This is part book review, part memoir, and part lamentation. I finally revolted from my Domestic God duties today and opened my package from Amazon containing a book called “Go Like Hell,” by A. J. Baime. The book is the story of the Ford v. Ferrari battle to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans automobile race in the 1960s. I read it in one sitting and I’ll confess to lumps in my throat and maybe even some moist eyes.
I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t have a tool in my hands. In the rural South of the ’50s almost nobody owned anything that hadn’t been worn out by some Yankee before it got sold South, so you learned how to fix things. By the time I was 15 or so, I could do stuff with a Cresent wrench, a screwdriver, and a pair of pliers that today’s “mechanics” would think they needed $10K worth of Snap-On’s finest and a computer to do; not that anybody really fixes anything these days, just take it out and put in a new one. I spent a lot of those days in the ’60s mesing with cars and a lot reading Car and Driver, Road and Track, and Hot Rod. OK, rant over.
In the early ’60s, Henry Ford II saw the future of his company in the overseas markets, particularly Europe. Winning the Le Mans race was the key to a manufacturer’s respectability in the European market. The Italian Ferrari firm dominated Le Mans and most other top-rank racing. Ford did a dance with Ferrari in which he tried to acquire the Italian icon; Ferrari was using him, and it all broke down. When you’re one of the richest men in the World and somebody does you that way, you don’t take it well, so in ’63 Ford decided to beat Ferrari at Le Mans.
This was the time of a brash and bold, pay any price, bear any burden America. Ford was the kind of guy who simply ended arguments by saying, “My name is on the building.” It is the story of hard charging men who came from nowhere like Lee Iacocca or Carrol Shelby. Men who sans pedigree were just good at doing stuff. Hell, even Ford II dropped out of college. We need some men like these today.
Read the book if only for the description of America in the ’50s and ’60s; most of you weren’t even a gleam in someone’s eye in those days so all you know is the popular mythology. And then read the book to see what the World was like when it was OK to actually be a man and do risky, even dangerous things. There was a time in America that it was expected, maybe necessary, that a man would do dangerous things.
The names of drivers and other figures are among the heros of my youth. The irony struck me as I read the book that these men were frozen in my mind as young, virile, heroic, and death defying, but those few of them still alive are the age that my late father would be.
It was a time when all things were possible. I think I could have been OK with spending my life working at the minimum wage or a little more at the Roper lawnmower factory in Swainsboro, Georgia had it not been for the fact that I really, really, really liked fast cars.
It’s a good tragic and heroic story. But it is also a depressing story in today’s world of bankruptcy and bailouts. A sub-theme is the role of little prick named Ralph Nader. Somewhere in the ’60s the people with no spine, no b#$%s, and no chest began to become dominant in America. I’d just like to go back to trying to win Le Mans and put a man on the Moon.