Classic Cars

Great Automotive Rivalries: Shelby vs. Ferrari

A Texas chicken farmer and Ford teamed up to humiliate Ferrari on the Le Mans race track.

This is a different kind of rivalry. It isn’t about specific cars and dealer sales were never a factor. This is a motorsports rivalry, but it’s one that goes well beyond a simple grudge between drivers. It is also the story of how heritage can only hold out for so long against ingenuity, technical expertise, and above all, determination. And on top of everything, it was that kind of underdog story that we all love to hear, probably the greatest story of automotive rivalry.

In the early sixties, Ferrari was the absolute king of motorsports. Enzo’s company was winning in Formula 1 and it absolutely dominated endurance racing, not just in overall wins with prototype cars, but also in the production-based GT class. But a Texan upstart had his eye on making it big in motorsports, and that would mean taking on Ferrari. Americans weren’t completely unheard of in international motorsport; this was a time when Phil Hill was driving Ferrari’s cars at Le Mans and Masten Gregory was racking up wins in F1, but Carroll Shelby was different.

He spoke with a notable Texas drawl, and he dressed as though he had come straight from the farm. He was the polar opposite of the other drivers, at a time when most racing drivers were rich European playboys. The motorsports powers that be therefore did not take it well when Shelby and Roy Salvadori took a win for David Brown’s Aston Martin factory team in a DBR1 at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans. A heart condition would keep Shelby himself from racing anymore, so he instead turned his attention to building the cars that would win races. This first took the form of a GT car, the Cobra.

This was a tiny British-built sports car from AC with a giant Ford V8 stuffed into it, a pretty standard hotrod formula. The car was pitted against Ferrari’s infamous 250 GTO, the reigning champion of GT-class endurance racing. The Cobra saw mixed results against the Ferrari. On shorter American tracks with a lot of turns, the big American V8 gave the Cobra an advantage in being able to power out of the turns quickly. But on longer European tracks, the open-top Cobras had an aerodynamic disadvantage, and the Ferraris were able to achieve higher top speeds. The solution was the Daytona, essentially a hardtop version of the Cobra.

This would finally get Shelby a GT class win at the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ferrari didn’t take this well, and after 1965 would withdraw from sports car racing. Shelby had achieved all of this with the help of Ford, the source for those big V8 engines that powered the GT cars. But Ford had plans of its own, and would soon enlist Shelby’s help to become something more than an engine supplier for GT cars. Henry Ford II had long had his eye on Ferrari, and while Shelby was determined to beat it, Ford was trying to buy it. It nearly happened too, but Enzo had pulled out of the deal at the last minute, leaving the Americans with egg on their faces.

Ford was not happy with this, and would call on Shelby to do what he did best: humiliate Ferrari. But Ford would first call on Lola, a Ford partner in the UK with tons of racing experience for help in designing the car. The car built was the GT40, Ford’s revenge-mobile, and in 1966, the Shelby-American team would take it to a win at Le Mans. In fact, the GT40 would score a 1-2-3 finish that year, with Shelby’s cars in first and second. Porsche was just starting to become relevant in endurance racing that year as well, and its new 906 prototype got a 4-5-6-7 finish. Ferrari’s top finisher came in at 8th place, this after an overall win just the year before.

The following three years would see overall wins for the GT40 as well, and Ferrari would never again even come close to reclaiming dominance at Le Mans. First Shelby with Ford’s help and then Ford with Shelby’s help had delivered a Daytona-GT40 1-2 punch which completely decimated Ferrari’s reign at La Sarthe. And all of this from a Texas chicken farmer.

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