discover the shifting tides of fortune, shocking tragedies, and last-minute triumphs that await within this fascinating showdown.

Rise of Ford’s Corvette Killer

In 1945, Henry Ford II inherited a struggling Ford Motor Company from his grandfather, the original Henry Ford, who had resisted modernizing the brand and mismanaged the business. Determined to regain market dominance over Chevrolet, especially their popular Corvette model, Henry Ford II capitalized on the post-WWII car craze and new interstate highways by focusing on making powerful, high-performance vehicles that attracted a new generation of car enthusiasts.

When Henry Ford II took the reins of the Ford Motor Company in 1945, he faced a daunting challenge. His predecessors, his father, Edsel Ford, and grandfather, original Henry Ford, had left the company in disarray. While Chevrolet was becoming America’s preferred automaker, the elder Henry Ford had stubbornly refused to modernize and even appointed a former convict as an executive manager. By the time Henry Ford II took over, the company was losing money.

Determined to revitalize Ford, Henry Ford II set out to grant his father’s unfulfilled wish: modernize the company and outshine Chevrolet. As post-WWII America entered a car craze, the timing couldn’t have been better.

New interstate highways, built in the 1950s, crisscrossed the country, enabling nationwide driving adventures. Returning WWII veterans, now skilled mechanics and speed enthusiasts, flocked to high-performance cars with powerful engines. Teenagers, too, began to embrace the thrill of car races. Chevrolet’s Corvette gained popularity by winning numerous competitions, capturing audience attention and affection.

Recognizing the opportunity, Henry Ford II vowed to create a vehicle that would outperform Chevrolet’s Corvette. He set his sights on harnessing this new enthusiasm for fast, powerful cars, plotting Ford’s resurgence as an industry leader in both speed and innovation.

Ferrari’s Rise and Racing Dangers

Enzo Ferrari, founder of the iconic racing brand, was captivated by fast cars since he was eleven years old. He began creating cutting-edge race cars by incorporating mechanical innovations that emerged after World War I. Initially working for Alfa Romeo, Ferrari built his own factory in Modena, Italy, hand-crafting top-performing racing machines. These vehicles saw numerous victories, particularly in the 1940s and 50s in the European races. Despite this success, the dangerous nature of European racing led to several fatalities, raising concerns about safety. However, racing remained a thrilling and controversial sport.

In the late 1950s, while Corvette remained the leading American racing car, Ferrari dominated European racing. Born from its founder Enzo Ferrari’s childhood passion for fast cars, the brand’s vision was centered around racing. Utilizing post-World War I mechanical innovations, Ferrari began crafting cutting-edge race cars in a small factory in his hometown, Modena, Italy.

Ferrari won his first race as a mechanic and driver for Alfa Romeo in 1923 before starting his own venture. By the late 1940s, Ferraris were seen as strong and agile, racking up multiple Grand Prix titles. Nevertheless, European racing had a dark side, with a rising number of fatalities. These races often took place on the same narrow, twisty roads used by the public, testing both cars’ and drivers’ endurance to the limit.

Ferrari’s racing reputation took a severe hit when, on May 12, 1957, a Ferrari 335 experienced a tire blowout during the Mille Miglia race, resulting in a crash that killed 12 spectators and injured many more. The following year, two drivers lost their lives while racing Ferrari Dino cars during the French and German Grand Prix. Despite an investigation into the Mille Miglia accident, Enzo Ferrari was cleared of any responsibility, as his cars were meticulously constructed.

The inherent dangers of racing were well-known to drivers and spectators, and paradoxically, the potential for tragedy only made the sport more enthralling and controversial. This duality became a prominent aspect of Ferrari’s legacy in European racing.

Racing Revives American Automotive Giants

In the 1950s, the American government, concerned with safety, tried to keep car manufacturers away from the risky business of racing with the Safety Resolution. Ford and Chevrolet, among other major automobile companies, agreed not to participate in racing competitions. However, the popularity of car races and the potential for boosting sales led companies to find discreet ways to support racing teams. Ford eventually withdrew from the resolution in 1962, embracing the appeal of high-performance sports cars, which resulted in a successful ad campaign and multiple victories in racing competitions such as the Daytona 500. Ford’s partnership with Carroll Shelby, a former race car driver, and the creation of the iconic “powered by Ford” Cobra bolstered their position further and caught the attention of top executives like Lee Iacocca.

