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Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

Posted: May 27, 2010 12:01 PM

The Greatest Car Race Ever? Not The Indy 500. Ford vs. Ferrari In 1966 (VIDEO)

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Americans like to think that baseball and football rule the world of sport.

Soccer, anyone?

Americans like to believe that the Indianapolis 500 --- it's called The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, and 400,000 people will squeeze into the stands this weekend to prove it --- is the biggest deal in car racing.

Le Mans, anyone?

Consider the differences.

The Indy 500 is a 550-mile race --- drivers slam their feet hard on the gas pedal to make their souped-up American cars go 200 laps around a 2.5-mile oval at blistering speed.

Le Mans, in contrast, is an endurance contest --- drivers at the wheel of the world's most sophisticated racing cars must negotiate a brutal 24-hour marathon on an 8.48-mile course dotted with curves. Oh, and to win, the driver must keep the car at speeds around 200 miles an hour --- that's like running the length of a football field in one second.

I care so little about cars that I didn't get a driver's license until I was 23. I live in a city. We own a car, but because we have responsibility for one extravagantly valuable child, we bought a sedan that's built like a tank --- our priority is survivability, not speed records.

And yet, as I read Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans (for readers obsessed with speed, there's a Kindle edition), I turned the pages faster, heart humming on all cylinders --- you can ignore the racing story (if you must) and thrill to this book as a business saga, an adventure story or even a mythic quest.

And I say that even though the writing is spotty; car executives are routinely described as wearing "expensive suits" and when the cars of racing potentates win, there's often a cigar splitting their victory grins.

Great books generally require great conflicts. "Go Like Hell" has one --- Ford vs. Ferrari. To the outsider and fan alike, this once seemed like no conflict at all. Ferraris were the ideal, raw steel transformed into beautiful, finely tuned works of art. Fords were.... Fords.

But the early 1960s were go-go years in America, and Henry Ford II saw an opportunity --- to build Ford's market outside of the United States by kicking ass in European competition. His original idea: buy Ferrari. And he had a deal --- almost. Then it fell apart, and he had a rival and a mission.

The stakes were high --- for everyone. An American-built car had not won a major European race since 1921; now Ford would have to build the most technologically advanced racing car in history. (Its biggest innovation in the early '60s? The Mustang. "A secretary's car," some said.) But back then, Le Mans got about five times as much press coverage as the Indy 500. To win there would be a good investment for Ford.

The cost was high. Ford would spend $6 million --- about $39.5 million in today's dollars --- to win just one race. For drivers, the cost could be higher; one estimate had the annual mortality rate among Grand Prix drivers at 25%. Spectators too paid the price. Here's the crash at Le Mans that claimed more than 80 lives in 1965....

A.J. Baime is the cars editor for Playboy --- he writes about engineering in language that the least interested girlfriend of a car buff could understand. He's equally good on the personalities, As for the story, at a certain point, it tells itself; Ferrari wins Le Mans for the first five years of the '60s, and then Henry Ford presents everyone on his racing team with name tags that have one sentence on them ("Ford wins Le Mans in 1966"), and a million things go wrong, and the tension builds, and suddenly it's June of 1966, and Ford is off to Le Mans....

No spoilers here. Just some advice: Don't Google. Read the book. Don't think you'll care? Watch this:

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]