The Angriest CelicasHide Text
Gurney's Celicas Used to Laugh at the Competition. We Find Out the Punchline.
by Matthew Hayashibara, Sport Compact Car, September 1999
The sun shines brightly on the grassy hill overlooking the turn at Sears Point, a ribbon of asphalt running through the field of my vision. Cars flash by, entering the periphery of the vision of one eye, and leaving on the opposite side, through the other eye's sight line. I'm very aware of my neck as the cars streak by in bright flashes of color, as my head swings from side to side, as if watching a tennis match. A low rumble comes from the left, emanating from a blue and white Mustang braking for the corner.
But suddenly, a bright white glint of another car follows a Celica, almost noiselessly closing on the roaring Mustang's taillights. The Celica easily out-brakes the Mustang, taking the inside line around the turn. As the driver downshifts, I become aware of the startling noise, the giggle of the turbocharger's bypass valve releasing excess pressure. Like hysterical squirrels on helium, the piercing HEE-hee-hee-hee grates on my eardrums. Momentarily it drowns the Ford's roar, laughing its way past the Mustang as spurts of orange flame squirt from the exhaust.
Laugh at the Fords these very special Celicas did, in the International Motorsports Association's GTO (Grand Touring, over 3.0-liter displacement) class. In 1987, these turbocharged cars laughed all the way to a national championship against cars like the Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro. Built by Dan Gurney's All-American Racers in Santa Ana, Calif. these highly developed race cars incorporated an interesting blend of Japanese technology and good old American hard work and know-how to race past the best the rest had to offer. Though it's been nearly a dozen years since I remember seeing these cars at Sears Point Raceway in Northern California, the memory of these cars burns as bright as the flames shooting from the exhausts. And the laughing turbo sounds still echo on in my mind.
Also large in my memory are the exploits of Dan Gurney and All-American Racers (AAR). These entities need almost no introduction to race fans around the world. AAR has been in the racing business since 1965 when Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby were involved in a very successful relationship as a driver and team owner of the Shelby Cobras and Shelby Fords. These men joined forces to establish a race car company, with the backing of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. When the two founders were looking for an appropriate moniker for their new company, the president of Goodyear at that time, ex-basketball champion Victor Holt, suggested the name All-American Racers. It fit, still fits, and it has stuck ever since.
The cars AAR designed and built were initially called Eagles. One of the many distinguishing features of these cars, built for the Formula One championship and American Indy Car racing, was a "beak" at the front of the car. Roger McCluskey became the first driver to achieve a victory in an Eagle at Langhorne, Pa. in 1966.
AAR's Eagle racing cars soon became very popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The crowning achievement in Formula 1 on the European Grand Prix circuit was Dan's victory at the Grand Prix of Belgium at the Spa-Francorchamps course in 1967. It was the first victory by an American driver in an American car since 1921 and the only one in modern Grand Prix history. AAR also entered, at various times, the U.S.-Sportscar, Trans-am, Can-am, Formula A and Formula 5000 championships. Prior to being a driver for Shelby, Dan was a factory driver for Ferrari and Porsche, and had won races in just about anything with four wheels, including formula cars, NASCAR stockers, and sports cars. Dan also won the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans co-driving the Ford GT40 MkIV with AJ Foyt.
In 1970, upon retiring from driving, Dan bought out his partner Carroll Shelby and has been sole owner, CEO and Chairman of All-American Racers ever since. Under his guidance, AAR has been continuously modernized and expanded.
Housed in a 75,000-sq. ft. factory in Santa Ana, Calif., AAR encompasses five buildings. Over the years, AAR has employed between 20 and 140 people. Many race engineers, mechanics, designers and team members went through the AAR "university" when they started out, a tradition continuing to this day.
