Rolling the Dice

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Thinking Outside the Box, Dan Gurney Took a Chance When the Odds Were Stacked Against Him.

by John Zimmermann, From the American Driver Magazine

Automobile racing is a game of precision and incremental advances where conservatism reigns if only because the drivers put their lives on the line every time they climb into a car. Any adjustments to that car are made carefully, and among the golden rules of chassis tuning - as well as the developmental process as a whole - is that crews should make only one change at a time so its effect on the car's performance can be properly evaluated.

During the distinguished career that established him as one of racing's greatest all-purpose drivers, Dan Gurney generally followed this basic line of reasoning. Victories in Formula 1, Indy cars, NASCAR, sports cars and at Le Mans - as well as in the Can-Am and Trans-Am - followed. It was a mindset that helped him lead a technical revolution at Indianapolis and, through his All American Racers, make countless other contributions to the state of racing's contemporary art. Not least among these was his invention of the eponymous aerodynamic "flap" that continues to enjoy widespread use throughout racing and the aircraft industry as well.


Having shown his abundant natural skills in a handful of local sports car races in California during the late-'50s, Gurney was discovered by Ferrari's talent network and soon found himself driving sports cars and Formula 1 for the legendary Italian team. As his fame spread and his career progressed, Gurney demonstrated an excellent grasp of the technical elements that contributed to enhancing the performance of his racecars, reveling in the measured, calculating approach that motorsports seemed both to require and reward.

However, while qualifying for his final Indy car race, the inaugural 500-miler at the old Ontario Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend in 1970, Gurney found that no matter what he tried, nothing seemed to work. Logic was having no effect upon circumstance that day as his car remained stubbornly loose, its tail itching to break away at any moment.

Time and experience have established certain standard remedies for basic racecar handling maladies, where if the car does this, then you do that to fix it. None of the classic concepts seemed to be working for Gurney that day, though, so the mind that had successfully wrapped itself around the solutions to innumerable engineering problems over the years figured that the answer must lie somewhere else.

Most racers have a robust appreciation for the status quo, and like to know exactly why something does or doesn't work. They are fond of phenomena that can be scientifically explained, but occasionally situations arise when, as Steve McQueen reminded us in The Rievers, "you just have to say goodbye to the things you know and hellooo to the things you don't!" Ontario was one of those times.

Wanting to give a good showing in his last IndyCar race, Dan decided drastic measures were necessary. If they didn't work out, he believed, he wouldn't be any worse off than he already was, so the well-worn book of conventional wisdom was tossed out the window in favor of something entirely new and radically different.

"I knew I was getting to be an old codger," offers Gurney, then 39, about his efforts that afternoon, "but I also knew I was giving it a good ride. I had driven my absolute heart out and managed to go pretty slow, even though I had plenty of horsepower and there was nothing wrong with the tires or anything else. I was going to qualify 12th or 13th as I had it figured out, and wasn't going to be competitive, so I told my crew, 'Look, I don't care how much slower I make it go, I'm not going to go out there and run it as it is.'

"So, in the lineup for qualifying, I put on some stuff that I'd never tried before. I put on a gigantic rear anti-roll bar and a larger front anti-roll bar. The textbook says, if you have a car that's going to bust loose on you, you gotta stiffen the front bar, but I stiffened the front bar and I stiffened the front bar and it was still coming loose in the back. The more I stiffened the front bar, the slower I had to go into the turns, and still I was having this looseness in the back. So, I made those changes there in the line and went ahead and ran. I ended up with the second-fastest time, and told the crew not to change a thing because it was great. If that doesn't put a bit of cold water on the proverbial knowledge, I'll eat my hat."

Different Then Than Now

In todays increasingly single-spec racecar world, the time when most of the top teams ran completely new cars every year — all generally different from what the other competitors had as well — is but a distant memory. In those days, however, new technology and methodology were being discovered at nearly every test session, and the states of the various associated arts were advancing almost as fast as you could turn the pages on the calendar.

Gurney found himself immersed in this reality in the years following 1965 after he, Carroll Shelby and The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company had collaborated to launch AAR on the mission of building the signature brand of Eagle racing cars.

