It leaked this week that Tom Cruise will likely play the hard-drinking, overalls-wearing, legendary sonofabitch Carroll Shelby in the film adaptation of A.J. Baime's great Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, And Their Battle For Speed And Glory At Le Mans. Here's an excerpt from that book (which you should buy) that explains why anyone with a pulse should be excited for this film.
Henry II had resolved to do what had never been done. At stake was the reputation of his family legacy, Ford cars. Not since Henry Ford unleashed his flathead V8 engine — his last great invention — in 1932 had the family empire enjoyed a reputation for innovative engineering. Henry I's grandson was going to change the reputation of the company forever — if in fact he could win.
The Deuce soon learned that he had added incentive to beat Ferrari. Vengeance became part of the mix. Not long after the Ford Ferrari deal went south, reports of Ferrari- Fiat negotiations became public.
Ferrari had toyed with Henry II while the world looked on. The stage was set for a war of speed.
They say automobile racing is as old as the second car. Since Karl Benz first patented the "motorwagen" in 1886, cars evolved into two diverse species on either side of the Atlantic.
In America, with its vast roads, mapped out by urban planners who literally moved mountains to make way for them, cars were all about the big engine. Racing stock American cars on an oval track was a tradition that reached back to 1896. With grandstand seating, a promoter could funnel spectators through turnstiles and charge them to see the show. Spectators could witness the entire race rather than a small slice of it.
Europe, in contrast, was the cradle of racing. Town-to-town road races spread the gospel of the automobile across the continent. In contrast to America, roads in Europe molded to the contours of the earth, with twists, bends, hills, dales. Cars evolved with smaller engines capable of quick bursts of power.
In 1922, two Frenchmen came up with an ambitious idea: to hold the ultimate motor race. Charles Faroux was a brilliant engineer and France's doyen of motoring journalists. Georges Durand ran France's Automobile Club de l'Ouest. Their idea was to arrange a 24- hour contest that would test every facet of an automobile. The endurance race would reveal a car's weaknesses. Racing at night by headlamp would force competitors to improve upon primitive electrical systems. The winning car would be not only the fastest, but the most fuel efficient and durable, overall the most intelligently engineered.
Faroux and Durand chose to host their race outside Le Mans. It was here that men came to risk their necks while testing the boundaries of the physical universe. France held the first Grand Prix ("great prize") here in 1906. Two years later, Wilbur Wright took to the skies above Le Mans in the first significant European flight. Faroux and Durand charted a course on public roads outside of town, which came to be known as le Circuit de la Sarthe, for the nearby Sarthe River. A Chenard et Walcker won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923, averaging 57.2 mph.
Ferrari called Le Mans The Race of Truth. Over 24 hours, two men (one in the car at a time, the other fill ing up on nutrients in a catering tent, or catching a bit of sleep in a trailer) traveled the 8.36- mile circuit attempting to go faster than all others. The car that completed the most laps at the end won. By the early 1960s, competition had been divided into two basic classes: Grand Touring cars or GTs (production cars that customers could purchase) and Prototypes.
While both were required to have headlights, a two- seat cockpit, and trunk space, the Prototypes were in fact purpose- built racers. Prototypes topped GTs by some 70 mph in flat- out speed in some cases. They were meant to exemplify the sports cars of the future, the science of speed pushed to its limit in street- legal cars.
In Dearborn, on July 12, 1963, Lee Iacocca held a meeting of his executive committee. Don Frey opened with a presentation. The plan was to launch a highly specialized division that could focus on building a prototype Le Mans car. Roy Lunn would oversee engineering. The new division, called Ford Advanced Vehicles, would take advantage of the company's financial resources while operating with the agility and freedom of a small, independent manufacturer.