In 1983, AAR entered into a long-term relationship with Toyota, which started its involvement in big-league racing at that time. First the team entered the GTU (Grand Touring, under 3.0-liter) category of IMSA Sports Car Championship, winning 10 races. From there, they progressed to the GTO class, capturing the Drivers Championship (with driver Chris Cord) and the Manufacturers Championship in 1987.
Throughout its history, AAR has taken a special place among race car companies. Not only does the company provide a bridge to racing's glorious past, it manages to be on the cutting edge. The combination of Dan Gurney as a driver and owner, and his perseverance in building his own racecars, often against great odds, has won many loyal fans around the world spanning two generations.
As one of those fans, I wait nervously in the hall outside his office to speak to him about the Celica GTO cars I remember so well. This hall is lined with photos and other mementos of the 40 years Dan has spent racing cars.
The feeling of anticipation I have is probably not all that different from the turn-your-insides-all-knotty type kids have but I know deep down Dan Gurney is for real. At last, the time comes and I'm face-to-face with the man who has accomplished so much in racing. He is incredibly fit and attentive for someone older than my father. When I reach to shake his hand, he drops his right hand offers me his left, explaining he fell off of his motorcycle a few days before. His eyes flash a mischievous gleam
I'm here to talk to Gurney about the GTO Celica and the beginnings of the IMSA program, and how that evolved into the later GTP (Grand Touring Prototype) Eagle program. I'm very curious as to how a company called All-American Racers became involved with a Japanese company, Toyota.
"Toyota Motor Sales asked if I would be interested in becoming a spokesman for the new Supra being introduced at the time. This was the one for the broad market; it had nothing to do with racing. I finally said yes. And in that way, I managed to get to know quite a few people there.
"At the same time, they had started another thing-what became the Toyota GTU (Grand Touring, under 3.0-liter displacement, the class below GTO) program. This was with another person, at a company called Kent Racing. While he was a very creative guy, he had other interests; it wasn't working out very well. So I volunteered to take it over, and that's how we got started. We inherited his program and he kind of fell by the wayside," Gurney says.
None of the drivers from the Kent racing effort came over to drive the AAR Celicas. Dan and AAR were able to assemble a stellar group of drivers for the Celicas that were raced in IMSA. Porsche competitor Dennis Aase, former Lola GTP driver Chris Cord, and SCCA Trans-Am star Willy T. Ribbs were early drivers that stayed on through the GTO days. Dan remembers others, "We had Roberto Moreno drive for us, one of our Indy car drivers, Rocky Moran, and Juan Fangio drove for us." In addition, the Dutchman Boy Hayje and the CART chief steward's son, Wally Dallenbach Jr., had rides with AAR in the Celica's heyday.
How did Dan select those drivers? "Once you're out in the midst of a particular category, you see these people. You see the ones trying to come in, and the guys who are coming off of other teams. You become pretty familiar with the guys in the same category or above or below, you watch them as well. Pretty soon you get a pretty good feel for who is there and who has the potential. Doesn't mean you're right all the time!" Dan smiles.
Dan recalls the main competition in the GTU class. "That was in the days when the Mazda RX-7 was dominant in that category. There was a legitimate strength they showed in those days so it was fun to try to step up to that challenge."
Dan admits it was a little rough in the beginning of the GTU program. "Like all things, when you start out, you're in a steep learning curve. We were not nearly as successful as we would have liked to have been. But, we could see glimpses of enough performance that we never lost hope we were going to get there. And then gradually, more and more, we did. I think the first thing that came back were speed and lap times, and then more and more durability. That's typical of a race program.
"When asked if he planned to go into the higher classes like GTO and GTP, Dan is quick to answer. "I can say from my own standpoint, whether it's going to be more difficult or not it usually is. We like to reach for as much world-class competition as we can. Somehow that's a lot more meaningful than say, a second-tier form of competition. Since we're looking for something more prestigious, that's what we went for."