Thus did Dan spend the final five years of his illustrious career driving mainly machines created and constructed by his own company. The consequent responsibilities gave him a fresh perspective on how things worked, and his grasp of this new situation was readily evident in a phrase he often uses when discussing those days: "when you build your own car, guess where the complaint department is!"

It was this kind of thinking that spurred him into action at Ontario that late-summer day in 1970 as he tried one last time to make a recalcitrant design function properly. Gurney begins his tale of that hectic afternoon nearly four decades ago by discussing the birth of the car itself.

"Tony Southgate, our designer for the two previous seasons, had retreated back to England, on to bigger and better things, so I spoke to Len Terry (the English designer of the very first Fl and Indy Eagles). He said, 'Oh yeah, I'll draw it up here and you guys make it, so I don't have to come over there....' It was my attempt to plug a yawning gap in our organization with a reasonably small purse, and we stuffed it in there and it leaked like a sieve, but it was better than nothing."

"The original scheme," explains Terry, "was that the car was just going to take the Ford V8 engine, and I had started laying down the design work when Dan changed his mind. He wanted to fit a stock block V8, and, I assume because of potential customers, he also wanted the Offy engine, so it was a bit of a cock-up. I'm not God, and I do occasionally make mistakes, like any draftsman, any workman, and so because of various factors the car wasn't as good as it could have been."

Those shortcomings meant that none of the four cars AAR had built for customers qualified to race at Indianapolis. Despite admitting that the latest Eagle provided "a very good stress test for the driver," Gurney had no option but to carry on and try to make it work, and a strenuous development program carried on throughout the year. Ever the optimist, he now believes that "had we had the benefit of just a tiny bit more hindsight, we could have been more competitive."

During that final season behind the wheel, Gurney contested but three of the Indy car schedule's 18 races, winning early in the year at Sears Point with the previous year's Eagle, and then soldiering through the 500 miles to finish third at Indianapolis in May with the new car. During the summer, his commitments in Formula 1 and the Can-Am and Trans-Am series kept him from making another Indy car start until Ontario. No, he didn't win and roll off into a Hollywood sunset wrapped in the afterglow of tremendous victory, but when the race had been run they knew he'd been there.

Before an overflow crowd at the newly opened speedway an hour east of downtown Los Angeles, his dark blue Olsonite Eagle took the green flag from the middle of the front row, slotted in between the cars of fast qualifier Lloyd Ruby and third-quick Johnny Rutherford. After Ruby led the opening laps, fourth qualifier Al Unser - the championship leader -took control and stayed out front until the first round of pit stops. At that point, Gurney claimed the top spot for five laps before his own stop for fuel and tires. It began to look like a good finish might be in the cards after all, but his day came to an end just before the lap count reached its midpoint.

"What put me out of that race," Gurney recalls, "wasn't anything to do with the chassis. It was still handling fine, but the engine was starting to load up corning off the corners, and it kept getting worse. I could go around the middle of the corners as fast as anyone, but coming off the turns it would just bog down on me.

"I had just gone past (eventual winner) Jim McElreath and pulled over to get in front of him and boom, I'm going backward at least 215, thinking: 'You're in a whole heap of trouble.' I was also curious as to how hard I was going to hit the wall.

"What had happened, unbeknownst to any of us, including the guys who did it - our engine guys, John Miller and Stump Davis and Jerry McGarrity - was that they had put some of the foam that we used in fuel cells into the crankcase breathers on the Offy engine. Well, the heat and the fumes and all somehow broke down the structure on that foam and it fell down into the engine like large pieces of dandruff. They plugged up the screen on the oil system's scavenge pump, which meant that the engine was filling up with oil, including oiling the plugs. Still, it would run fast, but when I pulled in front of Jim, it just belched a whole lot of oil out of the breathers and poured it directly onto the right rear wheel."

Suddenly Gurney's day, and his Indy car career, were history. Still, the Eagle's performance in the race had vindicated his decision to make the unorthodox changes that produced the necessary speed to allow him to challenge for the win in his final race.