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The vilification of Leo Beebe: Ford’s mission to win Le Mans in 1966

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Leo Beebe at Le Mans in 1966. All photos courtesy of Ford Motorsport.

Editor’s note: This piece comes to us from Hemmings reader and contributor Frank Comstock, a friend of the late Leo Beebe.

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.Henry Ford

 “Great leaders inspire a sense of mission. Good people with a proper sense of mission will find a way to get the job done.”  Leo Beebe

Fifty years have elapsed since Ford Motor Company’s overwhelming victory at Le Mans in 1966 and the controversy over who did win, or who should have won, the race. Ford and its Director of Special Vehicles, Leo Beebe, were both praised and vilified in the motor sports world and press at the time and, in some ways, nothing has changed. The internet teems with comments about the way the race ended, while online and print publications have returned to the fray in recent years, undoubtedly looking forward to this fiftieth anniversary.

Leo Beebe and staff 1965

Beebe (third from left) and his staff in 1965.

To understand the Le Mans effort for Ford in the middle 1960s means one has to think in terms of a team with a mission. As the overall leader of the Ford team, Leo Beebe understood his mission perfectly – Ford would win at Le Mans. Leo wasn’t told to have a particular driver or pair of drivers win. He was told in simple terms by his old friend Henry Ford II to put a Ford car in the winners’ circle at Le Mans. He also had to do the same at Daytona and Indianapolis, but there is no doubt that Le Mans was the main attraction. Henry Ford wanted to beat Ferrari and Le Mans was the place to do just that.

As one of Ford’s most trusted trouble shooters, Leo was known as a man who could bring order out of chaos. He knew that with each new challenge, he needed to assemble a team of experts and guide them to success. He knew he had to give credit to the team when success was assured and he understood he needed to take responsibility when failure or controversy happened.

Le Mans 1966

The start of the 1966 race.

In the final hours of the 1966 Le Mans race, with only three of Ford’s eight team cars (and none of the five independent Fords) left in the fray, the squad began talking about how the race should end. The Miles/Hulme car was leading as the hours wound down, with the McLaren/Amon car initially a lap back, although they made up that lap when the Miles/Hulme car took a late pit stop. The Bucknum/Hutcherson car was several laps back, running in third place. Ford officials had their eyes on a win for the team, not on a win for any particular pair of drivers. A win for Ford as a team was the primary mission.

Opinions went back and forth during team discussions, but the decision ultimately rested with the leader of the team and Leo understood it was his responsibility. In an unpublished interview with noted automotive historian and author Dr. David Lewis, Leo said,“Ken Miles, who later died, regrettably didn’t win the race that year. I had some real difficulties over that. But, he was a daredevil and I pulled him in and literally engineered the end of that race—-one, two, three… I called Ken Miles in and held him back because I was afraid the drivers would knock one another off. All you need is one good accident and you lose all your investment.”

Le Mans 1966

Ford GT40s finish first, second and third at Le Mans in 1966.

Leo Levine, in his classic Ford: The Dust and the Glory delves into the story in more detail but with much the same result, noting that Beebe did not want to take a chance on a multi-million dollar investment by allowing the top cars to race to the finish. Beebe had counseled Miles at Sebring and again during the Le Mans race for taking what he considered unnecessary chances, while Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon had consistently followed team orders. Levine quotes Beebe as saying “Anyone can question the judgement, but no one can say it was not a consciously arrived-at decision—and on grounds we considered valid and just.”

The final result has been discussed ad infinitum and will probably continue to be discussed for years. Ford wanted the three cars to come across together. Miles backed off as they approached the line and McLaren arrived at the line one or two car lengths before Miles. Had they arrived in tandem as the Ford team wanted, McLaren would probably still have been the winner because they were on the same lap and a seemingly arcane rule then used at Le Mans would have determined the finish. The McLaren car had started a couple of spots back on the starting grid, thus traveling slightly further in 24 hours. So, if they had come across neck and neck, McLaren still would have won.

Leo Beebe

At Le Mans in 1966. Clearly, the number 13 proved lucky for Beebe.

I knew Leo Beebe and worked with him on several projects years ago. He never wavered from the published reports on who was responsible for the controversial finish at Le Mans in 1966—it was his responsibility as team leader and he made the decision that he thought was right at the time.

Leo had thoroughly enjoyed his time with Ford Racing once he got past the initial shock of three driver deaths (Dave McDonald, Eddie Sachs and Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts) in the first weeks of his tenure in 1964 and he was pleased that years after the successes of his team someone was still interested. I pushed hard to see if Henry Ford II had influenced the race-ending decision, but Leo wouldn’t answer that question. He just pulled out the note from HFII he still carried in his wallet. It was so simple: “You better win”.

Three years of intense work—teamwork—performed by specialists assembled for the express mission of having Ford vehicles win all the major races in the world ended with wins for Ford in 1966 at Daytona, Indianapolis, and Le Mans, as well as at many other tracks. Controversy over the end of Le Mans aside, Leo Beebe and his team did exactly what they were instructed to do. It was a team effort and a team result.