Ford recently had the chance to sit down with Chris Amon – a 72-year-old retired racing driver from New Zealand who, along with Bruce McLaren, piloted the No. 2 Ford GT40 to victory in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This year is significant, of course, in that it marks the 50-year anniversary of that historic victory. Ford will be looking to relive the glory of that race with its new, modern GT racing program, but regardless of whether they succeed, the automaker is wheeling out the No. 2 Ford GT40 (Chassis No. P/1046) in celebration of its accomplishments.
When we left off in an earlier article, Mr. Amon had been talking about the rivalry between Ford GT40 drivers, tire difficulties, and the origins of the now-legendary phrase uttered by Bruce McLaren: “Go like hell.” You can revisit Part 1 of the interview here.
Asked about what was the toughest part of the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, Mr. Amon responded: “Back in those days the top speed of the GT40 was 100mph more than some of the other cars on the track so it could be quite hairy especially at night in the rain with mist hanging in the air, bearing down on these cars when you couldn’t see much. I found driving at dawn and dusk especially tricky because the light was so poor. Another thing was the cars back then chucked out quite a lot of oil so as the race went on, and the rain came down, it got very slippery. Our throttle was also sticking a bit which isn’t what you needed going into a corner.”
To make things worse, unlike his teammate Bruce McLaren, Mr. Amon had difficulty resting during the 24-hour race.
“I didn’t get any [sleep],” he told Ford. “We were stopping every hour and a half for fuel and we weren’t allowed to drive for more than four hours at a time. Bruce could sleep anywhere at any time but I couldn’t. I would take a shower when I got out of the car and change my overalls because you would get drenched in sweat driving the GT40. I also had some interesting conversations with Henry Ford II and his wife Cristina, during the night.”
In the end, three Ford GT40 entrants – including Mr. Amon’s – had weathered the storm and were poised for a 1-2-3 finish. Ford decided to have the two leading cars (entrant No. 1 and No. 2) cross the line side-by-side. “The idea was that the leading GT40s would cross the line together but in practise it wasn’t possible to have a dead heat. We weren’t sure who had won initially,” said Mr. Amon.
Switching gears, Ford asked Chris Amon about endurance racing today – and specifically, whether it was tougher back in 1966. “It’s difficult to say because the speed differential was higher in my day and the cars didn’t provide as much protection,” he said. “The circuit was also more dangerous. Our cars didn’t have power steering or paddle shift gear boxes so they were physically very demanding to drive. You would get huge blisters on your hand from changing gear. Another thing was you really had to manage the brakes because at the end of the Mulsanne Straight they would be cold and then subjected to tremendous heat as you slowed from 220 mph. There was a real risk the discs could crack.
“It was certainly more dangerous in my day but if you wanted to race, that was the deal. I think today’s drivers are subjected to much higher G-forces and they also have to manage different settings in the car so they have more to think about during the race. At the end of the day, endurance racing is the ultimate test for man and machine and that hasn’t changed a bit in the last 50 years.”
Ford asked: “Was that win the highlight of your racing career?”
Mr. Amon responded: “At the time I was probably more interested in F1 than sports car racing. It’s been said that I was an unlucky F1 driver because I should have won a lot of races but the fact is many of my contemporaries were killed in F1 so I think I’m lucky to still be around. There’s no question that winning Le Mans with Ford was a very special moment in my career.”
And how about what a Ford GT victory at Le Mans would mean to him today?
“I would be delighted for Ford. I won with Bruce and he wasn’t with us for much longer after that race so it would be especially poignant for me personally to see history recreated. I wish the team all the best.”