Challenge to a Duel

Hide Text

Gurney prepares for match-up of Indy vs. Formula 1 cars, By Jack Berry - Detroit News, January 1973.

Santa Ana, Calif. – Tire tracks still were faintly visible on the floor of All American Racers, Inc., in this freeway suburb of Los Angeles. It looked like the first turn at Indianapolis. "We used to have motorcycle and go-kart races in here at night," Dan Gurney said, grinning. Then he added "Now there's no time for that and it makes me sad." Gurney likes to have fun when he goes racing but he's been caught up in that old vicious circle – to go racing you need money and to get money, you've got to be successful and when you're successful, you're busy.

The blond Californian, one time Grand Prix and championship car driver, has become so successful a builder of championship cars – the Indy cars – that there's neither time nor space for intramural races at All American Racers anymore. The plant is filled with parts for the 22 Indy cars he's building for the 1973 season – at $36,000 each, up to $40,000 with options – including the flagship car of the fleet, the Olsonite Eagle he's building and will campaign for Detroiter Ozzie Olson with Bobby Unser the driver. It appears the 33-car Indy field will be a real gathering of Eagles – Gurney's Eagles.


And Gurney thinks so much of his creations that he has issued a challenge to the Grand Prix cars of Europe, a $100,000 challenge, the Olsonite Eagle against the world. "There's a little of the Cassius Clay in it," Gurney said, grinning a little sheepishly. Gurney threw out the challenge last month while he was in England. For the English press Gurney called the Formula One cars "pipsqueaks" and said "our 900-horsepower Eagle-Offy won't have to breathe hard to blow off one of those overgrown lawnmower engines." He's right. He did sound like Muhammad Ali, also known as Cassius Clay. Gurney wasn't sure how the challenge would be taken but now it's snowballing.

The Challenge Is Accepted

Brabham has accepted the challenge and Jacky Ickx is trying to get Ferrari to lend him the car he drives for it to run against the Eagle. "I got a letter from my old boss at Porsche and they're interested," Gurney said. "I've got a letter from Sports Illustrated and they've got a client who is interested in putting up $50,000 and I've talked to ABC-TV and they're interested for Wide World of Sports." The idea of an Indy car - Formula One matchup has long appealed to racing buffs and Gurney thinks this one would appeal to a far greater audience. "Fans all over the world would eat it up," he said. Europeans have always regarded high-powered Indy cars with a theatrical air of superiority because all they do is make left-hand turns around a track up to 2 ½ miles long. Grand Prix cars have to race through villages and towns, up hills and down hills and practically slalom in places. "I've got great respect for European racing but I'm not overawed by it" Gurney said "and this is an idea that has appealed to me for a long time. I'm proud of our USAC (United States Auto Club) racing and there's one way to find out which is better."

Gurney is so convinced that the Eagle will fly that the challenge is right on the Formula One's grounds – the Nurburgring in Germany, home of the German Grand Prix. One lap is 14 miles compared to 2 ½ miles at Indianapolis. The race would be against the clock and anyone who would put up $100,000 would be eligible, and the more Gurney talks about it, the more it appeals to him. "I'd like to drive it myself," he said but then added realistically "it isn't the same when you've been away from it for a while. Your reactions aren't the same." Gurney's last Indy race was 1970 and he's not going to get back in the saddle. Nor would Unser for this special race. Gurney would like Mario Andretti to drive even though Andretti, when he heard the idea, said he thought the Formula One cars would win. "Mario is the most qualified driver because he's been on the Ring and he's raced Formula One," Gurney said. "Bobby is a great driver, of course, but he hasn't driven over there and it takes time to learn the course. The only thing is that Mario is a Firestone driver and we're Goodyear and I don't know if he could get a release from them. My next pick would be Mark Donohue but the big problem is that he hasn't raced there. Peter Revson is a candidate – he's raced at the Ring and at Indy."

U.S. Circuit is Next Target

Gurney hasn't figured out all the details yet, whether it would be a single run with winner take all or whether the cars would run over four days with the fastest lap counting. To really build the suspense, it almost would have to be based on a single run. He does have the date, though, during the German Grand Prix in August which comes during a break in the USAC schedule. But between now and then there's the American circuit and getting the Eagles ready and the Olsonite Eagle, in particular, both ready and reliable. It was the fastest car on wheels last year but it broke down in the three big 500-milers, Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario. "We won four races, more than anyone else, but we didn't win the big ones and that's what counts. Our failures were so noticeable because we had so much potential – Bobby looked like he was on a Sunday tour when he broke down at Indianapolis. Most of our breakdowns were related to engine failures and I guess that's because we were asking a little more of our engines than anyone else but on the other hand, we got more out of those engines than anyone else did."

Gurney said the new Eagles are "slightly lower, if that's possible, a little wider, the cockpit's a little narrower and we made some very, very minor suspension changes. I just hope we haven't slowed it down," he said, grinning again. Gurney, Unser and Olson will find out next month when the 1973 Eagle flies, hopefully very swiftly, for the first time in tests at Ontario, Calif. A lot of people will be watching, not only here but also at Ferrari, BRM and Porsche.

And Then What Happened?

The Formula 1 people discussed it at length, but after a substantial amount of analysis, world wide publicity and great interest from fans everywhere, they chickened out! They had more to lose than they had to gain. End of story. What a shame, this duel would have gone down in history as grand and classic confrontation.

The Gurney Eagles which were built at that moment in Santa Ana were to become one of the most successful racing cars of the Seventies, winning the Indy 500 in 1973 and 1975 plus the USAC National Championship in 1974.