The story of Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt’s win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the stuff of racing legend and notable in more ways than one.
The second of four in a row for Ford with the GT 40, the podium prompted the birth of the champagne celebration now traditional around the world. Fifty years later, this remains the only win for an All-American team, driver and car at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
This year, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing returns to defend a title of its own in the Ford GT.
In 2016, the team finished p1 and p3 in GTE Pro with the Ford EcoBoost engine, a point of pride for Ford Motor Company.
Gurney and Foyt sat down together before the Long Beach Grand Prix in Long Beach, Calif., to discuss their win.
FIFTY YEARS AFTER YOUR WIN AT LE MANS, DID YOU EVER THINK IT WOULD BE CONSIDERED SO LEGENDARY?
FOYT: “All I can say is, I’m glad (Gurney) chose me for his co-driver. It doesn’t seem like 50 years ago, but our health is showing it. I always had a lot of respect for him, as a car builder and a race driver.
“We’ve been friends for a long time and he gave me a chance. He had the car running so damn fast, I didn’t know how to back it off. I tried to, but he had it running fast, so I had to keep going.”
GURNEY: “I chose him for only one reason and that was because he’s a winner. I felt like we were going to win once A.J. was in the car. He hadn’t been a specialist in road racing like I was, but he did a great job.
“We had a lot of fun talking about it and gradually, the car turned out to be a really nice, smooth, fast car without any bad habits. It was just a great time.”
FIFTY YEARS LATER, YOU’RE STILL THE ONLY ALL-AMERICAN TEAM TO WIN LE MANS (CAR, ENGINE, DRIVERS). ARE YOU SURPRISED AT THAT? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT?
FOYT: “I feel great about it, mostly because a few of my races were overseas and I was fortunate enough to win some of them, but most of them were in the U.S. I’m an American so it means a lot.
“I was invited to go back more than once but I said I went over as a rookie and won, so I have no reason to go back.”
GURNEY: “Does it surprise me (that we’re still the only all-American team to win Le Mans)? Yes, it sure does.
“But all those wimps that haven’t come back, I don’t know what’s stopping them (laughing). For us, Ford said they were going for it and they went for it. I’m very proud to have been part of it, just like A.J. is.”
YOU BOTH PARTICIPATED IN A VERY SPECIAL TIME IN AMERICAN RACING. A.J., YOU WON THE INDIANAPOLIS 500, THEN WENT OVER AND WON LE MANS. DAN, YOU WON AT LE MANS AND THEN WON THE F1 RACE AT SPA IN A CAR YOU BUILT, THE FIRST AND ONLY TIME AN AMERICAN HAS DONE THAT. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT TIME OF YOUR LIFE, IN TERMS OF WHERE YOU WERE IN YOUR CAREERS?
FOYT: “I don’t think the boys realize what they missed. When Dan came up, and when I came up, it was altogether different racing.
“Back then, I loved racing the midgets and sprints and stock cars and everything, like Dan loved to go over there (to Europe) and run and he did a great job, and I respect him highly for it, and for picking up a little Texan like me to go over and run the 24-hour, I give him a lot of respect.
“I know at that time, a lot of them thought I was kind of wild, so Dan had faith in me, and I knew if he got the car set up, I thought I could hang onto it for him.”
GURNEY: “Of course, looking backwards, that was a pretty high peak in my career. I think racing drivers, a lot of people, want to have bragging rights and certainly A.J. and I have them now and that’s a fabulous feeling.”
HOW WAS THE STRATEGY DECIDED BEFORE THE RACE? WERE YOU VERY INVOLVED IN THAT?
FOYT: “I think Dan was more involved in strategy than I was. He’d been there before and I was just glad to be over there, for Ford Motor Company to give me such an opportunity. I was listening to Dan quite a bit. He gave me some pointers and all that.
“I think before I got in the car, Dan run in the first shift and I got in the second shift, I think I had about 10 laps and, I’ll never forget it, when I came into the pits Denis Hulme, who was in another Ford, was leading, and I knew he’d been out of there for a lot of time, and I followed him for about four-five laps and got lucky enough to get by him. That’s kind of how I learned the course.
“I knew he’d set the pace pretty damned good, I’d better hustle my butt up or they wouldn’t let me go in the next shift, probably. Anyway, it was a great experience and after the race we all had a lot of fun.
“I’ve been invited back three or four times, way back, not now, when I was younger, but I said ‘I went over a rookie and we came back a winner, so I have nothing to prove.’”
GURNEY: “We ignored all the Ford strategy (laughing).
FOYT: “Dan said that, not me.” (laughing).
