American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
With sales waning and having been humiliated by Ferrari, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decides that Ford will get into racing and win the prestigious Le Mans in France. Ford hires engineer and former racer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to run and design the race car, and he hires his brash old friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to be the driver. Though some at Ford want Ken off the team because of his attitude, his skill proves out, and he drives the car at Le Mans. Ford defeats Ferrari, and then Ken is asked to slow down on his substantial lead so that all of the Ford cars can cross the finish line together, making a great photo op for Ford. He relents and does so, but technically is given second place because another car had an earlier starting position. A few weeks later, Ken crashes on the training track and dies. Caroll goes to visit Ken’s son and gives him a wrench that his father once threw at him.
In 1963, Ford Motor Company Vice President Lee Iacocca proposes to Henry Ford II to purchase the cash-strapped Ferrari as a means to boost their car sales by participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Enzo Ferrari, however, walks out of the deal, as Fiat offers him a more lucrative deal that allows him to retain his ownership of Scuderia Ferrari. A furious Henry II orders his racing division to build a car to defeat Ferrari at Le Mans. For this task, Iacocca hires Shelby American owner Carroll Shelby, a racing driver who won Le Mans in 1959, but was forced to retire due to his heart condition. In turn, Shelby enlists the help of Ken Miles, a hot-tempered British racer and struggling mechanic.
Shelby and Miles test the Ford GT40 Mk I prototype at Los Angeles International Airport, working out all of its design flaws until it is race ready. Seeing that Miles is not their ideal driver, Ford opts to send Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren to the 1964 Le Mans instead. As predicted by Miles, none of the Fords finish the race. While Henry II sees this as a humiliating defeat, Shelby explains to him that the GT40 instilled fear in Ferrari, as it reached 218 mph on the Mulsanne straight before it broke down. Shelby and Miles continue development on the GT40 Mk II, but Miles is nearly killed when the car’s brakes fail during testing. In 1966, Ford Senior Vice President Leo Beebe takes over the racing division, with the intent to continue the program without Miles, but Shelby gives Henry II a ride in the car and wages his own company on the line to convince him that if Miles wins the 24 Hours of Daytona, he will be allowed to race at Le Mans.
Shelby American enters Daytona, but Beebe has a second Ford entered with NASCAR team Holman-Moody supporting it. While the Holman-Moody team has quicker pit stops, Shelby has Miles push his car’s limit to 7,000 RPM, resulting in him winning the race.
At the 1966 Le Mans, Miles struggles with a faulty door during the first lap, but after team engineer Phil Remington fixes the door with a mallet, Miles begins to set lap records while catching up with the Ferraris. While racing with Ferrari driver Lorenzo Bandini, Miles experiences brake failure and has his brake system replaced during his pit stop. Enzo Ferrari protests the move, but Shelby convinces the race officials that the brake change is legal. Miles and Bandini once again duel on the Mulsanne Straight until Bandini blows his engine, completely eliminating Ferrari in the race. With three Ford teams in the top-three positions, Beebe orders Shelby to have Miles slow down for the other two Fords to catch up with him and provide the press with a three-car photo finish. Miles is initially against this decision, continuing to set new lap records near the end of the race, but decides to let Ford have their way on the final lap. Ultimately, McLaren is declared the winner on a technicality, but Miles is grateful to Shelby for giving him the opportunity to race at Le Mans.
Two months after Le Mans, while testing the J-car at Riverside International Raceway, Miles once again experiences brake failure and is killed in the resulting crash. Six months later, Shelby pays Miles’ widow Mollie and son Peter a visit and gives Peter a wrench that Miles threw at him before winning an SCCA race at Willow Springs in 1963. Ford would continue its winning streak at Le Mans in 1967, 1968, and 1969, becoming the only American manufacturer to win the prestigious race. Miles would be posthumously inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2001.
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a professional racer who is forced into early retirement due to a heart condition, and goes into car sales. Warm and likable, he’s a natural salesman and a people person. He is also an incredible vehicle designer and engineer. Meanwhile, Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a racer currently working as a mechanic and running his own shop to support his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe). He tells it like it is and sometimes gets customers angry, but he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. At a race, Ken is told his car does not meet regulations and begins angrily yelling at the race official – Carroll spots this and calms him down, but afterwards the two get into an argument and Ken throws a wrench at him. Later, the IRS comes and shuts down Ken’s garage, and he’s forced to give up most of his racing in order to take care of his family.
