A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney Reminisce on Le Mans the year after Ford v Ferrari

November 13, 2019

The film Ford v Ferrari chronicling Ford’s podium sweep of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 will be released nationwide this Friday.  A.J. Foyt was originally scheduled to compete in that 1966 race, but he was badly injured at the Milwaukee Mile when he crashed in practice (suspension failure) and hit the wall.

Although Foyt missed that opportunity, the following year he was invited back to join the Ford team by Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby, a fellow Texan. Gurney and Foyt rocked the motorsports world when they became the only All-American team to win the historic race with a car built in the U.S. and piloted solely by American drivers. It is a record that still stands. In contrast, the 1966 entries were built in the U.K. and were driven by a contingent of international drivers.

 In April, 2017, Gurney and Foyt reminisced about their victory for a special 50th anniversary event which reunited both drivers with their No. 1 Ford Mk IV for the first time since 1967.  Following are some excerpts from the interview conducted for Ford Performance, Ford’s motorsports division.

A.J. and Dan pose with their Ford Mk II–reunited after 50 years.  (Photo courtesy  of Ford Performance)

Q: After Ford won in 1966, did you feel pressure coming back in 1967?

Foyt: “At the time, I was supposed to go over in 1966 with the Holman Moody bunch, but I got hurt at Milwaukee, burnt real bad. Ford lost three or four of their drivers before Le Mans that year: Walt Hansgen – the boy from the East Coast, was killed testing in the rain [at Le Mans], and Lloyd Ruby was supposed to drive and he crashed his airplane taking off from Indy. I can’t remember who else. [Note: The fourth driver was Jackie Stewart who was in a horrific crash in the Belgian Grand Prix the same weekend as Foyt’s crash.] We went over there to blow Ferrari off. That’s what Ford wanted us to do and that’s what Dan and I did.”

Q: 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. It was great.”

Gurney: “Does it surprise me? Yes it sure does. But all those wimps haven’t come back (laughs), I don’t know what’s stopping them. 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.”

Q: You both participated in a very special time in American racing, probably never equaled. A.J., you won the Indy 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 [today] realize what they’ve missed. When Dan come up, and when I come up, it was altogether different racing. It was a great time in your life. Back then when I raced, I loved racing the midgets and sprints and stock cars and everything, like Dan loved to go over there and run [Formula 1] 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.”

Dan Gurney was the first driver to spray champagne in victory circle which has become a tradition in motorsports.  (Photo courtesy of All American Racers Archives)

Q: Did you feel there was competition between the Shelby and Holman Moody teams?

Gurney: “Yes.”

Foyt: “There was a lot of friction. (Beating Ferrari was the object). Ford wanted to win, regardless of which Ford won. He (Gurney) wanted to win. I damn sure wanted to win, but regardless of how Ford had to get there, we were going to get there some way. Like I said, there were two different teams. There was no love between either team.”

Gurney: “We wouldn’t tell them the time of day. But they were prepared, so they were going to do very well.”

Foyt: “Ford had two great teams, but they weren’t really one team. Shelby’s team was there, Holman Moody’s team was there, and we wanted to beat them. It was a race between Ford teams, to be honest. There was no love.”

Q: Was it similar among the drivers?

Foyt: “They had some good drivers and we were all friends. It was just that when the green flag came down, there was no love between none of us, right Dan?”

Gurney: “They were all good drivers and we were friends until they became even better. Then we didn’t like them anymore.” (Both laughing). “Typical thing.”

Q: 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 [and I] had the same idea. We knew we couldn’t tear the car all to pieces. We knew we had to take care of it and I think Dan felt the same way I did. 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.”

Q: The champagne. It was a spontaneous thing, right?

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.”

That April evening in Long Beach, Edsel Ford II presented Foyt with the Spirit of Ford award, the racing division’s highest honor, which Gurney had received in 1999. The award recognizes lifetime achievement and contribution to the industry both on and off the race track.

 Edsel Ford II presented A.J. with the Spirit of Ford award in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Ford Performance)

Sitting with Gurney and Ford, Foyt entertained the idea of returning to Le Mans for the 50th Anniversary celebration of the victory. Two months later, he did return as a guest of Ford and was amazed at the changes in the venerable venue. He was driven around the track just before the race by Sebastien Bourdais’s father, Patrick, who is a longtime competitor at Le Mans.

Racing fathers and sons figured in the filming of Ford v Ferrari. Gurney’s son Alex, who is a two-time national champion in sports car racing’s premier Daytona Prototype division, worked on the film in two capacities: as a stunt driver/consultant in the on-track racing action and as an actor—he played his dad.

 A.J. and Dan pose with Dan’s wife Evi and their son Alex who was on the set of the movie for 60 days as a stunt driver and consultant. (Photo courtesy of Ford Performance)

While Foyt may not see the film in the theater—the last film he saw in a theater was The Godfather in 1972—if and when he does watch it, it will be sure to bring back some fond memories of a magical time in motorsports.

The boys today don’t realize what they missed.