GURNEY: “We just tried to use our experience. They expected us to be the rabbit and we were going to battle each other for fast time, and everything, and we could tell that the car wasn’t going to finish with that sort of attention.
‘So we told the strategy guys that ‘yeah, you’re right,’ and of course, we didn’t pay any attention to it.”
DAN, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR SCRAPS WITH FERRARI?
GURNEY: “Well, it was still dark, but the accident with Mario (Andretti) that had taken the other cars out had already happened. I think we were the last Ford running and our car was still fine.
“I think Michael Parkes, who was a very good driver and I think chief engineer at Ferrari at that time, the racing department, so he knew his stuff, and I forget whether I passed him or he passed me, but he realized when he saw my Briggs Cunningham strategy, I’d slowed down without jamming on the brakes, just slowed down early, he come from behind…we had about three mph, even in his draft, we could pull away, he couldn’t stay with us, but as soon as I’d back off without down without hitting the brakes, he was right up on me flicking the lights and everything.
“Of course, I had a faster car and could’ve, but didn’t want to do something that might compromise us. It was a tough situation. He did that for at least three laps and it was starting to bother me big-time, and we got to a corner called Arnage, which is a 90-degree right, and you go down there and turn right, and I pulled onto the grass, right there, in a nice flat place and he pulled right in behind me, and we were running 1-2 at the time.
“I looked in the mirror and I didn’t wave at him or anything, but we probably sat there 15, 18 seconds, and then he pulled out and left. Then I pulled out and continued on the same way A.J. and I agreed to operate under and within about four or five laps, I passed him without having to do anything about it.
“I think he hurt his car trying to keep up with us. That’s my feeling. So he was using every bit of brakes that Ferrari had and I think he ran it out of brakes.”
A.J., CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE EARLY MORNING SURPRISE YOU HAD COMING INTO THE PITS AFTER A LONG NIGHT SHIFT WHEN YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO HAVE A DRIVER CHANGE?
FOYT: “Dan knew what he was doing (laughing). I told them when I came into the pits that my arms hurt so bad and they said ‘We can’t find Dan.’ I said, ‘what do you mean, you can’t find him? Hell, he’s over there sleeping, somewhere!’
“They said ‘you have to get back in.’ I said ‘oh no, don’t do that to me.’ And still Dan laughs about it. I think he was hiding on purpose. I could be wrong, because for me, I didn’t care for running in fog and all that, where people were cooking.”
GURNEY: “That story got changed many times. As a matter of fact, I thought I was there on time, but in any case, I had been walking around with my wife. So I don’t know why A.J. came in early.”
FOYT: “I was tired! No, regardless of how it played, Dan was a big part of that win and I’m just glad to have been on his team. He sprayed (Henry Ford II) all up and down with champagne and I said ‘man, that’s the boss you’re spraying!’”
LET’S TALK ABOUT HENRY FORD II. DID HE CHAT WITH ALL OF YOU BEFORE THE RACE? DO YOU REMEMBER HIS REACTION TO THE WIN?
FOYT: “I think Dan had the same idea. We knew we couldn’t tear the car all to pieces. We knew we had to take care of it. We had to nurse it, then when we had to run hard, we could run hard. I think that’s how we won the race.”
GURNEY: “We were up there celebrating, and everyone was up there, Michael Parkes from Ferrari and all the Ford people. We didn’t call him Henry II, we called him ‘Hank the Deuce.’ He was an imposing figure and if he looked at you the wrong way, you kind of shriveled up and tried to disappear.
“He was there with a new bride, I think, on their honeymoon and when I started spraying him, I’m not sure he liked it or not, but he was a good sport about it and we had a wonderful time spraying champagne, A.J. and I both.”
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE CHAMPAGNE. IT WAS A SPONTANEOUS THING, RIGHT? YOU SAW THE PHOTOGRAPHERS?
FOYT: “That’s true. I think Dan was as happy as I was. Now you see all the Formula 1 drivers doing the same thing, but we did it 50 years ago. It was just a great victory, I think, for both of us.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR THE DRIVERS GOING BACK TO LE MANS?
FOYT: “It’s all different now. They need the seats like we had (laughing), and the suspension and tires. Then you’d find out who’s the good race drivers and who aren’t.”
GURNEY: “I would say this time pay attention to the strategists from Ford (because we didn’t). It is a completely different time. They run every lap like it’s a qualifying lap and expect to have (the car) last, which we couldn’t even imagine that happening back in those days.
“Completely different, but it still has a lot of race driving involved, so you have to pay attention to that.”