Goodyear at Le Mans 66

The tyre story behind Ford's first Le Mans victory

When Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon drove to victory in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ford wasn’t the only American company making its mark on the world stage. The famous black GT40 Mark II was running on Goodyear tyres. It had started the race on rubber from the company’s big rival in the so-called tyre wars, Firestone, but it took the chequered flag on Goodyear tyres. The victory was Goodyear’s second straight triumph at Le Mans.

The stars for the ’66 Le Mans triumph began to align in 1959 when, as a heart condition was bringing Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby’s driving career to a premature close, he secured the Goodyear race tyre distributorship for the 11 western States in the US.

Goodyear became central to the Shelby American team’s success with the Cobra and other Ford-powered race cars, both in the US and on the international stage. Goodyear even funded the creation of the first Cobra-based Daytona Coupe, designed by Peter Brock. This sleek racer, with its pioneering aerodynamics, beat the Ferrari 250 GTOs to a GT-class win and fourth overall at Le Mans in 1964.

Meanwhile, after negotiations to buy Ferrari had broken down in 1963, Ford aimed to beat the Italian company on the track with the GT40. But in 1964, all of the much-vaunted new Fords retired at Le Mans, as they did from every other race that year.

Ferrari swept the Le Mans podium the following year, too, when once again not a single GT40 managed to finish, despite Ford having handed control of the program to Shelby. As the factory Fords and Ferraris expired around them, the North American Racing Team (NART) Ferrari 250 LM of Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt unexpectedly gave Goodyear its first overall victory in the 24 Hours.

Meanwhile, after negotiations to buy Ferrari had broken down in 1963, Ford aimed to beat the Italian company on the track with the GT40. But in 1964, all of the much-vaunted new Fords retired at Le Mans, as they did from every other race that year.

Ferrari swept the Le Mans podium the following year, too, when once again not a single GT40 managed to finish, despite Ford having handed control of the program to Shelby. As the factory Fords and Ferraris expired around them, the North American Racing Team (NART) Ferrari 250 LM of Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt unexpectedly gave Goodyear its first overall victory in the 24 Hours.

For 1966, Ford was leaving nothing to chance. Eight of the 7-liter (427ci) GT40 Mark IIs were entered, but despite Shelby’s relationship with Goodyear, the Wingfoot tyres were not fitted to every car. At the time, tyre contracts were often with individual drivers rather than entire teams. The drivers of the black #2 car, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, were both contracted to Firestone.

For 1966, Ford was leaving nothing to chance. Eight of the 7-liter (427ci) GT40 Mark IIs were entered, but despite Shelby’s relationship with Goodyear, the Wingfoot tyres were not fitted to every car. At the time, tyre contracts were often with individual drivers rather than entire teams. The drivers of the black #2 car, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, were both contracted to Firestone.

At 4pm, the race started in damp conditions and it quickly became apparent that they suited the Goodyears better than the Firestones. Two of the Shelby cars – the #1 of Ken Miles/Denny Hulme and the #3 of Dan Gurney/Jerry Grant – were having no issues with their Goodyear tyres, but McLaren’s was losing chunks of tread on the Mulsanne at more than 210mph.

When he pitted to hand over to Amon at 5.33pm, he sought out the Firestone representative and negotiated a switch to Goodyears. The #2 car lost time in the process, contributing to a deficit that would be wiped out only when Miles in the #1 slowed to allow McLaren to catch up for the controversial finish the following afternoon.

As Amon prepared to depart the pits, he was told by McLaren to “Go like hell”, a phrase that became the title of A.J. Baime’s best-selling book, which details the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans in the 1960s.

As 4pm rolled around the next day, the surviving #2, #1 and #5 Fords – the latter being the Holman & Moody-run car of Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson – lined up for a staged finish.

The manufactured dead-heat between the two Shelby machines continues to be debated to this day, but history records that McLaren and Amon were given the win based on starting further back and therefore having traveled a greater distance in the same time. But for the early switch to Goodyears, they wouldn’t even have been in contention.

Shelby, Ford and Goodyear returned to Le Mans in 1967 to take a second straight victory – Goodyear’s third – with the Mark IV. In subsequent years, Goodyear would amass a total of 14 wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Shelby, Ford and Goodyear returned to Le Mans in 1967 to take a second straight victory – Goodyear’s third – with the Mark IV. In subsequent years, Goodyear would amass a total of 14 wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Goodyear also gained considerable sportscar racing experience from decades of success in American IMSA racing. Its tyres were used to win a record 368 Formula 1 Grands Prix and became synonymous with NASCAR stock cars and NHRA drag racing.

For the 2019-20 season, Goodyear has chosen European and international sportscar competition for the first step of its World Championship racing comeback. Just as it did in the 1960s, sportscar racing today provides a strong platform to demonstrate tyre technologies on a wide range of different prototype and GT cars. Goodyear has developed a new range of tyres for the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where its tyres will battle for victory in the LMP2 category in 2020.

Goodyear also gained considerable sportscar racing experience from decades of success in American IMSA racing. Its tyres were used to win a record 368 Formula 1 Grands Prix and became synonymous with NASCAR stock cars and NHRA drag racing.

For the 2019-20 season, Goodyear has chosen European and international sportscar competition for the first step of its World Championship racing comeback. Just as it did in the 1960s, sportscar racing today provides a strong platform to demonstrate tyre technologies on a wide range of different prototype and GT cars. Goodyear has developed a new range of tyres for the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where its tyres will battle for victory in the LMP2 category in 2020.

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