Thought the initial trials were disheartening, Dan realized they were a necessary step in gaining the confidence of Toyota. "We felt it was important to do well in the lower classes. We didn't mind paying the dues, so to speak, doing it at that level, to show we could do it. As a matter of fact, we never did win a championship in GTU. But I think the emphasis changed, as far as TMS was concerned. We ventured into GTO even though we hadn't conquered GTU. But we were very competitive at the end of our GTU program."
The GTU cars inherited from Kent were based on the last generation of rear-drive Celicas, with 300-hp, 2030 cc, 16-valve DOHC engines. These were pretty much the older unit body with a cage welded in.
"The cage gradually was extended to maybe shore up the struts, so it became more reinforcement. It was sort of a semi-tube frame car; it had kind of a Darwinian evolution to it," Dan said.
"The frame initially supplied by Kent was slowly built up, and in time underwent a redesign by AAR aerodynamicist Hiro Fujimori, which stiffened many critical areas," he added.
With the work done in the 1983 season, AAR had laid claim to seven poles and three fastest race laps. Two wins came at Riverside and Charlotte that first year, against the daunting opposition of the dominant Mazda RX-7s.
When asked about the shortcomings of the GTU Celicas against the RX-7's, Dan is pretty specific. "I'd say, at the end we were still looking for slightly more reliability. We ended up getting the speed, but we were always hand-to-mouth. Due to the budget we had then, we did not have the ability to put new parts in all of the time. We couldn't look six, eight months down the road and have new things in the pipeline. So we were trying to patch up the few things we could. That makes it difficult when you're asking the cars to produce perhaps more performance than they are capable of making."
As to modifications as the season progressed, Dan remembers some of the problems. "We were constantly going for more of a rearward weight bias to get more traction; and, an overall weight reduction, which is always important in a racecar. Better brakes, better tires, and better dampers.
"We were trying to get reliability, all of these things at the same time. Gearboxes became more of a problem. We had a gearbox that had some internals that were not Toyota," Dan said.
In 1984, four wins came at Miami, Laguna Seca, Charlotte, and Sears Point. The following year, the team earned second place overall in the GTU championship, with three wins, at Lime Rock, Pocono, and Daytona Beach.
For the 1985 season, one car was a specially modified GTU car with the turbocharged 4T-GT engine, which ran in the GTO class and scored a win at Laguna Seca. This was a 2.1-liter, two-valve-per-cylinder engine with twin plug ignition, and would be used in the later Celica GTO variants. This particular car was used only in initial engine testing in late events, but was to become the basis for the coming GTO effort.
Dan remembers the Laguna event in particular as a turning point. "One of the last races we ran that season was at Laguna Seca. Dennis Aase was leading with about five laps to go. But he was having trouble with the brakes.
"Dennis called in on the radio. He says, 'Look, my brakes are going bad. The pedal is going down, and I'm in a lot of trouble. What should I do?'
Dan looks pained.
"He's leading the race, right? And I thought to myself, well, what do you say to someone under those circumstances?
"I said something like, well Dennis, just hang in there. You've still got something like six second lead.
'Yeah, but what should I do?,' the radio crackled back.
Realizing victory was at hand, but was about to be swept away by the brake problem, Dan was nearly speechless, and really grabbing for something-anything-to say to help his driver win.
"So I said, 'Well, Dennis just use finesse! I think he would have liked to have hit me at that point," Dan remembers, shaking his head.
"He ended up using this finesse and we wound up winning the race. After he got out of the car in victory circle, he said, 'I want to get you SOOOO bad!'
"That became part of the lore of AAR," Dan recalls.
As the Celica GTO program was ramping up, the AAR Indy Car efforts were dwindling, ending in 1986. Dan relates they dove-tailed neatly as far as the staffing went.
"It was fortunate we ran into an unexpected difficulty here with the Indy program. So it was good we could flow our people into the GTO and GTU arena."
So this set the stage for the AAR GTO efforts, as more resources were available to dedicate to the GTO car.
