Before taking his seat for the panel discussion, Bob Bondurant was posing for photos with the dark blue Shelby Daytona Coupe he and Dan Gurney drove to victory 50 years ago at Le Mans. Parked next to the blue coupe was the Ferrari GTO that finished second in that race.
At one point, Bondurant moved over to stand behind the bright red racer. He turned to his wife, Pat, and asked her to have someone take his picture.
Why, she wondered?
Because, he said with that characteristic twinkle in his eyes, this was the first time he’d ever been behind that Ferrari.
Bondurant and three of his Shelby American teammates — car designer Peter Brock, mechanic Jason Stucki and engine builder Jack Hoare — were on hand Saturday at the Arizona Biltmore resort to talk about their remarkable achievement 50 years ago when they ended Ferrari’s long reign in the GT class in the round-the-clock race in France.
Though not present in the room, Gurney, who continues to recuperate after a motorcycle mishap, took part via a video presentation. Though in their late 70s and even into their 80s, these guys remain racers who really aren’t ready to slow down very much.
Fifty years ago, they were young men on a young racing team.
“We had no hindsight,” Gurney said. “We were doing things that had never been done, and in a car that was an unproven concept. There was a lot of uncertainty, but we were a team of Americans all full of enthusiasm.”
Actually, Stucki was from Switzerland and Hoare was British, but they were key members of a small band — four drivers, four mechanics, a car owner and a team manager — that traveled to Europe and dared challenge mighty Ferrari, which had won the GT class at Le Mans all five years it had been contested.
In 1963, Shelby had taken his Ford-powered Cobra roadsters to Le Mans, where they wore makeshift hardtops, an unsuccessful attempt at enhancing the aerodynamics of a car created for tight, twisting roads. Indeed, the Cobras were faster than the Ferraris in the turns, but they could manage only 150 miles per hour on the long Mulsanne Straight, where the Ferraris were hitting 180.
Back home that same season, Shelby’s Cobras won the national sports car racing championship. Afterward, his team encouraged him to mount an Indianapolis 500 effort for 1964.
But Shelby, who had been shunned during his own driving career by Enzo Ferrari, wanted to, was driven to beat Ferrari, so he offered up a corner of his team’s race stop where the first new coupe was built by Brock, a former General Motors designer, John Ohlsen, a mechanic from New Zealand, and Miles, other than Shelby and Brock the only native American on the team who was at all enthused about the project.
Most of the team thought the car with its chopped, Kamm-style tail, was ugly. Gurney said he doubted the car would be competitive, especially since it weighed 300 pounds more than the roadster.
But Gurney admitted he was wrong, very wrong.
The car made its first test run on February 1, 1964.
“The car was so fast we didn’t even finish the test,” Brock shared. Instead, Miles called back to the shop and told Shelby to order new tires because the ones on the car didn’t have enough grip to deal with the speeds the car was achieving.
The team took the car to Daytona, where Dave MacDonald set a track record in qualifying (causing Shelby to dub the car the Daytona Coupe).
Next up was Sebring, where the car won its class, finished fourth overall and was four laps ahead of team’s best Cobra roadster, accomplishments that convinced the Ford Motor Co. to underwrite a good share of the Shelby team’s trip to Europe.
In Europe, Shelby American raced Cobra roadsters in hill climbs and other events while setting up shop in Ferrari’s hometown, where the coupe bodies for the Le Mans cars were built from aluminum panels hand-hammered over a tree stump and then welded together by a group of Italian teenagers.
As if beating Ferrari’s newest GTOs wasn’t enough, it looked very late in the race as if Bondurant and Gurney might finish first overall. But then a rock punctured the radiator for the oil cooler, forcing a long pit stop and forcing Stucki, Hoare and crew chief Phil Remington to fashion a bypass device so the car could get back on the track.
Ultimately, they finished fourth overall, but more importantly, first among all GT cars, and 13 miles ahead of that No. 24 Ferrari.
The Le Mans team reunion and panel presentation were part of 10th annual Childhelp Drive the Dream gala held at the start of classic car auction week in Arizona. Childhelp is celebrating its 55th anniversary. It was started by two young actresses — Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson — who played the girlfriends of David and Ricky Nelson on the Ozzie and Harriet television series in the 1950s. On a good will tour to Japan, they saw the plight of orphans whose fathers had been American servicemen. They started raising money for orphanages, schools and hospitals, and later did the same thing in Vietnam. In 1966, Nancy Reagan, the wife of California’s governor and the future First Lady of the United States, asked them to work with abused children in the U.S. and elsewhere.