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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ John Zimmermann tells the tale of Dan Gurney's magnificent line of Eagle racing cars

by Gordon Kirby
Any regular reader of this column knows how much I admire Dan Gurney and his company, All American Racers. Last winter, I wrote a column (#38, posted 12/18/06) explaining why I rate Dan as America's greatest racing man because of his tremendous accomplishments as a driver, team owner, car builder and innovator. Gurney won races in Formula 1 cars, Indy cars, long-distance sports cars, CanAm cars, even NASCAR stock cars and TransAm cars, and stands with Mario Andretti as one of the world's most diversely successful race car drivers. And what makes Dan America's greatest all-round racing man is that he was probably even more successful as a team owner and car builder, a feat unequalled by any other great driver.

All American Racers was founded in 1965 and the early F1 and Indy Eagles are widely celebrated as some of the most beautiful racing cars of all-time. Forty years ago this past spring of course, Dan scored his epic victory with his Eagle-Weslake V-12 in the Belgian GP at the original, majestic Spa circuit just seven days after winning the Le Mans 24 hours with A.J. Foyt in a Ford mk IV.

Over the following thirty-two years Eagle race cars continued to cut a grand swathe across the sport. Eagles won 112 major races, including a total of forty-nine USAC/CART Indy car races (three Indy 500 wins among them) and twenty-six IMSA GTP races (including a record seventeen in a row!), and the machines produced by All American Racers always impressed with their beauty, craftsmanship and innovative qualities.

All this, and much more, has been captured by my longtime colleague John Zimmermann in his superb new book titled, 'Dan Gurney's Eagle Racing Cars'. Published by David Bull the two-hundred-page book provides an up-close tour and detailed explication of the concept and development of every Eagle, including a few experimental or stillborn cars. Zimmermann recounts the specific stories of thirty-two different types of Eagles built between 1966-'99. Most of these were Indy cars but the story starts with the iconic F1 car from 1966, '67 and '68 and also includes Formula A/5000 cars, CanAm, TransAm, Formula Ford, GTP, GTO and GTU cars--racewinners all, I might add.

© AAR Archives
Zimmermann spent many days interviewing Gurney about each car and has also talked to the designers of all the cars, guys like Len Terry, Tony Southgate, Roman Slobodynskyj, Trevor Harris and John Ward. Zimmermann knows his subject well and has fleshed-out many interesting details about each and every Eagle. And of course, in typical Bull Publishing fashion the book has been beautifully designed by Tom Morgan with many fine photographs of the cars in action and under construction. A spec sheet of each car is also included, as well as a statistical rundown of every Eagle race win and pole position scored in major races.

Many of the challenges of conceiving and building race-winning cars are revealed in the book, as well as the key roles played by master fabricators like Phil Remington and Jerry Whitfill in establishing the Eagle traditions of excellence, beauty and unequalled craftsmanship. Octogenarian Remington has been the very heart and soul of AAR since the company's earliest days and remains at work to this day maintaining the highest standards humanly possible in both quality of product and a relentless work ethic.

In today's world, of course, there are no longer any race car shops in the United States quite like AAR. There may be many great race teams and car builders across the USA turning-out superbly-built, well-developed stock cars of all types and kinds, as well as sprint cars, modifieds and even GrandAm and Champ cars, but nowhere anymore is there an American race car builder carrying on the tradition of excellence and innovation at the top levels of the sport achieved by AAR's long line of Eagles.

Indeed, Gurney and his men were driven by creativity and innovation. Today's spec car world is antithetical to their way of thinking and racing. In fact, it is no longer possible to imagine an American driver--or a driver of any nationality--deciding to design and build his own F1 and Indy cars and engines at the same time, and be successful with his ground-breaking machines in both forms of racing! Dan achieved many things that no other American is likely to come remotely close to accomplishing.

It's a great and grand story that Zimmermann has the pleasure of telling therefore, and it dramatically drives home the conversation that so many of us are having these days about the state of the sport. Gurney pursued the American dream in motor racing like no other man, but the structure of today's racing world doesn't provide the setting or forum for someone with his rare skills and motivation to thrive or succeed.

Consider too, that Dan made his rookie start at Indianapolis in 1962 in the only rear-engined car in the field, a Buick-powered aluminum monocoque chassis car. At the time, he was racing F1 and sports cars for Porsche, scoring the German manufacturer's only Grand Prix victory in France in the summer of 1962. Dan bought Lotus boss Colin Chapman a round trip flight to the '62 Indy 500 and a few months later Gurney and Chapman sold the Ford Motor Company on the idea and financing for the ground-breaking Lotus-Ford Indy car project. Dan was Jim Clark's Lotus teammate at Indy in 1963 and '64 and ran his own AAR Lotus in '65 before embarking on the Eagle adventure the following year.

© AAR Archives
Dan led but never won at Indianapolis. He finished second in the 500 in 1968 (to Bobby Unser in Bob Wilke's Eagle) and '69 (to Mario Andretti) aboard his own AAR Eagles powered by stock-block-based, naturally-aspirated Gurney/Weslake Ford V-8s against the dominant and more powerful turbo Fords and Offies. He joined the turbo crowd in 1970 for his final start in the 500 and finished third. Could he have won the 500 had he been more conventional in his approach to the sport? Maybe, but that wasn't Dan's way.

Through the early seventies of course, Eagles dominated Indy car racing, supplying most of the field for a few years. The Duesenberg brothers and Harry Miller, great designers and car builders from the post-WWI era through the nineteen-thirties, may be the only car builders in the history of American racing to rival AAR's output and spark of genius. Penske had his moments in the Mark Donohue days and later with his own, UK-built Indy cars, but nobody else has come close to achieving what Gurney and AAR created and accomplished. The only other man to demonstrate the same spirit was Jim Hall with his spectacularly innovative Chaparral CanAm cars from the sixties and 2K Indy car of 1979-'81.

And, of course, there were many other very special pebbles in the sand cast down by Gurney and AAR. In 1968, Dan became the first top driver to race with a full-faced Bell helmet. Ten years earlier, while making his name in California aboard Frank Arciero's Ferrari sports car, Dan had experimented with a speedway motorcycle-like rubber face mask. Then there were the first 200 mph laps turned on a closed-course in 1972 by Jerry Grant and Bobby Unser aboard Eagle-turbo Offy Indy cars, not to mention the Gurney flap now known across the racing industry simply as a gurney. What other driver or car builder has left his imprint so quietly yet firmly on the racing business?

Regular readers will know I've posted two columns a week on Mondays and Thursdays over the past spring and summer. But now that the racing season is winding down, I'm going to throttle back a little and post just a weekly column each Monday. I'm in the middle of the photo edit and caption-writing process for my Rick Mears book which I reported on in this space a week and a half ago ('The Way It Is' no. 90) and there are a couple of other projects I'm trying to pull together which I'll keep you up to speed on as they take shape.

So please continue to check into this space once a week and be sure to buy yourself and your most enthusiastic racing buddies a copy of 'Dan Gurney's Eagle Racing Cars'. You will be delighted and informed.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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