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Who is the underdog in Ford v Ferrari again?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo credit: Fox Entertainment Group

Does America champion the underdog? The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tales of the little guy making it big, the evergreen story of heart and determination overcoming the odds to make it to the top, remains inspirational. Boris Becker, an unseeded 17-year-old, winning Wimbledon in ’85. The 1980 Olympic “Miracle On Ice,” seeing the American men’s hockey team take it to the Russian crew. Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. Niki Lauda returning to racing at Monza just six weeks after his horrific Nurburgring crash, and losing the world championship to James Hunt by a single point. Rudy. Books are written about these triumphs; songs are written and sung; legends are forged in the moment.

Or does America love a dominant winner? Dynasties run thick in American sports–the Green Bay Packers in the ’60s, the New York Islanders in the first half of the ’80s, the Chicago Bulls of the ’90s, the Yankees from ’49-56 (and ’97-03), and Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jimmie Johnson each claiming seven NASCAR drivers’ championships in their day. Each victor will have their detractors, but most of us can’t help but admire a well-oiled machine (however literal or figurative) racking up the victories and championships. History is often written by the winners, after all.

Photo credit: Fox Entertainment Group

And so it has been written into American high-performance lore that we spanked the Italians three years on the trot at LeMans. In retrospect, of course Ford won LeMans three years running with its GT40. It had millions of dollars to throw at the issue. (Issue? The issue was one of ego: Hank the Deuce and Il Commendatore couldn’t come to terms on the sale of Ferrari to Ford, so Ford decided to teach Ferrari a lesson.)

It could be sportsmanship, it could be good old-fashioned competition. Or it could be bullying. Consider that Ford sold 2.1 million cars in 1965 in America alone. At the time, the Blue Oval had additional factories throughout Europe, Africa, South America, and Australia to build hundreds of thousands more. Whereas Ferrari was fiercely independent, selling a handful of largely hand-built road cars every year with the sole intention to pay for the race machines that helped burnish the legend of the Prancing Horse. In 1965, Ferrari built 740 cars–the most populous year of Ferraris up to that pointand a 275/GTB long-nose started at $13,900. That’s a gross of just under $10.3 million. Ferrari’s racing efforts (in those days before sponsorships were plastered all over an F1 car’s flanks) had to cost way less than that. Ford was going to buy all of Ferrari outright for $10 million.

Was Enzo a scrappy underdog that challenged Ford to achieve new heights, or the fall guy for a giant corporation to cast as a rival?

Yet who was the underdog here? It’s up to interpretation. Ferrari had spent 20 years honing its craft in the world of sports cars; Ford had to piece together a scrappy team of hungry racers, fighting off the accounting department all along the way. Ferrari made bespoke sporting and gran turismo machines for the rich and famous; Ford made Galaxies and Falcons, and knew little of building sports cars.

Or is it in fact a tale of equals: two massive egos in a battle of the bank accounts, fought on the public roads of rural France? Ford’s yin to Ferrari’s yang?

I’m reminded of talk among performance fans around twenty years ago, when hopped-up Hondas became a thing on American streets. The greater old-car performance community felt threatenedand often responded by puffing up their chests with pride in bench-racing sessions nationwide. “Yeah,” said more than one muscle car owner I encountered in that era, “I smoked that Honda but good!” Well, no kidding. You should. You’ve got double the horsepower, no emissions equipment to speak of, and traction going to the proper wheels for hooking up and hurling forth. If anything, those street machine owners should be embarrassed that a Honda, with half the number of cylinders and a third of the engine displacement, with the wrong wheels getting the power at a standing launch, could even be considered a threat. Such was the case with the LeMans cars. Ferrari’s race cars had 4-liter V-12s under their engine covers; Ford elected to use 7-liter engines (427 cubes) in their GT40s. Surely the miracle here isn’t that Ford won with its under-stressed V-8; it’s that Ferrari could even get close with an engine roughly half the size.

With approximately 200 employees at Le Mans in 1966, it’s tough to call Ford an underdog. It’s easy to understand why Ford v Ferrari sets up Shelby and Miles as the Davids against internal (Ford’s bureaucracy) and external (Ferrari) Goliaths.

Underdog tales are thick in our collective national lore. Clear back to David and Goliath, the mismatch of the big bully versus the smaller, agile fighter is a legendary tale. This weekend, I’ll go to see Ford v Ferrari along with most of the rest of the movie-going nation. It’s got good reviews and word-of-mouth, a solid cast with Matt Damon and Christian Bale, and it should end up on top of the box office charts. But I wonder what movie I’m going to see. Previews make it look like it should have been called Ford Smashes Ferrari. How good a story can it be if Goliath (the expected winner) actually wins? And how does a multi-billion-dollar company fall into the role of David?