Despite the US government’s attempt to separate the automobile industry and racing with the 1957 Safety Resolution, car manufacturers were intrigued by the excitement of car races and the potential boost in sales by winning on the track. Vehicle manufacturers, notably Chevrolet with its winning Corvette, discreetly funded and supplied race teams.

Unable to resist the allure of racing and its marketing prowess, Ford publicly stepped back from the resolution in 1962. They launched an influential ad campaign showcasing their “Total Performance.” At the Daytona 500 the following year, Ford had 14 cars participating, with the Galaxie 500 taking the spotlight, thanks to its powerful 427 cubic inch V8 engine. The ensuing victory led to newspaper ads celebrating the performance of their cars.

Meanwhile, Carroll Shelby, a former race car driver, caught Ford’s attention by designing the highly successful “powered by Ford” Cobra. This vehicle went on to defeat rivals such as the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray on multiple occasions. This partnership piqued the interest of Ford’s VP Lee Iacocca, leading to a visit to Shelby’s Southern California garage, ready to explore a shared future in the world of racing and automotive sales.

Ferrari’s Fall, Ford’s Ascent

In the early 1960s, Ferrari was dominating the European racing scene, claiming three out of four victories in the prestigious Le Mans races. Despite this success, tragedy struck during the 1961 Italian Grand Prix when Count Wolfgang Von Trips’ car careened into a crowd of spectators, resulting in fifteen deaths. Around the same time, internal turmoil led to the departure of eight high-ranking Ferrari personnel, opening the door for potential buyers.

Attracted by the prospect of acquiring a controlling share, Henry Ford II, a.k.a “The Deuce,” began negotiations with Enzo Ferrari. By 1963, it appeared the two parties had reached an agreement, granting Ford majority control of Ferrari’s commercial sales while retaining Enzo’s authority over the racing division. However, at the eleventh hour, Ferrari backed out of the deal for undisclosed reasons.

Speculation arose that Ferrari had used Ford to strengthen negotiations with another buyer – Italian automotive giant, Fiat. Public opinion rallied around the notion of an Italian company keeping the beloved brand within the nation, rejecting American ownership. Ultimately, the deal breaker seemed to center around Ford’s desire to have the final say on Ferrari’s racing decisions, which Enzo was unwilling to relinquish.

Feeling used and outmaneuvered, The Deuce became determined to exact revenge on Ferrari by defeating them on their home turf – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race that had long been dominated by the Italian team. This fueled rivalry would lead to a high-stakes showdown, forever changing the landscape of racing history.

Rivals on European Racetracks

The Ford-Ferrari rivalry illustrates a classic David and Goliath story, with each company alternatively taking on the role of the underdog. Ferrari dominated European racing, but in contrast to Ford, lacked significant financial resources. On the other hand, Ford, considered an underdog in European racing, had a seemingly endless budget. The American giant took the competition seriously and assembled a team led by John Wyer, a figure who previously achieved victory at Le Mans in 1959. However, Ford faced challenges with their first Le Mans contender, the GT40, which failed due to critical transmission issues. This disappointing outcome served as a crucial learning experience for Ford, motivating them to improve their cars and continue the rivalry.

The Ford-Ferrari rivalry can be viewed as a fluctuating power dynamic. While Ferrari unquestionably dominated European racing, their financial resources paled in comparison to Ford’s substantial budget. Despite being an underdog on European racetracks, Ford was determined to win and generously funded the development of their Le Mans team.

This unwavering dedication led to assembling a talented team, headed by John Wyer. Although Wyer had previously tasted success at the 1959 Le Mans with Aston Martin, the beginning of the 1964 racing season proved challenging for Ford. The GT40, their first attempt at a winning race car, featured a powerful engine and components sourced from around the world. However, the GT40 encountered difficulties in the dynamic conditions of the Le Mans race, particularly regarding its brakes and headlights.

An important race milestone, the 24-hour endurance test, proved especially challenging for the GT40. Both cars that Ford entered in 1964 suffered from critical transmission failure within five hours, resulting in a failed race. The Ford team recognized the root cause as an inadequate testing period, acknowledging this setback as a significant learning experience, which ultimately fueled their pursuit of triumph in the Ford-Ferrari rivalry.

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