Dan remembers the times, "In terms of budgets today, it was very meager. But we were very hungry. Now we're starting to get a feel for the rules. And the rules cover naturally aspirated cars, with fairly large capacity pushrod engines, like Chevrolets and Fords. The Mazda types: Rotaries, some smaller capacity, four-cylinder cars, and of course, the turbocharged motors. This was available to us on the smaller cars. We tried to see if there wasn't something there that we would be able to compete with at the top of that category, GTO, which was dominated by Ford Mustangs at that time; Jack Roush and his people, and some pretty strong Chevrolets."
IMSA had a complex series of "equivalency formulas" that attempted to balance the characteristics of each type of engine by allowing lower minimum weights for cars using engines judged to be less powerful, and carefully adjusted the turbocharger boost available to teams that used them. Thus, the rules could "equalize" cars using vastly different powerplants, like the Toyota 2.1 Turbo and the 5.0-liter V8's used in the GTO Mustangs of the day. "We were trying to learn the rules that controlled the whole thing. It wasn't clear exactly where the rules begin and where they end. That becomes very, very important," Gurney said.
Historically, that's been a tremendous problem with "production based" racing- what is legal and what isn't. The problems that IMSA traditionally had are these equivalency formulas between various motors- normally aspirated, turbocharged, rotaries, and pushrods, four-cam. How fair was this in those days, with the sliding weight scales and turbo boost and inlet restrictor rules? Dan resonds: "Well, equivalency formulas can be quite fair, but they're never really fair. What you end up with is a huge effort lobbying the sanctioning body, the guys who make the rules, to grant you a slightly better chance at being competitive. If you're in an awkward political position, for whatever reason that may be, you've got an additional handicap. And you're going to have to pretty doggoned good technically."
Dan continues: "If you're going to be in the turbocharged area, where there is more potential than they think there is, then perhaps you're able to tap into that. Then all of these equivalency things, where they're not equivalent, where you have all of these different makes and they're supposed to be the same. They just aren't." In the rules of the day, a limited boost 2.1 four-cylinder Toyota was judged to be the equal of a 5.0-liter V8 in a Mustang, in the "over 3.0-liter" class that GTO described.
So rules, which are intended to be an equalizer, become an area teams look to provide an advantage. Dan explains, "Everybody lobbies. The next thing that happens is, people just barely win, which is a form of sandbagging. If you get behind, and all of the sudden you can catch up pretty quickly, you just barely win-you have all sorts of politics. You see it internationally, nationally, and then in smaller realms like one village against another. There are many analogies in racing, which carry over into everyday life. One of these things is "majority rules" is always fair. No, that's not true at all! If they don't like you, for whatever reason, whatever reason they can think of for not liking you, next thing you know, you're in trouble. Until you've been in that position, where the majority knows it isn't fair, but they're going to get you anyway-that's a big surprise when it happens!"
It was decided to go ahead and develop the 4T-GT motor for Celica GTO, with a peak horsepower level of about 600 hp, before any inlet restrictors that IMSA put on to reduce power. Dan backs the decision. "I'm not saying we couldn't have made more, but that was the extent of our capability under the circumstances. It was pretty good, a hairy motor. It was enough to get the job done!"
Many of the key people were in the construction of this car have since left AAR. Roman Slobodinsky extensively reworked the Fujimori chassis design for even more stiffness and chassis tunability. The famed John Ward was also involved in many aspects of the design and construction. The bodywork for the 1986 Celica, the first model with front-wheel drive, was to be used over the redesigned chassis. Over the course of the program, both fastback/hatchback and coupe body styles being used, neither proving to be significantly better or worse aerodynamically.
Dan credits longtime AAR man Phil Remington for his extensive help. "He was asked to solve a problem with the wheel hubs and uprights and the spindles. We ended up putting on something that had Indy origins and stopped what was a limited-life situation. The spindle popped off like a carrot if you weren't careful. We ended up with a thing that ran internal bearings. Rem did most of that. He was not a trained engineer, Phil, but he's definitely a problem solver. He's still with us-just had his 80th birthday!"
