Editor’s Note: Jim Farley is executive vice president and president of global markets at Ford. He’s a bigwig in Dearborn who also happens to be one of us: a true-blooded car nut. Since 2007, Farley has indulged his passion on the racetrack, driving a variety of vintage cars including a Shelby Cobra and a Lola sports racer.
This past July, the 56-year-old realized a lifelong dream when he entered his 1965 Ford GT40 in the biennial Le Mans Classic. The vintage racing event loosely replicates the 24 Hours of Le Mans by running three 45-minute heats over a 24-hour period that includes night racing. In Europe, vintage racing is taken more seriously than it is here, with a greater tolerance for contact. The competition is higher, but so is the risk. Farley related his Le Mans experience to editor-in-chief Larry Webster in Farley’s glass-walled office on the 12th floor of Ford headquarters in Dearborn. Farley’s story, in his own words, begins at the start of the first heat.
On the grid, I’m a mess of nerves and anxiety. All I can think about is the potential for humiliation. I don’t want to be that guy, the car-company executive who does something stupid and broadcasts what everyone is thinking—that I’m a poseur, that I don’t belong here. But I want to compete, too. I’m here because I want to go faster than the next guy. I want to win. I really want to win.
At the start, people are idiots. There are three hours of racing to go, yet they’re sticking their noses in, brushing me aside. I let them go, dropping a few places to cars I know I’ll repass soon enough. A few corners later, I’m back up to about where I started, around seventh place. It’s hard to tell exactly where you are among the 76 other cars on the track. When I hit the Mulsanne Straight, the V-8 does its thing, bellowing out behind me, pushing the car to over 180 mph.
Early GT40s were unstable at that speed, but my car is a rock and I pull alongside another GT40 just before entering the first right-left-right chicane. In 1990, two chicanes were installed on the nearly four-mile-long straight to slow cars that had reached 250 mph. The guy next to me has the inside line, so it’s his corner. I tuck in behind and pass on the exit.
Things are going to plan. I’m catching the lead pack when I cut a right-hander a bit too close, bounce up on the curb, and unsettle the car. Before I can react, the car does a lazy spin across the track while I scream into my helmet. There’s a gravel trap on the outside of this corner that I somehow avoid, and I’m able to get going after losing only a few places.
Remember those nerves at the start? They’re long gone, replaced by fury. I click off a series of personal best laps. I always go fastest when I’m mad. The swirling issues that typically fill my mind—sales reports, production schedules, our employees, future mobility, and always my family—are somewhere else. There’s a clarity to my mission here, a singular focus on driving, on my machine, and on the cars ahead. The rest of the session blinks by. I finish in fourth and I’m elated.
The second session kicks off two hours later, at 4:00 a.m. I haven’t slept but feel no fatigue. The start holds the usual chaos, and I keep cool. A car behind, however, has brake problems and hits my right rear wheel. It’s not a huge impact, but it’s enough to snap the car around. Now I’m stopped, facing the wrong way in the middle of the track as the rest of the field frantically weaves around me and praying my headlights don’t distract the other drivers from avoiding me. I wait for what feels like an hour as dozens of cars stream past.
Miraculously, no one plows into me, but now I’m dead last. Worse, a pit stop for repairs costs a few laps. I rejoin the race and mix it up with the fast guys, passing, getting passed, and reveling in the competition. I can’t believe I now know what it’s like to go 200 mph down the Mulsanne Straight in a pack of GT40s. When I worked at Phil Hill’s restoration shop, putting myself through grad school and hearing his stories, the idea of this moment wasn’t even a fantasy. It’s like 1965 again.
I hear a pinging in the rear end that gets progressively louder. It turns out the crash shoved the axle into the transaxle, fouling a bearing that eventually fails. Just like that, I’m out.
I almost cry, but that’s racing—a series of incredible highs and lows not typically experienced in daily life. I want to enjoy cars for what they were meant to do, and to me, racing is the ultimate expression of experiencing cars.
When I get off the track, I feel incredibly relaxed. That’s why I do it. And to beat the next guy. Of course, I’ll be back.