Nothing but the truth

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It’s a result that sparked half a century of rumour and counter-rumour. Did the winning drivers receive illicit assistance? Luigi Chinetti Jr is well placed to dispel a few myths about Le Mans 1965
Writer Richard Heseltine

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Forgive the second-hand wit, but Mark Twain’s famous quotation could have been coined expressly for the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hours, a race that continues to be a hot-button topic for historians. It’s a story of how a privateer team defended Ferrari’s honour after the factory challenge faded; of how the outgunned North American Racing Team held out as Detroit firepower wilted; of alleged chicanery contributing to an upset win that left everyone taken aback, not least the Austrian-American duo who received the garlands. The thing is, peel back the mythology and what is left doesn’t necessarily tally with the truth.

Or at least truth as we know it. The run up to the ’65 running of the endurance classic was not without incident. Lloyd ‘Lucky’ Casner’s luck ran out after he crashed his Maserati Tipo 151 during the April test weekend, the popular American perishing in the accident. Tommy Spychiger had been the fastest Ferrari runner aboard the Scuderia Filipinetti 365 P2, only to crash at the Parabolica that same month during the Monza 1000Kms. The Swiss-German died instantly. Come the race itself, it would be Ferrari old boy Phil Hill on pole – by five seconds – aboard his Ford GT40 MkII while further back, behind more fancied hardware, were five 250LMs fielded by various entrants. Fastest of them all was the NART car driven by Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt.

Luigi Chinetti’s squad had hedged its bets by also running a 365 P2 for Pedro Rodríguez and the previous year’s winner, Nino Vaccarella. However, it would be the GT40 army that would lead the charge come 4pm on Saturday, June 19. It wouldn’t last, transmission issues impairing the Ford challenge: Ferraris blanketed the top six positions as darkness descended with the NART 250LM running a distant third by the early hours of Sunday morning.

Come midday, just 14 of the 51 starters were still circling, with the Franco-Belgian 250LM partnership of Pierre Dumay and Gustave Gosselin seemingly on target to take a fairy tale win. The works challenge had now faded and the NART 250LM was running second with Rindt lapping considerably faster than Dumay. And then the leader’s luck took a dive: Dumay managed to control his car as it picked up a puncture while travelling flat-chat down the Mulsanne Straight, but five laps were lost effecting repairs. There was no way the deficit could be overcome in the time remaining so Rindt and Gregory emerged triumphant, Chinetti adding a win as an entrant to the three he had famously accrued as a driver.

The thing is, the story behind this race has long since taken a swerve for the spurious. Nowadays, the 24 Hours is a ten-tenths sprint to the flag, but back then cars tended to be nursed, coaxed and sweet-talked into completing the distance and the 250LM’s gearbox was a notoriously weak link. Just because you like doing something doesn’t mean you have fun doing it, and much has been written about Rindt and Gregory deliberately thrashing their Ferrari in the expectation that it would be an early retirement. Why prolong the inevitable?

Then there is the story that gets keyboard warriors and tin-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists all riled up. Some state as gospel that there was a third driver in the winning car. An aura of intrigue continues to surround claims that experienced sports car driver Ed Hugus picked up the slack during a night-time stint. His involvement was not trumpeted because it would have led to the car being disqualified…

Hugus was not a glory hound according to those who knew him, but his precise role in NART’s victory remains a bone of contention to those who didn’t. Apart from Hugus’ own testimony, there is not even a trace of corroboratory evidence to suggest he drove the winning car. Even so, his account was widely accepted, with one much-prized masterwork stating his version as reality – and that is before we factor in the internet. And if you can’t trust the internet, who can you trust?

Luigi Chinetti Jr, who was a NART team member that year, offers some stout opinions: “I have heard the stories but that’s all they are,” he says. “People say that Gregory and Rindt tried to break the car. That makes no sense. Why would they do that? I mean, anyone who says that didn’t know my dad. If he had suspected, if only for a moment, that they were deliberately trying to break the LM then he would have broken their asses. The 24 Hours was a race that everyone wanted to win, and Masten had raced with us several times before. He was a known quantity. He wanted to win.

I don’t believe for a second that he tried to break the car. As for Rindt, we never had any doubts over his desire to win. Why would we? The LM’s transmission always was an issue.

It was its Achilles’ heel. I raced one myself [finishing seventh in the 1970 Daytona 24 Hours alongside Gregg Young] and it was a miracle that it held together for more than a few minutes. That Masten and Rindt kept their car alive for 24 hours should tell you more about their will to win than anything else.”

And the question of Hugus being ‘The Third Man’? “You know, I was in the pits the entire time. Hugus had been a NART driver off and on and, as I understand it, he is supposed to have driven during the night because Masten didn’t want to be out after dark because of his poor eyesight; I think that’s the gist of it. Again, people who say that didn’t know my dad. He wouldn’t have put him in the car if he thought for a moment that he wasn’t up to it. They also didn’t know Masten. I shared a Daytona with him at Le Mans back in ’72. You know, that car was a taxi; not as quick as a 250LM, but it was still pretty damn fast. He never once complained about his eyesight or having to drive at night. It just wasn’t an issue.

“As for Hugus, well he may have driven the car but I find it highly unlikely. I never once saw him in a race suit or looking like he had just driven. He was helping dad manage the team for the race, but that’s all. He never said anything to me then or subsequently about driving the car. I mean, I could have been asleep when he went out. Hey, anything’s possible, but dad never said a word about it to me either. Nor did anyone else. You would think that someone would have said something, either at the time or later. Nobody ever said anything.”

A lack of proof doesn’t mean something didn’t happen, but without substantiation you have to question the legend surrounding ‘The Third Man’ and his role in NART’s victory.

But what is really telling isn’t so much that a 250LM triumphed at Le Mans in ’65, but more that Ferrari hasn’t won there since.