Cars

What It's Like Driving the Most Iconic American Race Car Ever Made

GT40 Mk 1
Aaron Miller/Thrillist

The Ford GT40 is not just a successful race car from a bygone era. It's an icon, the patron saint of American motorsports, the infamous result of personal rivalries between three automotive titans. It was Henry Ford II and Carroll Shelby's dislike of Enzo Ferrari that powered the GT40 past 200mph en route to winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, four times in succession, from 1966 to 1969. The names of the men who raced it read like a hall-of-fame ballot: Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Bob Bondurant, Ken Miles. Each played their part in building the car's legend.

You can imagine my heart palpitations when I got behind the wheel of a GT40 for the first time. In the two hours I drove it, I experienced the highest highs, some ridiculously stressful lows, and was mistaken for a legitimate vintage race car driver. I know now what it's like to drive a Ford GT40, and it's beyond all earthly comprehension.

Ford GT40 by Superformance
Aaron Miller/Thrillist

Yes, it's a real GT40. Kinda.

Let's face it, no one's stupid enough to hand someone like me the key to a $10+ million car. The one I drove is a recreation, built by Superformance. Don't let that word fool you, though. For $180k, you're looking at the single most authentic GT40 that wasn't built in the 1960s. You can even use parts of this one to restore an original. It's that real.

The GT40 is incredible
Aaron Miller/Thrillist

Sitting in the seat of greatness, you can't overlook the historical significance 

History dominates the GT40 experience. Dan Gurney raced and won in the GT40 in 1967, and spontaneously started the Champagne-spraying tradition. Look closely and you'll see a little bubble on the roof of the driver's side. It's called a Gurney bubble -- its purpose was to make room for the 6'4" driver and his helmet. The orange and blue Gulf Oil livery on this specific car pays tribute to the race winner in 1968 and '69; it was the first time the exact same car ever won Le Mans twice. Virtually every inch of the car has an incredible story lurking in its ancestry.

Ford GT40 Exhaust
Aaron Miller/Thrillist

But none of that prepares you to press the start button

The fear is evident in the poor guy's eyes as he hands me the key. "Please be careful," he says, probably close to a dozen times. He warns me that the clutch is stiff, the gearbox is difficult to find the right gear. I should keep an eye on the gauges, he says, and flip a switch on the dash that controls a fan if it starts to get hot. He tells me to be gentle on the cord in the door that operates the latch, lest I get stuck inside.

It's the same sort of spiel a flight attendant would give before departure, except literally every piece of advice he gives carries a near certainty of being used.

I'm on my own, the door is shut, I'm strapped in, and I have the key to a GT40, complete with a GT40 VIN: GT/P2337. I say a quick thank you to the car gods as I turn the key, push in the clutch, and press the start button. I never even hear the starter, just the soul-reverberating warble of exploding fuel in each and every one of the eight cylinders in the 535hp, 427in V8 located just behind my head. I check the mirrors, and notice that the engine's glorious intake stacks occupy a substantial portion of the view.

Clearly, something horrible has happened, and I'm now experiencing the most incredible afterlife.

Ford GT40 MkI Gulf
Aaron Miller/Thrillist

The GT40 is a bitch to drive... and totally worth the effort

I let out the clutch while giving her a little throttle and suddenly I'm moving. Whoa. The dude's not kidding about the clutch. It's little more than an on-off button. I drive out of the Superformance display at Laguna Seca and past a smiling security guard, out towards the real world. As I exit the track's grounds and onto the highway... shit.

It's embarrassing to kill a car in traffic. Doing so in front of an enthusiastic crowd of people is enough to make me want to find a hole to crawl into. Thankfully, the GT40 fires back to life with a forgiving nature.

Five minutes later, we're speaking the same language. My hand on the shifter can find the appropriate gear with surgical precision. The steering is direct and unfiltered, and the car begs to dance -- a perpetual reminder of why so many great men are reflected in its soul. In traffic, there's not much opportunity to really lean into the power, but the little bit of dancing I do is enough to evoke memories of every video, every photo, every story of the GT40's glory years. Every stab of the throttle results in a thunderingly patriotic snarl from the exhaust. As I round a few bends on the coast of central California, I imagine Ferraris cowering in traffic behind me, like prey behind a shrub. The men who drove this car in anger 50 years ago must have been as fearless as they were talented.

GT40 overlooking the beach
Aaron Miller/Thrillist

In a glorious turn of events, I'm mistaken for a real race car driver in a $10 million car

The time comes to return this blue and orange time capsule back to its rightful spot at Laguna Seca, so I make my way through the gawking traffic, ignoring countless cameras as I drive. I open the door (the GT40's Lexan window doesn't exactly roll down) and ask the person at the track's entrance which way I need to go. They point me forward. I ask the next two people the same question, and get the same response. I've got to be getting close. The next person I see is stopping every car that comes near and turning them away, but I merely get waved through without a word spoken. Obviously he knows I'm just returning the car... right? 

Suddenly I realize, with heart-stopping alarm, that I'm not anywhere near the Superformance display... I'm in the paddock at the Monterey Historics, where priceless vintage cars actually do get driven out on the racetrack. I'm surrounded by race cars that are the real deal, worth more than the sum of every organ I could possibly sell, that once were driven by the McLarens, Gurneys, and Shelbys of the world. 

A yellow Can-Am car is alongside me -- the driver has his suit and helmet on, and he's on his way out to the track for a qualifying session. Holy shit. All of these supposed experts and enthusiasts think this is an original GT40.

I readily admit I'm a little nervous now. Even amongst all the sights and sounds at one of the world's most incredible events, this is a new level of insanity. I'm not supposed to be here, but apparently I'm the only one who knows that. I see an area without cars or people where I can regroup, and by the time I stop the car and have my phone out to look at a map, I'm completely surrounded by people taking photos, filming, watching me, and talking about the car. If anyone realized it's not original, they didn't say a word.

Starting the GT40 up again attracts even more attention, and I'm suddenly hyper-aware of just how hard this beast is to drive. The only thought running through my brain is don't kill it. Don't fucking kill it. Everyone is staring at you, so whatever you do don't kill it. I manage to smoothly drive off, looking like I own the place. I silently thank the car gods once more.

Want more of the world's best Cars delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for our daily email.

Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter and Facebook. He's in the process of revamping his bucket list.