What could loosely be termed "funny cars" were de rigeur in the GTO class in the late Eighties. For the GTO program, AAR took a car that, for the street, was a little prosaic front drive thing, and then put in this powerful turbocharged motor in a tubular space frame with rear drive and a transaxle, with a lot of advanced technology. The championship winning car sits in a place of honor in a warehouse in the AAR complex. (AAR was kind enough to push it out and around, allowing us to photograph as you see it here.) Though the car outwardly resembles a Celica, there have definitely been some liberties taken with the shape.
Certainly when you were young, you had an aunt or grandmother with a cat. The cat had a definite look to it sleeping in her lap. When your relative had her back turned, you would no doubt corner the cat and tease it with a stick, causing it to snarl and look mean, fluffing out its fur. If you were to take your grandmother or aunt's Celica, corner it and poke it with a stick 'till it was really angry, then you can imagine the car that AAR ended up with. It's a really ticked-off looking Celica.
Dennis Aase said that of all the cars he'd driven, it was one of the biggest cheatermobiles ever made! All within AAR's interpretation of the IMSA rules, of course. Aside from some guidance on the side profile of the car, which had to be more or less stock, with a full-height windshield and some minimum height requirements for the floorpan, almost anything can and did go. As teams eked out advantages in certain areas, IMSA would rework rules to negate the advantages.
What drove the design parameters of the car when it first came out? "Well, we felt, and it's still true that at the very top, there are no front-wheel-drive drag cars. And a lot of what we were doing involved accelerating off of a corner. So we wanted to have rear-drive car. That was somehow accepted. They could see that GM (Berettas) and Ford had converted to a rear-drive car. So that sailed by OK."
Dan remembers the biggest problem with the engine was the new technology arriving at that point in time. "What happened then is we had a car that was no longer carbureted. It was turbocharged and fuel injected, and we had no background with electronic fuel injection at that time. There was a big change, from a guy who could do a carburetor by the seat of the pants. For injection, you had to have a different kind of background. They've all done that, since then. But it was new to us at the time. But we came across a fellow that said, well that's all right! Americans were the first ones to do that anyway, and we can do it again. So, we'll roll up our sleeves and get to work on it."
But this was nothing unusual in racing, as most were familiar with tuning carburetors. "All of a sudden, you're in a different arena and you don't have foundation to build upon." Dan smiles, "But it gradually comes. That's why new people come along!"
AAR had engine development facilities in-house until 1988. "We did all of our own engines through '88, until the end of the GTO thing", Dan says. "We got some help from TRD and from TMC in Japan. But mostly we had a band of three and a half people."
This half-person must be very interesting.
"It's probably me!" Dan laughs. "I've always enjoyed the engine-side of racing, as a student and fan. I was pretty proud of what we could accomplish there."
Also new was the tremendous amount of heat the turbocharged motor generated. "In certain areas, we felt that the rules they had were unreasonable. There was a rule the exhaust system had to exit just ahead of the rear wheel. It had to have mufflers on it! This weighed probably 75 lbs., and it was just a nightmare. Since the engine was up front, the exhaust system had to go back, take it alongside the driver, along the bottom through the front fender and rear fender, and then come out there with some kind of muffler. So IMSA wanted it to sound like some kind of hummingbird, or something. The first time we tried it, it caught fire!"
This was at Riverside, on a practice day when no fire trucks were present at the track. It would be four laps before any help came. Despite test driver Dennis Aase's best attempts to extinguish the blaze by then, the first AAR GTO Celica built had burned to the ground. Since it was quite literally one of Dennis' first drives in the car, his lack of familiarity with the controls prevented him from triggering the onboard extinguisher before he had to leap out of the burning car and the button melted into the dash. Aase was reduced to throwing dirt on the blazing, doomed car. Definitely not an auspicious beginning.
