Ford's decades-long involvement in motorsports has translated into many wins and plenty of prestige.
The richness of a given brand’s motorsport heritage isn’t really the kind of thing that’s quantifiable, but if it was, Ford would easily top the list. Ford Racing has made its name in so many different series over the years, and in so many different kinds of racing, that it’s difficult to find any form of motorsports that hasn’t felt its influence. A company this size is bound to have a few wins, but Ford has really managed to set a whole new standard for involvement in racing.
Ford’s first racing victory came in 1901, when a car driven and designed by Henry Ford himself beat a car driven by Alexander Winton in a 10-lap race in Detroit. Winton was, at the time, the number one racing driver in the world, making it that much more of an accomplishment. After all, the chances of seeing current Ford CEO Alan Mulally beating Sebastian Vettel around a track today are pretty slim. The heads of car companies were just more involved in their products a hundred or so years ago, and also more involved in racing.
Ford had quite a few racing victories in those early days, including a win in 1909 when a Model T won a race from New York to Seattle, a task which makes even the Dakar Rally seem like a morning commute to work. In 1949, the first official NASCAR race was won by a Lincoln, and today Ford has 16 manufacturer’s titles and 7 driver’s titles in NASCAR. It also has 25 manufacturer’s titles and 23 driver’s titles in the Australian V8 Supercars series. But the Aussie program is a relatively recent thing, compared to Ford’s initial efforts to make its motorsport presence better known internationally.
This could be said to have really gotten under way in 1959, when Ford partnered up with a then-new British firm known as Cosworth. Ford’s level of involvement with Cosworth has varied over the years, but Cosworth has always been massively important to Ford’s European racing efforts. Ford and Cosworth have collaborated on a large number of Formula 1 engines in particular over the years, and more F1 world championships have been won using Ford engines than any other manufacturer, with the obvious exception of Ferrari.
One of the most colorful periods of Ford’s racing history was in the Sixties, and stemmed from a relationship with Carroll Shelby. Shelby had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959 as a driver, behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DBR1. It was a time when Ferrari was the team to beat at Le Mans, and Shelby would thereafter begin work on challenging it in the GT class with his Ford-powered Cobras. But Ford wasn’t too interested in getting directly involved until an attempt to purchase Ferrari turned sour, and Ford looked for revenge on the track.
It was decided that an outright win against Ferrari at Le Mans would be the best way to show old man Enzo that Ford didn’t need his company anyway. Out of this came the GT40, one of the most legendary racecars in the history of motorsports. The car not only won in 1966, but went on to rack up four consecutive wins before Ford felt it had made its point and withdrew from endurance racing. The 1966 win was the first time an American manufacturer had won the race, and Ford remains the only American company to have done so.
Ford Cosworth engines would power a couple of other Le Mans winners, but Ferrari would never again regain its dominance in endurance racing. Ford is currently also very visible in the world of rallying, winning a couple of WRC constructor’s championships in 2006 and 2007. However, the recent history of WRC winners has basically just boiled down to which team Sebastien Loeb decides to drive for. But Ken Block and Tanner Faust both drive Fords, and that has probably done more for Ford, and rallying in general in the US, than actual WRC wins would have anyway.