These 1966 photos, never seen before, reveal a Ford GT40 test session at Riverside

Laura Dapkus was sorting through some slides her late father-in-law had left behind when she found images from Ford GT40 test sessions at Riverside International Raceway.

“They were developed in March and June of 1966,” Laura explains while sharing them with us. “You can still see snow on the mountains.”

It startled her to find these pictures. She and husband Don had seen Ford v Ferrari, but until then she had no inkling her father-in-law had been part of the behind-the-scenes effort to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As “a brilliant former airman” educated as an electrical engineer, Don Sr. was dispatched by Ford Motor Co. to observe GT40 test sessions and stand shoulder to shoulder with team members. And, crucially, he carried a camera.

Don Dapkus Sr. at Riverside International Raceway

She says, “I DID NOT EVEN KNOW ABOUT ANY OF THIS until the Ford v Ferarri movie came out and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, he worked with those guys.’ I’m like, ‘What the hell?'”

Laura’s messages, written in her signature exuberant style, are an enduring pleasure and often screamingly funny. She may be self-conscious about it and all that it reveals, but she’s an American original and I’ve pushed her to let me share the details without bowdlerizing.

It so happens that I know Laura and Don from a VW New Beetle crazyfest car show in Roswell, N.M., way back in June of 2000. I covered that one for the late and much-lamented Automobile magazine. Sometimes you leave on business and return with new personal friendships. The car show wrapped up with an alien-themed costume party on that Saturday night, so I dressed as a futuristic beatnik in sunglasses and a silver lamé tam and smock. As a magazine reporter without a date, I asked Laura to dance. Don wasn’t moving from his seat, but I thought she might like to shake it.

Don and Laura Dapkus archival photo.

Twenty-three years later, Don seems to have forgiven me for cutting in; we’re still friends, always learning new things about one another and following one another’s adventures.

Our recent exchange found Laura further describing her archival discoveries among the transparencies.

“I was going through his slide boxes and I’m like HORSE CAMP?! Whose pool is this? A camper? A boat? ICE FISHING? You know where I went? Indian princess day camp put on by the City.”

Laura was an only child in Torrance, also the offspring of an engineer. She grew up to follow Exene Cervenka and John Doe in the L.A. postpunk band X. She loved VW Beetles. With an MBA, she immersed herself in corporate work until becoming something of a refugee from it, spending a few years raising sheep on an 18-acre farm northeast of Dallas.

She shares another thought about Don Sr.: “He was a super interesting dude. He went ice fishing on the Arctic Circle and things like that.”

The Shelby American crew makes adjustments to a GT40 during testing at Riverside. Photo by Don Dapkus Sr.

The Ford GT40 swept the top three places at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 19, 1966, just weeks after some of the photography shown here. Fifty-eight days after that race and the controversial finish, Ken Miles died at Riverside during another test session. In the new book Shelby American: The Renegades Who Built the Cars, Won the Races, and Lived the Legend, author Preston Lerner notes, “He was the third driver to die in a Ford prototype in five months.”

“Don’s dad was so devastated, he changed jobs,” Laura says. In fact, car magazine editors gradually shifted away from coverage of fireball wrecks and dead drivers to consumer-friendly new-car coverage and genteel sporting events and shows.

Laura points out details about the photos. For example, the white jeans. “I want to say that anyone who wears white jeans to deal with cars is cool AF.”

We see Don Sr. in a portrait with a distant GT40 poised to strike. It is impossible to determine whether he has a pocket protector.

This low-slung car, which may be a Lola T70, was nearby in the pits. Photo by Don Dapkus Sr.

The blue number 12 looks like a Lola T70, and we can’t explain its presence. The Union 76 trash can is a special ornament (and choice way to convey the brand message).

Laura Dapkus photo.

The pit lane scene depicts a crew member in the “Cobra” shirt and the brimmed hat. Matt Damon’s portrayal of Carroll Shelby in Ford v Ferrari includes wearing a wristwatch on the right arm, but we showed the photo to Lerner, who thinks Shelby wouldn’t be wearing a uniform and we may be looking at engineer Carroll Smith. In an early 1965 photo included in Shelby American, Smith is seen also with a watch on his right wrist, the “cool AF” white jeans that even Shelby is wearing, and tasseled loafers. And Lerner adds that Smith wore a bush hat.

We are struggling to I.D. the others. At far right is the Goodyear tire man. And who is that photographer?

The guy in the light blue jacket at far left must be looking for spies from Maranello.

There’s a reason this report posts on Valentine’s Day.

“The Ford pics,” Laura says, “I am making 3 of them into gallery wrapped prints for Don for Valentine’s Day. It’s going to be a very cool arrangement.”

Happy Valentine’s Day to everybody: Get up and dance!