Ford is arguably the most recognisable name on American roads – you can’t go anywhere without coming across at least one little Taurus or towering F-150 truck. You can’t mistake that blue oval — especially on the racetrack. Ford has raced for almost 120 years, since Henry Ford himself won a 10-mile race in Detroit in his self-build racecar named Sweepstakes.
Ford has set itself up to be a titan of motorsports both in the United States and around the world. Let’s take a closer look at the history of Ford in racing, and what they plan on doing in the future.
Ford Racing found its start in 1901 with Henry Ford’s iconic race. He went on to set a one-mile speed record in 1904, and in the same year, one and five-mile speed records were set by driver Frank Kulick in a 20-horsepower racer. By 1907, Ford cars won endurance races, and in 1909, a Model T won a transcontinental race from New York to Seattle.
The iconic Ford V8 engine wasn’t even introduced until 1932, giving Henry Ford and his fantastic inventions plenty of time to set and break records.
In 2015, Ford Racing was renamed to Ford Performance. This move merged Ford Racing, Ford Team RS, and Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, with the plan to build 12 performance cars by 2020. The rest, as they say, is history.
Let’s take a closer look at the history of Ford’s participation in some of the most popular motorsport leagues around the world.
Ford might not participate directly in today’s top speed Formula 1 races, but that doesn’t mean the company doesn’t have a rich history in the sport. Ford holds the patent on the most successful F1 race engine ever built — the V8 DFV which made its debut in the second quarter of 1967. That year, it won its first race, the Dutch Grand Prix on June 4th. This engine, and other’s based on its design, went on to win 155 races, all the way through 1983 when it claimed the title at Monaco.
The Zetec-R V8 engine was the culmination of decades of research and race wins and brought the total number of titles to 176 Grand Prix wins, and multiple world and driver’s championships.
The Ford Formula 1 legacy slowly tapered off, in spite of its many wins. Its last Grand Prix came in 2003, and as of 2017, the company has no plans to return to this particular type of racing anytime soon. It would be interesting to see what Ford could do with a Formula 1 engine now, considering all the advances it’s made since its last race victory, but we’ll have to wait until they can get all their ducks in a row, so to speak, and improve their profit margin before they even consider getting back into the racing circuit.
NASCAR’s history is as rich and as varied as the cars that drive in its many annual races. Ford cars have remained a perpetual presence on these tracks since the early days of NASCAR, netting the manufacturer over 300 wins in its long career.
Ford’s first NASCAR win was nearly 70 years ago, during a stock car race on the Daytona Speedway in Florida. This 100-lap race was taken over by a 1950 flathead Ford driven by Jimmy Florian who was a relatively unknown driver at the time. By lap 65, Florian had taken the lead, and he stayed there for the remainder of the race, giving Ford its first of many victories.
In 2011, Ford made history during that year’s Daytona 500. Not only did they win the race, but Ford cars came in first, second and third. This was also the company’s 600th victory in a NASCAR race. By 2013, that number rose to a whopping 1000 victories in NASCAR races for the automotive powerhouse.
There are currently five Ford NASCAR racing teams: Team Penske, which ran from 1994-2002 and then restarted in 2013, Roush Fenway racing which has raced Fords since 1988, Wood Brothers Racing which dates back to 1950, Front Row Motorsports which started in 2005, and Stewart-Haas Racing which opened its doors in 2017.
Rally car races might not be the oldest races in the world, but they have produced some of the best Ford racecars in decades. The history of Ford Rally Racing starts in 1973, with the Ford Escort RS1600 which finished first in a British rally race. In 1974, the same car finished first in both Britain and Finland. 1975 brought another victory in Britain, as did 1976. In 1977, the Escort brought victories in Britain, Finland, Greece and Safari, and in 1978 added Finland, Sweden, Scotland, New Zealand and Britain to the victory list.
This trend continued until 1982 when an escort RS1800 finished second in Sweden. By 1986, the Ford RS200 had fallen to third in Sweden. 1989 saw the Sierra RS finishing seventh in France, one of the worst years since the sport’s inception, at least until 1990 when the same Sierra RS finished eighth in Portugal. It wasn’t until 1993, when Ford went back to the Escort model that they started claiming the first place spot in Spain, France, Portugal and France.
