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How real is ‘Ford v. Ferrari’? This Mason professor should know

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Lee Talbot in a Racecar
Mason professor Lee Talbot retired from racing last year after 69 years of competition. Photo courtesy of SVRA.com.

If anyone knows whether the story and action portrayed in the movie “Ford v. Ferrari” is authentic, it’s Lee Talbot. A professor in George Mason University’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy, Talbot knew Ken Miles, the legendary race car driver played in the film by Oscar winner Christian Bale. What’s more, Talbot himself only retired from racing last year, after 69 years of competition.

So, professor, how was it?

“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Talbot, 89, who raced some 35 different cars in road, rally and professional competitions over four continents. “I thought it was an excellent, outstanding movie, probably the best racing movie I’ve ever seen.”

Talbot does have a few nitpicks. A big one (no spoiler here) involves the drivers as they compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. To heighten the drama, when the cars get close, and going at top speed, they often give meaningful and menacing glances at each other through their side windows.

“When you are doing close to 200 mph, you don’t take your eyes off the road,” Talbot said with a chuckle.

He said he would allow himself a quick glance at a strategic opportunity, but that’s about it.

The character of Miles, who Talbot knew over the years at various tracks around the world, “was portrayed as being a kind of difficult guy,” Talbot said. “The Ken Miles I knew was a superb driver, a great workman—he was an engineer, I believe—very well-spoken and thoughtful whenever I spoke with him.”

As for the putative villain of the movie, the image-conscious and power-hungry Ford executive Leo Beebe, played by Josh Lucas, his conflicts in the pits were portrayed accurately, Talbot said. In fact, Talbot said he once refused to drive in the East African Safari Rally, a brutal endurance race through Kenya and Tanzania, after a clash with a leader of the U.S. team.

“I refused for the same reasons [as in the film],” Talbot said.

In his last 22 years, Talbot estimates he won 80 percent of his races, entering eight to 12 a year.

Last year, at age 88, he won the Monterey Speed Week race, a major U.S. sports car event. He then won two races in Canada in the following weeks before finally handing in his keys.

“I decided I wasn’t getting any younger, I can’t go any higher, and I’ve won everything anyway,” he said.

Lee Talbot, in addition to being an acclaimed racecar driver, is one of the original authors of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He can be reached at 703-734-8576 or ltalbot@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Buzz McClain at 703-993-9603 or bmcclai2@gmu.edu.

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 38,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.

Topics: Department of Environmental Science and Policy (ESP), College of Science