Meanwhile, at Ford Motors, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is furious that sales are down and that his father’s company is in danger. He begins taking pitches from his underlings – Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) pitches him an idea – the sexiest cars are race cars, like Ferraris. He posits that if Ford can win the Le Mans, the 24-hour race, they will be at the top. In order to do that, they fly to Italy in order to offer the struggling Ferrari a deal – they will buy the company and let Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) maintain control of the racing division. Ferrari uses this offer to get Fiat to make a good offer, and they buy Ferrari. Ferrari tells the Ford businessmen to shove it, and calls Henry a fat pig. When they get back, Henry makes them relay in detail what Ferrari said, and he becomes more determined than ever to beat Ferrari. He decides they will start their own racing division.
Lee approaches Carroll, as the only American to ever win at Le Mans, if he would be the head of their racing team, designing and testing the cars. Carroll agrees – and goes to Ken, the best driver he knows, to take part. When Mollie sees Ken heading out with Carroll, she angrily demands to know the truth. He tells her that he’s been offered great pay to race, and she’s thrilled – she just doesn’t want him to ever lie to her. The team begins getting the car into shape for their first big race, but as it approaches, Ford vice president Leo Bebee (Josh Lucas), approaches Carroll and tells them that Ken’s rakish, unpredictable quality is not part of the Ford brand and he can’t be trusted to do press and represent Ford well, and that he can’t be their driver. Carroll fights for Ken, but is eventually forced to tell Ken that he won’t be racing – Ken is furious. When Ford loses the race, Carroll is able to convince Henry to allow him to rehire Ken. He goes to Ken’s house and apologizes and asks him to come back, and the two end up getting into a physical fight on his front lawn. They finally give up, exhausted, and Mollie brings them some cold sodas.
Ken rejoins the team, who are working day and night trying to perfect the car. Lee warns Carroll that Leo is determined to have Ken removed from the team, and intend on doing so on their next visit. Knowing this, when Henry and Leo arrive, Carroll locks Leo in his office and takes Henry out for a ride in the race car, and Henry experiences just how terrifying and exhilarating racing is. When they stop, he breaks down into sobs. Carroll offers him a deal – let Ken race at Daytona – if they win, he races at Le Mans in France. If they lose, Henry gets full control over Carroll’s company. At Daytona, they find tough competition in a second Ford team that Ford had commissioned to see who engineered the best vehicle. Ken is able to win the race, securing their team the spot at Le Mans and ensuring Ken will drive there.
In France, Le Mans approaches. Ferrari and Henry are both in attendance. When the race starts, Ken’s door won’t shut, slowing him down on the first lap. The car that they had designed was able to accelerate to really high speeds but doing so burned out the brakes, so deep into the race the pit crew changes out the brakes. The Italians at Ferrari are furious, saying this is a violation of the rules, but Carroll points out the rule-book says they are allowed to change parts and it isn’t specified which ones. Eventually, Ferrari’s car spins out and crashes, leaving Ken in first place, and Mollie and Peter are able to watch on TV as Ken completes his much desired “perfect” leg. Leo, who had been trying to bypass Carroll and mess with their strategy, goes to Henry and suggests that the best image for Ford would be to have all three of their cars cross the finish together. He agrees, and Leo gives Carroll the order, who refuses. Carroll tells Ken the instruction, but tells him it’s his race and he will stand behind him no matter what. At first Ken speeds to the victory, but he eventually relents and slows down allowing the other drivers to catch up and cross the finish together. Everyone celebrates Ken’s win until a technicality – he started behind another car – puts him into second, not first. Carroll is furious, but Ken accepts it and the two go off together.
Weeks later, while training at the racetrack, Ken crashes and is killed. Carroll goes to his family’s home and finds Peter, who he gives the wrench that Ken threw at him. He gets into his car, and despite his condition, speeds off into the distance. The post-script tells us that Carroll’s cars won the Le Mans four years, and that Ken was inducted posthumously into the racing hall of fame.