In A.J. Baime’s excellent book Go like Hell, Baime describes a scene prior to the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans where Henry Ford II (The Deuce) hands out cards to all his executives involved with Ford’s racing program with one simple message: Ford wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The message was very clear; you better win or else.
Well, Ford does win and goes on to dominate the race. The Deuce’s archrival Enzo Ferrari for the next three years. Ford's victory was hardly a bolt out the blue.
Ford had failed miserably at Le Mans in prior years, becoming a laughing stock at the famed race track, just proving to everyone that racing machines were produced in Italy, England, and Germany not in America.
In the 1960s the only racing in America occurred at Indy once a year and in the South by a bunch of bootlegger’s sons. Fun for sure but not real racing.
The only cars that could stand up to the grueling and dangerous 24 Hours were made in Europe. The Deuce proved that America could build a car that could dominate, not by copying Ferrari or Porsche designs but by using Ford’s thundering V-8 engines and tapping into Carol Shelby and his genius team of hot-rodders in California.
The Ford GT’s domination became the U.S. auto industry’s high water mark in global motorsports. With the introduction of the Mustang and victories all over Europe with the Ford GT, it seemed that the blue oval could do no wrong by winning on the track and producing solid cars that America loved and bought in the millions.
Fast forward four decades, and GM has become a ward of the state. Chrysler was sold for parts to Fiat and Ford is the only U.S. manufacturer left in the hole, but at the same time losing billions of dollars a year.
Nearly three generations of Americans would never consider buying an American car. Years of poor quality and iffy designs put them behind an eight ball the size of Jerry Jones’ ego.
The good news is they have seen the light. Both GM and Ford are producing great cars of exceptional quality with unique style. (See the Cadillac CTS V and the Ford Fusion as examples.)
The problem is now no one is noticing. When people want luxury they go to Mercedes, BMW, or Lexus. For quality and affordability we flock to Honda and Toyota dealerships.
How does America get its auto mojo back? Simple: “Race on Sunday—Sell on Monday”—the old adage that says if you race and win on a Sunday customers will flock to buy your products on Monday.
By racing on the world’s biggest stage Formula 1, by entering F1, Ford or even GM could reenergize their brands in the U.S. and gain a foothold in the biggest emerging car markets in Eastern Europe and China.
Of course, they would need to follow The Deuce’s lead and pour lots of money into the program and not be afraid to fail for a couple of years. They need to make a commitment for at least five years and now is the perfect time to enter F1.
Honda and BMW have left F1 with Toyota not far behind so there is a lot of Formula 1 expertise floating around looking for work. Either company could invest and then piggyback on the new USF1 team by allowing them to race next year with Cosworth engines while developing their own engines and becoming a true factory team.
Fast forward five years to the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix and see all those waving Ferrari flags replaced by thousands of fans waiving Ford flags. It could happen.