The Fighter: The Daytona Cobra Coupe’s Last Race

Carroll Shelby’s two Daytona Cobra Coupes’ impressive showing in their first season in the US and Europe in 1964 finally convinced some cool-eyed skeptics within Ford management that the ex-Texas chicken farmer and his small team of Southern California racers might actually have the “right stuff” to compete on an international level. They awarded Shelby their nascent Ford GT40 program for 1965. Ford’s master plan was to have Shelby cancel his Cobra program at the end of ’64 so the Texan’s experienced crew could focus entirely on their GT40 program.

Ray Geddes, a financial and operations manager at Ford, however, realized that while Ford’s still-problematic GT40 program was still being sorted out, Shelby’s Daytona Cobras could continue to lead Ford’s charge against Ferrari in the GT category. All Ford had to do was find a team other than Shelby’s to run them. Alan Mann Racing in the UK was the natural choice. Mann’s privateer successes with Ford rally cars in Britain had led to Ford contracting him to run a combined Ford team for the 1964 season. As a result of Mann’s success, he was contracted by Ford to run Shelby’s Daytona Coupes in Europe in ‘65. Their impressive goal would be to secure the FIA’s World GT Championship against Jaguar, Ferrari and Aston Martin, while Shelby’s California team focused their attention on sorting out Ford’s GT40 program in the Prototype category.

Shelby team mechanic Charlie Agapiou, an ex-pat Brit who had been working on the Daytonas during the ’64 season was the perfect choice to be the crew chief for Mann’s British Cobra team in Europe. Shelby team-driver Bob Bondurant approached Carroll and asked if he could drive for Mann’s Cobra team. Bondurant felt his future career lay in having a successful race season in Europe and he’d won Le Mans in ’64 in Daytona Coupe CSX 2299 with co-driver Dan Gurney. Carroll gave the okay and Bondurant flew into Heathrow to be picked up and report for team duty. It didn’t go as Bondo’ had envisioned. Bob got off his flight in Heathrow to find Mann had come to the airport personally to meet him. Bondurant introduced himself at which time Mann handed him a return ticket for a flight back to the ‘States! He explained he already had his own ace drivers, British stars, Sir John Whitmore and Jack Sears, and thus he didn’t need Bob. Thinking quickly, Bob explained he’d been personally approved by Shelby and extolled the virtues of Mann having a third driver. Mann finally reluctantly relented, making it clear Bob was never to place above his English countrymen. Bob agreed, but later shared that at the moment a fire had been lit within him and he made it a personal goal to make sure he won as often as he could.

This background leads us to the story of Daytona Cobra Coupe CSX 2601, seen here at the last race of the '65 season in August of ‘65 at Enna, Sicily, driven by Bondurant. The damage shows the ferocity of the fight between Bondo’ and his Mann teammate, Jack Sears, who was driving Daytona CSX 2299.

Bondo had already secured the FIA World GT Championship in CSX 2601 a month earlier at the Reims 12 Hour in France. With the championship secured and going into the last race of the season in Italy, team manager Mann once again ordered Bondo' to run second, probably thinking this time he would acquiesce. Bob agreed if, they were really going to race against the Ferraris. Bondo’ knew the Daytonas were faster than the three Ferrari LM prototypes and felt he could win overall. Mann however, only cared about the GT win points and told Sears to cruise. Knowing it was the last race ever for the Daytonas, Bondurant decided to, once again, ignore team orders and go for the overall win, which would mean challenging Sears as well. At first Bondurant followed team orders allowing Sears to lead, but this was letting the Ferraris get too far ahead!  Bondurant went for the lead, but his English teammate kept dropping a wheel off the track to keep the American at bay, heaving stones and debris at the American. It was a vicious fight, but Bondo’ finally fought his way by and went after the Ferraris.

Bondo passed all three Ferraris and would have won overall, but a "SLOW... TIRES" sign from the Goodyear rep’ on pit row forced him to back off. Was it an order from Mann or Goodyear? Bondo reluctantly let Nino Vacarella, in the fastest LM, by but still took the GT win. After the checker Bondo' checked his tires… they were down to the cord! The rest of the Coupe wasn’t in great shape either as Bondo had refused to back away from Sears’ attempts to thwart his attack.

After the race, the five Daytona Coupes in Europe were gathered back at Mann’s race shop to be returned to Shelby’s in the U.S. They were in the UK under bond and had to be exported out of the country by a certain date or pay a hefty tax. Shelby refused to pay the cost of having them shipped back, now being focused on the Ford GT program. After many pleading Telexes to Shelby’s office explaining the situation, with no response, Mann finally explained that if they weren’t shipped out of the country in time, the tax authorities would dump them into the North Sea. Still no response.

Alan Mann ultimately couldn’t stand the thought that these American champions would be destroyed and lost to history. He paid to have them shipped back to Shelby’s out of his own pocket. By doing so the man whose British patriotism was so strong that he’d ordered Bondurant to let his British drivers win, saved for history what is arguably America’s Greatest Race Car.

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