This wasn't the kind of "hot car" Dan wanted, so he put some effort into getting the rules changed. "I said we couldn't abide by that particular rule, and we ended up with the exhaust system coming out just after the left front fender. We still had a fairly long exhaust system after the turbo, but this time it turned out to be fine. That was in direct contravention to the rules, but we finally lobbied them to let us do it our way, from a safety standpoint. So that worked out."
There were other rule problems, Dan says. "If their lobbyists-in this case "they" would be some mysterious other manufacturer-if "they" didn't want us to do something, they would be busy trying to tell IMSA how to write the rules. And we'd say, 'Wait a minute! Our interpretation of this rule is this.' We're talking about aerodynamic things here-now that was a real wrestling match. At that time, we had not had the benefit of a lot of wind tunnel work. Even NASCAR was just barely getting involved. We probably could not have done it without some idea, visually, of what aerodynamics would work. This was important. But we were lucky; we were able to get things [rules to be] halfway reasonable."
Hiro Fujimori, at that time AAR's chief aerodynamicist, put in countless hours building 1/10th-scale models and testing in the wind tunnel. Hiro suggested a subtle bend in the bodywork to get the rear spoiler up two inches higher in the airstream, resulting in more rear downforce. He also changed the shape of the chassis belly pan to form a rudimentary diffuser for some crude ground effects. IMSA, seeing this, clarified the rules, stating that all portions of the belly pan should be parallel to the ground. Hiro then changed the shape to a "stairstep", though following the letter of IMSA's rules; it would still result in a diffuser effect. The result was no net decrease in downforce, but the center of pressure was moved rearwards, resulting in better handling balance under acceleration. So an IMSA rule clarification meant to disable AAR actually helped them! (The bend in the bodywork? That's when the IMSA tech guys started to use body templates from the equivalent "stock" cars-you don't win against the rulesmakers all the time!)
When asked about the most revolutionary element about the GTO car, Dan quickly points to the driveline, "One thing that was a huge problem was we had an engine in front, and then a driveshaft going back to the gearbox in the rear, with the clutch in back. Again, we were trying to get the weight back there."
Dan continues, "A normal steel driveshaft, that was going to turn at engine rpm was a serious engineering problem. We couldn't figure out how to solve that at first. This thing was ready to blow up at any instant! The driver was sitting less than 6 inches above a bomb. It was a serious situation."
The AAR men found the solution in exotic aerospace materials. "We ended up with a hollow carbon-fiber driveshaft. We never had a problem with it; the fact we ended up with something that was bulletproof and didn't weigh a whole lot, was very good. In fact, Chevrolet ended up with a problem of the very same nature. So we said 'Look, let's quit worrying about competitive advantage here. Let's not let this guy get chopped up.' So we told them where to get these things. It wasn't a secret, but it was an important breakthrough.
Dan sums up the entire GTO Celica package. "In the end it was a car that had a pretty good aerodynamic balance and it put the power down pretty well. It had great brakes. We ended up with minimum turbo lag-which is really important-and we ended up with a gearbox that seemed to be pretty doggoned bulletproof. It was sufficient to win a championship. We had some great races, and the car was competitive. At the end it would run 195 mph."
Did Dan, the race car driver from the old days, ever take an opportunity to drive the GTO car? Of course. "Not really hard, but it was an exciting car to drive. It was very, very fast. In fact, one time I went to Willow Springs and did some crude injection work, going by some seat-of-the-pants carburetor thinking and going through some chips we had. I actually improved the throttle response in one of the transitional areas. This really helped it coming off of the corner. It was crude, but the stopwatch said we'd gained half a second."
How would Dan describe driving the car? Was the turbocharged engine peaky? Dan dispels this generalization immediately, "No, it wasn't peaky-it had a good fat range of power. It didn't want to run low, of course. It made its best power at about 8000 rpm. It was good power from about 6000 on up. So it had a good range, very drivable, not bad from the throttle response aspect."
