The first official entry of the Ferrari 250 GTO in competition took place in March 1962, when Le Mans winners Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien drove one to victory in the Sebring 12 Hours. Yet the car's first competition success really was recorded the month before, as Stirling Moss drove the prototype to victory in the GT class at the International 3 Hours at Daytona International Speedway, the first edition of the track's endurance races. Confusion among the American race officials about the car's status as an Omologato, or homologated version of the venerable 250 GT, led it to be designated as a 250 GTO, and the name has stuck ever since.
Engineering responsibility for the 250 GTO had passed to 26-year-old Mauro Forghieri, later the mastermind of Ferrari's championship Formula One cars of the mid 1970s, and he made some key modifications to the car that calmed its nervousness at high speeds. First, he equipped the car's rear suspension with twin Watts links to the differential to gain more rear suspension stability while cornering. Second, he fitted a small spoiler to the rear bodywork, a crucial aerodynamic device that Richie Ginther, an American driver who had earned Ferrari's respect because of his testing skills, had endorsed during the course of testing the mid-engine 246SP sports-prototype the previous summer. From then on, the Ferrari 250 GTO became famous for its sweet four-wheel drifts.
The Ferrari 250 GTO's success in competition came easily, and the car quickly earned its current reputation as the most successful racing Ferrari ever. The list of drivers with GTO credentials includes virtually every famous professional driver of the 1960s, including A.J. Foyt Jr., Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Innes Ireland, Stirling Moss, Mike Parkes, Roger Penske and Jackie Stewart. It was really meant for gentleman drivers, however, and Jean Noblet was its most famous exponent with his GT-class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
As it turned out, the threat from the Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato and Jaguar XKE lightweight coupe was fitful at best, as the English companies lacked the financial backing to sustain a prolonged racing effort. The Ferrari 250 GTO's greatest rival proved to be Carroll Shelby's Cobra. It was Enzo Ferrari against whom Carroll Shelby measured himself, and the story of Shelby's successful rise to the winning of the FIA's sports car world championship in 1965 is the story of beating the Ferrari GTO. The struggle of these two men and their car companies still defines American sports car racing some 40 years after the fact.
Oddly enough, the Ferrari 250 GTO literally helped invent the legendary Ford sports car racing effort of the 1960s. The story began in February 1963, when Enzo Ferrari let the Ford Motor Company know that he would be happy to sell his complete operation for the sum of $18 million. Discussions quickly began, and Ferrari agreed in principal to an arrangement where he would transfer the company to Ford for $10 million while retaining the right to race its cars under the Ferrari banner. But, as Ford's lawyers looked into Ferrari's books, the Old Man grew resentful and the deal finally unraveled on May 21, 1963, shortly before another watershed in Ford's racing history, the 1963 Indy 500, where a Ford-powered Lotus 29 finished second. Within 48 hours after Ford received the news of Ferrari's withdrawal from the agreement, Lee Iaccoca had prepared a plan to dominate world championship sports car racing with Ford's own models, and the Ford GT40 was born.