The Ford GT scored its first victory at Daytona on February 18, 1965. It would be another 16 months before it made history by beating Ferrari and finishing 1-2-3 at Le Mans in 1966. And it would be almost 40 more years until Ford PR folks would generate the ill-conceived idea to ask the editors of Sport Compact Car to drive the brand-new Ford GT.
Seriously, what does the 3400-pound, 550-hp, mid-engine supercar have to do with our world of relatively cheap, fairly fun-to-drive machines? Not much. The only real reason we got the call is that Ford's PR folks understand what huge car guys we are. Sometimes, being a car guy pays off.
We all know the history of the GT40. We know it's rumored to have gotten the "40" part of its name from being 40 inches tall, and it's famous for beating Ferrari at Le Mans, and it's one of the most striking cars to ever turn wheels on pavement. Still, when the GT pulls in front of the Denny's that morning, things change for me. The world slows down and I start flashing back to a life I never lived. My Moons Over My Hammy turn into delicate French crepes. The parking blocks lining the driveway turn into hay bales covered in Ferodo and Firestone banners, and the pumps at the Union 76 station next door begin to look like high-speed refueling rigs. I'm at Le Mans. It's 1966. And I'm Bruce McLaren.
Poof. Back to reality.
Patrick Paternie, the word wizard driving the car before us jumps out and starts gushing about the GT. He admits its intoxicating power coerced him into a few double-yellow passes. Minutes turn into hours as we exchange pleasantries before I can go back to being McLaren.
Soon enough we're in the GT blasting down the Mulsanne, uh, I mean the flats, toward the canyon road that is Ortega Highway. No need to hit the refueling rig as Paternie somehow left us some high-test. Once in the canyon, I fade to France and the winding road in front of me looks mysteriously like Circuit de la Sarthe's Maison Blanche (white house) section. Then there's the Dunlop Curve. The tiniest throttle opening ignites afterburners in the GT's short-tail (GT40s raced before long-tails became commonplace at Le Mans).
The track unrolls in front of my GT in long, sweeping turns and as I slowly close in on the limit I can sense understeer. At this speed that's good. The traffic ahead becomes a line of Porsche 917s waiting to be devoured and Coleman's Silvia, now out of sight, is a long lost Ferrari 275. The steering isn't fast-a characteristic none of us understand. In fact, at 17:1, it's slow. Maybe Ford didn't consult Foyt on this one. Still, this is easily as fast as I've ever covered this road. It seems strangely ironic that Dan Gurney still rides his motorcycle here regularly.
The longer I drive the GT, the more confidence I find in its ridiculous grip (315mm wide rear tires, thank you very much). Quickly, I develop a rule about entry speed. Double the posted warning speed, then add 10 mph. That seems to leave enough room in the GT's envelope to not crash and I don't find myself wishing I'd entered faster.
Soon enough, my stint is over. The fuel gauge is pushing middle ground and Gurney, I mean, Coleman, wants to drive. I rumble the GT to the side of the road to cool-down and I can hear the crowds scream and smell the burning rubber and race fuel. As my short time with the GT comes to a close, I feel I've experienced more automotive history in an hour than a lot people do in a lifetime.
I just drove a Ford GT. In France. At Le Mans. I'm hallucinating. Five hundred and fifty horsepower will do that to a real car guy.