Handling and braking? Was it well balanced in that regard? "I don't even know how to talk about it. When I got in the GTO car, it was a pretty violent machine. So it doesn't lend itself to word descriptions like 'well balanced' or 'neutral handling'. No, it's more like hang on to your hat, and be quick with the steering wheel! Shift at just the right time. You're going so fast it's ridiculous! But with those brakes-the stopping was just as ridiculous. It's not something you can talk about if you're used to driving normal passenger cars. It's a whole 'nother level. I've never ridden a bull in a rodeo, but there's an element of that in it. (Dan's buddy, Parnelli Jones described off-road racing as an "all-day airplane crash", which seems rather apt here.) It seemed to respond to a very rough driving style, but it also took some 'finesse'."
Though the developmental period had its share of disasters and problems, there were a few more waiting once the car was sorted. Dan recalls a particular incident in front of the Toyota men in Japan: "One of the most disappointing things happened in Japan. We were invited by Toyota to go over to Fuji Speedway with the GTO car, to run it as an exhibition. When we went, we didn't know about how to pack, what to bring with us. We ended up bringing the car with a 185-mph gear. So, even over-revving it wouldn't go any faster than that, it would've blown the engine. When we went to run, it came off the last turn going 185 mph before it got to the start/finish line."
Dan's brow wrinkles. "Then of all things the hood flew off at start/finish. Next thing you know, the hood was probably 150, 200 feet in the air-in front of the home crowd. We could have been really impressive down the front straight, if we would have had that gear, but we didn't bring it. That was just one of those things where we wanted to kick ourselves. We managed to get the hood back on. We didn't want to blow it up. It was probably turning 8700 rpm when it shouldn't have been. It would've gone faster, we would have showed them." Dan shrugs.
There were some greater downfalls awaiting them in competition, though. Dan recollects the big one. "The greatest disappointment was leading Daytona 24 Hour with 45 minutes to go. We're leading by 10 laps, over Roush. All of a sudden, we had a shudder in the rear suspension. We couldn't fix it. So we lost by two laps, finished second. That happened to be a modification that took place in the field, without the knowledge of engineering."
Luckily for AAR that was the worst of it, a failure in the first big race of the season, the traditional Daytona enduro. They almost always fared better in sprint races. The greatest triumph? Dan's smile returns, "I think one of the greatest triumphs was-I don't remember which race won the championship for us in '87. But the last race of the year was in Del Mar-it was a big race. We were not considered part of the good 'ol boy network. And IMSA had roots in that network. We were leading that race, I think it was Chris Cord. Willy T. Ribbs went down a lap, he split a couple of cars in some really crazy moves getting them back. We have some interesting films of that; you can hear the engine, and it's never given much of a breather. Anyway, near about 10 minutes from the end, they yellow-flagged the race. It enabled the second-place Mustang to be right with us. New tires, the whole shot. It got down to three laps to go; the last race was on the line. In the very end, Chris won the race by less than a car length. That was exciting! They had gone through the whole façade-stop the race and let the guys rebuild their car, the whole thing. That was really something. That always meant a lot to me. Jack Roush is a well-known competitor in the business. It meant a lot to us to manage to squeak by in that one!"
The year 1987 was the high-water mark for GTO Celicas, as they won the driver's championship with Chris Cord, and the manufacturer's championship. On the road to that accomplishment, AAR scored eight wins out of seventeen races, five poles, and five fastest race laps. In 1988, there were five wins, at Mid Ohio, Road America, Sears Point, Watkins Glen, and Del Mar.
Winning the IMSA championship was the best, Dan relates, "Oh, no doubt about it-winning the national championship was great. And the next year we won more races than any single team did. But Ford (Lincoln/Mercury) had four teams, so we ended up losing the championship. We finished third. Willy came in third in the driver's championship. We were the favorites, both of those years." By that time, the Ford people were using the Merkur XR4ti, using many of the tricks AAR had learned and used on the GTO Celica.
