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Atlanta — The Ford GT marked the end of an era here last weekend for Ford Performance Motorsports when it crossed the finish line for the last time.

The flag-bearer for Ford’s international racing efforts the last four years, the GT earned its place in the history books in 2016 when it won France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans GT-class in its maiden effort — 50 years after its legendary GT40 forefather shocked the world by beating Ferrari for the overall win at the 1966 race.

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Ford GT and front-engine Corvette C7.R race at Road Atlanta 10 Hour for the last time. The Detroit News

Since then, the mid-engine, carbon-fiber GT — the most advanced sports car to ever wear the Blue Oval — has raced across the globe in the IMSA Weathertech and World Endurance Championship winning 19 races and taking home the prestigious IMSA Manufacturer’s Championship in 2018. It has also helped sell 1,350 production model GTs for princely sums starting at $500,000 to buyers eager to own a piece of history.

“The emotions are starting to come through in terms of everything this great team of partners and people have done together to make this program so special these four years,” said Ford Motorsports Chief Mark Rushbrook in the Ford paddock on the eve of GT’s last hurrah.

The driving team of Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and IndyCar superstar Scott Dixon brought the #67 Ford GT home in second place Sunday at Road Atlanta’s 10 Hour Petit Le Mans behind a Ferrari 488 — ironically, the same make of car that Ford bested in 2016 to win the coveted 24 Hours of Le Mans trophy.

"It's a bit emotional, I had a lot of thoughts going through my head the last few laps, but I'm really proud of the job that everyone's done - today and for the past four years," said driver Briscoe after the race.

A second, #66 car piloted by 2016 Le Mans winners Joey Hand, Dirk Muller, and Sébastien Bourdais finished a distant eighth in class.

But the end of the GT’s factory-backed racing efforts only closes a chapter in Ford’s continued assault on racing’s record books. Racing is integral to the company since its founding over 100 years ago when Henry Ford attracted investors by winning on track.

If the Ford GT was a celebration of a 50-year-old golden era, Rushbrook says the next chapter will explore the future of Ford’s ambitious electrification plans. With global governments forcing battery-powered cars, Ford says the future is electric.

“We are excited that many of (the race series we participate in) are transitioning to hybrids like our road cars,” said Rushbrook. “NASCAR is going hybrid (in 2022) and the World Rally Championship is going hybrid as well. With fully electric cars coming down the road, we are looking at where we can race. That is very important for us — it’s the opportunity to innovate and use the tech transfer that is relevant to our road cars.”

In addition to its NASCAR Mustangs and WRC Focus hatchbacks, Ford will also enter Mustangs in the Australia Supercars Championship as well as fire-breathing dragsters in NHRA. And Rushbrook says that Ford plans to sell the GT racers as customer cars so that they can continue to compete in the IMSA and WEC sports car series.

“We don’t plan to build any more cars, but we do plan to keep the factory race cars on the track through customers,” said Rushbrook. Indeed, a private, purple-livery, Wynn-sponsored Ford GT — which nearly won its Le Mans class in 2018 — was on display in the Road Atlanta paddock.

But while Ford retools for a new racing future, the Road Atlanta weekend was all about remembering an epic last four years. The program debuted in early 2016 at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona — after a breakneck two years of development — under intense pressure to bring home a 50th anniversary Le Mans title by June.

“The GT40 and everything that team accomplished from 1966-69 — that was a very special time in the company’s history. We set out to build upon it and honor that,” said Rushbrook in reference to the GT40’s four years of Le Mans dominance.

But the GT stumbled out of the blocks. While fast at the Rolex 24 in January '16, the two cars managed by Chip Ganassi Racing ran into immediate gearbox issues. The cars fell hopelessly behind in the pits, eventually finishing 31st and 40th overall.

"We came out of the gates fast, but we had durability issues. That 24-hour event defined this program," remembers Rushbrook. "We had adversity and we looked at each other and said this is going to be a 24-hour test for us and let's fix these problems and see what others we have. We came out of that race a much stronger team."

A win at Laguna Seca followed and then the Big One in Le Mans, France, in June 2016. The monkey was off the team's back.

"That Le Mans will always stand as the marquee win — that was what the program was about. Its made our history even stronger," said Rushbrook.

It also strengthened Ford's production programs by putting its Ecoboost turbo engines — the same mills used in the Ford F-150, for example — through high-stress endurance environments and in developing engineering tools. 

"One of the things that really helped us in development was the use of a 360-degree simulator — we could effectively drive (the GT) on a simulator in North Carolina," said Rushbrook of Ford's southern development center. "That simulator is now being used for all of our mainstream programs. The Mustang GT500 which is launching soon used that simulator. Our future electric vehicle have all been developed on that simulator as well. Racing engineering tools make our road cars better."

Rushbrook wryly adds that the GT production car was so capable that the race car had to be severely penalized by IMSA and WEC in order to keep front-engine competitors like BMW and Corvette close. With its lightweight, carbon-fiber chassis, Formula One-like aerodynamics, and sleek profile, the GT was international racing's most advanced car.

"If you let these cars run unbridled with its low frontal area and weight distribution, it would have run away," smiled Rushbrook. So the series enforced parity with weight and horsepower restrictions. 

"We are the heaviest car on the race track even though we are lightest car on the road."

The end of the Ford GT race program also dovetails with the end of the production car program. Manufactured by racing specialty shop Multimatic outside Toronto, all 1,350 Ford GTs have been spoken for. 

The last one will roll off the line in 2022 — and into the history books.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

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