The basis of Ford’s return to top-flight sports car racing with the new GT in 2016 centers around its 1-2 finish at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans.
But the origins of that stunning success at Circuit de la Sarthe started five months earlier, with a win in the first ever 24-hour edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
THE FIRST WINS
What is now the Rolex 24 had five prior races, at three different distances: 1,000 km (1959), three hours (1962, 1963) and 2,000 km (1964, 1965).
On February 28, 1965, Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby took their Shelby-American Inc. Ford GT to a win in the final 2,000 km edition of the race.
A year later, on Feb. 5 and 6, the same pairing repeated the feat in the Ford GT40 Mk. II, in the first 24-hour race at Daytona.
Ford not only won, but dominated against other iconic manufacturers like Chevrolet, Porsche, Ferrari and Jaguar.
Miles and Ruby won from teammates Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant in second, eight laps back. The Miles/Ruby car led a majority of the race.
Further Fords finished third (Walt Hansgen and Mark Donohue) and fifth (Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren). Only a single Ferrari 365 (Mario Andretti, Pedro Rodriguez) in fourth broke up a potential top-five sweep.
Besides the GT40s, there were also a handful of Ford Shelby Cobras, although those retired from driveshaft and overheating issues.
One of the Shelby Cobra drivers, Oscar Koveleski, shared his car with Harold Keck and Ed Lowther. Koveleski, who’s still around to recall the 1966 race, did so below.
A THIRTY-PLUS YEAR DRY SPELL
While those two overall wins seemed to lay the groundwork for Ford’s overall success at Daytona, what followed from there was a 31-year dry spell in-between.
The car that broke the drought drove into the history books for another reason entirely.
In 1997, Dyson Racing took an overdue first win in the race after nearly a dozen attempts, and pulled out all the stops – and drivers – with its single remaining Riley & Scott Mk. III Ford.
“It was kind of funny what happened,” Dyson Racing founder and team principal Rob Dyson told Sportscar365.
“We’d always pondered running one car with two different teams, two different driving teams. There was no rule limiting the number of drivers.
“It got dark and I’d gone to the nearest hotel to get a couple hours sleep. Then I came back and ‘Smitty’ (team manager Pat Smith) said, ‘Their car broke, so we’re running everyone.’
“And naturally, that’s when the maladies started.”
Dyson drove the sunrise stint as he traditionally did, as he called it a “religious moment.”
But it nearly turned from heaven to hell with the wounded No. 20 car, now featuring all seven of the team’s drivers.
James Weaver, Andy Wallace and Butch Leitzinger moved from the No. 16 car into the No. 20 car shared by Dyson, John Paul Jr., Elliott Forbes-Robinson and late add John Schneider.
Hopes were merely that the thing would hang on for dear life as it lost water, and was feared to be losing oil simultaneously.
“We kept Butch in there because he could drive it fast enough without changing the pace of the car,” Dyson explained. “He was on a roll and we didn’t want to shift him out. He did two full shifts with a car that was getting ready to expire.”
Despite the various trips to the pit lane, the No. 20 car held on over a surging Team Scandia Ferrari 333 SP. Dyson had his team’s first win with seven drivers, and Rolex only had four watches ready to go.
“I turned to John Schneider in victory lane and told him, ‘They’re not all like this,’” Dyson said.
The rule was changed to limit the number of drivers, now a maximum of five, following this race.
A second Dyson Racing win in 1999 was more straightforward, with Leitzinger, Wallace and “EFR” again taking the No. 20 R&S-Ford to the victory in the rain.
“This was 20 years ago but I can’t complain about our races with the Riley-Ford,” Dyson said. “They were great engines with great, big V8 power.”
THE MODERN ERA
A further 13 years passed before Ford won overall again, this time in the hands of Michael Shank Racing in the 50th anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2012.
Shank’s quartet of Ozz Negri, John Pew, AJ Allmendinger and Justin Wilson delivered the popular privateer team owner his first win at Daytona, following a thrilling duel with Starworks Motorsport in a similar Riley-Ford.
“Yeah it was big, first and third for us,” Shank told Sportscar365. “We’d put in a lot of time with Ford over the years leading up to it. It was the sixth or seventh year at that point.
“A lot went up to it to get that point, to get their first win in 13 years. To lead on and build our relationship from that point to the EcoBoost program and setting the FIA lap records we did end of ’13 was a pretty proud moment of mine.”
Ford’s sixth and thus far most recent overall win at Daytona came last year, with Chip Ganassi Racing and its quartet of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson.
“I don’t put the teams together, I don’t change the tires, I don’t do the pit stops,” Ganassi said last year after winning the race, basically giving everyone else the credit.
“This guy to my left (Mike Hull) does that. He’s my brother from another mother.”
Fittingly, that same quartet has a chance to deliver Ford a seventh overall win in the race, as does the team’s sister car of Lance Stroll, Alex Wurz, Andy Priaulx and Brendon Hartley.
But while the overall glory is still possible, all eyes will be fixated on the new GT.
Ford’s goal with Ganassi and Multimatic is simple: a debut win with the new Ford GT to match the accomplishments – and the achievements – of 50 years ago with the forerunner to the manufacturer’s newest GT challenger.
FORD AT DAYTONA
***1965: Ken Miles, Lloyd Ruby, Shelby-American Inc., Ford GT (2,000 km)
***1966: Miles, Ruby, Shelby-American Inc., Ford GT40 Mk. II
***1997: James Weaver, Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger, John Paul Jr., Rob Dyson, Elliott-Forbes Robinson, John Schneider, Dyson Racing, Riley & Scott Mk. III-Ford
***1999: Wallace, Leitzinger, “EFR,” Dyson Racing, Riley & Scott Mk. III-Ford
***2012: Ozz Negri, John Pew, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Wilson, Michael Shank Racing, Riley-Ford
***2015: Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, Riley-Ford
Additional Win Notes:
***20 additional class victories
***Roush Racing with 10 consecutive attempts won from 1985-1993, 1995 in different GT classes with various Ford and Lincoln Mercury models
***Ford Torino won Grand International class in 1976 with David and Larry Pearson, Gary and Jim Bowsher, in class designed for NASCAR stock cars