"The objective," Frey said, "is to have a car running in one year." In other words, in time for the 1964 Le Mans. Lunn took the floor. He reported on a trip to Europe days earlier. At the 1963 Le Mans, he watched Ferrari cars place first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. He shared his analysis with his colleagues: To beat Ferrari, their racing car would have to travel at top speeds over 200 mph, with the durability to race for 24 hours. (At that speed, a car covered the length of a football field in a single second.)
Lunn proposed a seven-figure budget and was amused at how quickly Iacocca approved not just this figure, but the entire plan. All agreed this new racer would have to be built in Europe initially, as few of the specialized components needed were available in the United States.
Though his name was not mentioned during this meeting, there was one man every one present knew would have to be brought into the fold. No one at Ford had ever built a sports car that could beat the Chevrolet Corvette at the track, let alone a Ferrari. There was only one man in America who had the knowledge and experience to build and develop a winner. He wasn't exactly the corporate type.
By the summer of 1963, Carroll Shelby's company was on sound footing, its tiny assembly line churning out hand- built "Powered by Ford" Cobras. Shelby's list of customers included Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Cosby, Vic Damone, James Garner, and the "King of Cool" Steve McQueen. The Cobra had captured the imagination of a new breed of speed enthusiast. There was even a Top 40 hit blasting over the radio waves about Shelby's car, "Hey Little Cobra," recorded by the Rip Chords.
Like Ferrari, Shelby had created a business model that depended on winning races. If the cars didn't win, the cars wouldn't sell. His company lived and died on the track. That summer, in Sports Car Club of America competition, the Cobras were winning every thing. Shelby had all the reporters in his pocket. Los Angeles alone had four dailies, the Times and the Daily News in the morning, and the Mirror and the Herald-Examiner in the afternoon. The words "Carroll Shelby" were thumping out of those journos' typewriters one after the other.
Recently, Shelby had hired his own photographer so he could supply shots to the papers and magazines. Dave Friedman's darkroom at the Carter Street shop was actually an old toilet and smelled like one. Shelby loved to look over Friedman's shoulder watching blank sheets of paper sit in the pools of chemicals. Slowly an image came into focus: cars being fabricated, cars at speed.
Shelby knew he had to take the Cobra overseas, where the Ferrari was king of the road. There was opportunity in Europe for a renegade American car manufacturer. Shelby knew as well as anyone the significance of victory at Le Mans. For men who built cars, it was the biggest stage in the world.
The last time anyone beat Ferrari, the year was 1959 and Shelby was at the wheel of an Aston Martin. He became the second American after Phil Hill to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. During the entire race he wore a pair of chicken-farmer overalls.
Throughout Shelby's years with Aston Martin in the late 1950s, he had developed a distaste for Enzo Ferrari. More than once Ferrari had offered Shelby a contract. And each time the Texan had turned it down. Perhaps he had a sense that signing that paper would be like making a pact with the devil. Yes, Ferrari's cars were the greatest. But Shelby saw the men on Ferrari's team die one after another in 1957–1958. He believed Il Commendatore was responsible.
"That son of a bitch killed my friend Musso," Shelby said about the Roman pilot Luigi Musso, who died in a Dino at the French Grand Prix. "And he killed others too."
In the spring of 1963, Shelby organized a press conference. When he called a meeting, every one showed up. He stood before reporters and photographers, stared right into the eye of a television camera, and announced that he was forming a new team to take on Europe.
The Texan was gunning for the Monster of Maranello. There was something between Shelby and Enzo Ferrari, Shelby's girlfriend Joan later said. "It went way back into Shelby's early racing career, and it was very personal." And so the first major factory- backed American campaign to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans would be two- pronged. Shelby had filed paperwork to homologate his Cobra to race in the GT class against the Ferrari GTOs, while Ford would build a prototype to try to win Le Mans outright.
"Next year," Shelby announced, "Ferrari's ass is mine."
Excerpt from GO LIKE HELL by A.J. Baime. Copyright © 2009 by Albert Baime. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Photo Credits: Ford Motor Company Archives, Getty Images, AP Images