Over Dan's career, so many things were accomplished: Winning Le Mans, winning a Formula One Grand Prix race in a car that was built at AAR — where does the Toyota GTO program sit in that hierarchy of things? Dan explains it was still very meaningful. "We were representing a manufacturer against other manufacturers. That was very special. We knew, we could tell what was going on here and there, and it was a challenge from a lot of different angles, not just the car."
Dan remembers AAR had a lot of help: "We brought along some excellent driving talent — Chris Cord was really amazing. Willy did some great driving, and Rocky also. So we did a lot with a lot of good up-and-coming drivers. It was a really special time. I look back on those times with a real affection. I think the odds were against us, but when you prevail in those circumstances, it means more to you. It had a great homebrew feel to it — it was fun! The GTP program wasn’t as much fun, and certainly it (GTO) was more fun than the present CART program."
In retrospect, doing the whole car from soup to nuts was especially satisfying to Dan. "When you look at what we achieved, a national championship, and then another excellent year on top of that, with the size of the engine force here under this roof! So when we went to the GTP program and Toyota said they wouldn’t need our services in the engine area after that, we were kind of offended. But when I thought about how big the program would have to be, why we couldn’t have done that. I felt Toyota had made the right call at that point. It doesn’t change the fact we’re still very proud of what we did."
It was of the accomplishment, vs. the resources available to meet that goal that Dan says "On several occasions, they (TMS) asked us, "Do you thank that you can win with this engine?" Because they were off doing other programs. ‘We’ve only got 15 of these things left.’ And you never really know until you try. No one in the industry thought an iron block, four-cylinder with a turbocharger would be the engine of choice by any means. We blew up four dynamometers!" As stated before, the one of the GTO Toyota Celicas still occupies a place of honor at AAR, as a reminder of glorious days past.
The year 1989 was the end of the line for the AAR Celicas; that year Toyota moved to GTP class with an Eagle chassis designed by AAR people, but with an engine entirely developed by Toyota Racing Development (TRD). The GTP Toyota Eagle became legendary for its looks, speed, reliability and winning streaks: 17 consecutive victories during 1992 and 1993, and wins in the endurance classics at Daytona and Sebring. At the twilight of the very expensive GTP class, in 1992 and 1993 AAR took manufacturers and drivers championships so convincingly that in 1995 they still held track records on nine circuits.
Dan remains proud of the GTO Celica program, in spite of the greater accomplishment of AAR teamed with TRD. "We were going for it, and accomplished a lot. You think about it, that was a long time ago, ’83. The Supra was a brand-new car then — been through several generations, and now it’s gone. Celica’s still around, but Lexus wasn’t even being imagined. The USSR was going full blast! Those were interesting times."
In the interim, the economic downturn of the early ‘90’s spelled doom for IMSA’s highest class, the Grand Touring Prototypes, or GTP’s. After winning the ’93 championship, Toyota and AAR left the IMSA series completely to regroup and pursue the CART series. Since then, IMSA has had its ups and downs, but seems to be making a comeback. Dan would like for AAR to return to Professional Sports Car Racing (PSCR, IMSA’s new name) in one form or the other. "I’d like to do it, and I could see it happening," he states. Toyota is busy with racing programs in every series but Sports Car it seems. "For the time being, we’ll continue with the contingency programs we have with privateers in the street-stock series," says Dave Wilson of TRD. We’d really love to see a factory supported, AAR-prepared Toyota or Lexus sports car duking it out in sports car racing here in the U.S., apart from the fearsome Toyota GT-One prototype that runs only at Le Mans in June. In the meantime, somewhere in the AAR complex, a really angry-looking Celica sits quietly in a warehouse — a reminder of the days when AAR Toyotas laughed at the competition in IMSA. HEE-hee-hee-hee!