1999 introduced a new model to the Ford Rally garage — the Focus RS. It claimed first place victories around the world until 2005, with a second-place victory, before returning to its spot on the top of the podium the next year in eight different countries. The only problem with using the Focus RS as a rally car was that it had a tendency to blow head gaskets — and fitting it with the wrong gasket would lead to an intermittent leak that could be costly.
In 2011, Ford’s rally car changed again to the Ford Fiesta, which continued to claim victories around the world.
V8 Supercar races date back to 1960, and actually started in Australia as the Australian Touring Car Championships. While a host of different cars were used in the intervening decades, in 1995 the race offices changed the rules to limit the cars that could be driven during the race — the Holden Commodore, which was made by GM exclusively for the Australian market, and the Ford Falcon.
The name of the race was changed to V8 Supercar in 1999 as a way to help increase the series’ popularity. The goal of these supercars isn’t to emphasize the power of the cars, though both the Commodore and the Falcon are fantastically powerful racecars. It’s to emphasize the skill of the drivers, so while these cars can be customized, there are very strict rules about the customization each car can undergo. You don’t need a million-dollar supercar to race in these events — you need a smart driver and a level playing field.
24 Hours of Le Mans
The 24 Hours of Le Mans race, held annually in France, is home to one of the toughest tracks is the world – even the fastest cars struggle to make a lap in under 7 minutes. It is also home to one of the most epic racing rivalries in history between Ford and luxury supercar manufacturer Ferrari.
In the 1960s, Ferrari was primarily focused on motorsports. The company was even in some financial trouble because everything that Enzo Ferrari made, he poured right back into his motorsports division to build a faster and more powerful race car. In 1963, he met with Henry Ford II to strike a deal to sell his company to the American car giant.
The deal didn’t go as planned. The contract contained a clause that stated that Ferrari was also selling his motorsports division – the one thing that he wanted to hang on to through all this. The deal died on the table, and Henry Ford II went back to Detroit in a rage. Within weeks, he had changed the companies priorities with one simple phrase.
“Build me a car that will crush Ferrari at Le Mans.”
This was no small feat – he needed a car that could drive 200 miles per hour but still survive a grueling 3,000 mile endurance race. The first two cars prototype Ford GT’s were painfully unstable – at high speeds, they would peel even on straightaways. Both prototypes crashed and were totally destroyed, just two months before the 1964 Le Mans race.
Ford managed to pull things together in time for the race in 1964 but it didn’t work out as well as he had hoped – all three of the cars that he raced either caught fire or crashed during the race, leaving Ferrari to take all the podium spots for the 4th time in as many years.
In 1965, they raced five Ford GT40s, with the help of Carroll Shelby – the mind behind the iconic Mustang Shelby. Again, none of the cars they raced even finished, leaving Ferrari with another podium sweep.
By 1966, Ford’s accountants were begging him to give up this fool’s errand – he would never be able to dethrone Enzo Ferrari. Ford wasn’t having any of it though – but the same year Ferrari also released the P3 which didn’t move as fast as previous models but what it lacked in speed it made up for in handling, weight, and height. It also had better fuel economy than the GT40.
Ford threw everything he had into the GT40 project for the 1966 Le Mans race – 8 cars, and a whopping 20 tons of spare tires, in addition to a collection of driving legends like Ken Miles. Ferrari took the lead to start, because Ford drivers were under orders not to push their cars too hard – the goal was to finish the race, something that none of Ford’s cars had done in the previous 2 races.
Ken Miles ignored that order and put the pedal to the metal. The P3’s top speed of 190 miles per hour was no match for the new top speed of the GT40 – 210mph. He retook the lead, and by the end of the race all of Ferrari’s cars had either failed spectacularly or crashed in their effort to keep up with Miles’ blistering pace. Ford enjoyed a podium sweeping win, coming in all of the top spots and successfully dethroning the Italian car giant.
In 2016, nearly 50 years after its first sweeping victory, Ford did it again, resurrecting the original Ford GT and coming in first in class, knocking Ferrari off the top of the podium once again. Though the original rivals are no longer alive, the rivalry is alive and well between Ford and Ferrari.
Ford is and will continue to be one of the biggest names in the racing industry — even if they’ve recently stopped producing most of their small cars. Whether you’re behind the wheel of a Focus RS (which is probably the closest you’ll get to a street-legal rally car if you stick with the stock version or add some aftermarket bolt-ons), a Mustang or a Ford Falcon, there are plenty of ways for everyone to enjoy the rich history of Ford Performance.