SI Vault
Bob Ottum
April 11, 1966
Angered by taunts over America's lack of a Grand Prix car, Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby are building star-spangled racers to compete in the coming world championship classics
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 11, 1966

World Challenge From An Eagle's Nest

Angered by taunts over America's lack of a Grand Prix car, Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby are building star-spangled racers to compete in the coming world championship classics

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

To finance the Eagle, Gurney and Shelby began with some of their own savings. Goodyear Tire and Mobil are down for quite a bundle, and there are other sponsors. They are all betting on the Eagle out of patriotism and the possibility of having that noble motive pay off in publicity in the future.

Gurney and Shelby have not let their patriotic urges blind them to the fact that it takes specialists to build Grand Prix cars, and the most controversial clement in the Eagle project is that the specialists have not come wrapped in the Stars and Stripes but in the Union Jack of England. One is Len Terry, formerly the chief designer for Colin Chapman and Team Lotus—in other words, a man heavily responsible for the deadly green cars in which Jimmy Clark won both the world championship and the Indianapolis 500. Terry raced cars himself—he crashed badly enough to convince himself that he had the idea, all right—and turned to designing. He dreamed up a wild little car he called the Terrier, which ran 21 events in its first year out and won 18 of them—beating mostly Lotuses, a fact that made Chapman uneasy enough to hire Terry. Chapman and Terry's partnership ended last May 31 in Indianapolis exactly at sundown, not long after Clark had won the 500 with ridiculous ease. "Just the proper time," says Terry, "to end a long, successful association."

In Terry the Americans had a first-rate chassis man. To get an engine man Gurney went to the pastoral countryside near Rye, England, where a gentleman named Harry Weslake operates a small, little-publicized plant dealing in speed and also in industrial-engine development. Wcslake has the reputation of being a mystic who can lay his hands on—and heal—an engine. He has been healing, wheeling and dealing them since the 1920s. During World War II, when Great Britain was in danger of being overrun by German planes, England's Royal Air Force began to wonder out loud why the Spitfires weren't fast enough. "Send me one," said consultant Weslake. "Not the whole beastly plane, just the engine. And you might send along one of the German engines as well." Weslake spotted in the captured German engine a principle he already had used in motorcycle engines, and figured out from that how to beat the enemy. He redesigned the combustion chamber of the Spitfire Merlin engines and gave the RAF pilots the speed they needed to gain the upper hand. More recently, it was consultant Wcslake again who found an extra 75 horsepower in the new Chrysler hemi-head engine when it was in the development stage. Chrysler adopted his idea, then took the engine to the Daytona International Speedway and blew everybody off the track with it.

With Wcslake signed to produce a dream engine along lines firmly laid down by Gurney himself and with Terry working on the chassis, things picked up at Santa Ana. The Eagle began to come together, stretched out on a series of tables and dies like a monster robot waiting for someone to pour the lightning bolts to it. Gurney and Terry built a box—an awful lot like a Soap Box Derby model—and created a cockpit around Gurney, measuring it to exact scale.

When it was all put together, with Gurney fitted into the real cockpit, the Eagle took on a cleanly vicious line. The Eagle's engine develops 400-plus horsepower, which should be respectable enough.

(While tuning up for the big moment at Monaco, Gurney and Shelby have not been neglecting racing's big moment in America, the 500. All American Racers are building no fewer than six cars for Indy and, superficially, these will be almost identical to the Grand Prix Eagles. The chief difference between the Indy cars and the Grand Prix models is in the engines. For lndy the engines are Fords of the kind Clark used in winning last year. Gurney was so impressive in a first tryout of the Indy Eagle on the road course at Riverside, Calif. the other day that Riverside wants to schedule a race for Indy cars and drivers next fall. Although he used only one running gear, Indy style, Gurney made outstanding lap times.)

This is the year Grand Prix engines double in size—from 1.5 to three liters—and Enzo Ferrari already has a working, proved three-liter engine for the new formula. Ferrari engines are known to be so durable that one almost has to beat them to death with a hammer to turn them off.

In Japan mechanics are swarming all over both 12- and 24-cylinder versions of a Honda—but it will not be ready to race until fall. Britain's BRM will roll out with a new 16-cylinder power plant. Not a V-16, but an H-16, a two-crankshaft creature made up of two flat 8s, one fastened atop the other. BRM is building an H-16 for its own team and another for Team Lotus, which was caught engineless in the changeover. Lotus cars will run on BRM engines the first year under the new formula, a situation that makes Chapman grit his teeth handsomely while he is waiting for Ford of England and the Cosworth speed-specialty people to finish a new Lotus engine. John Cooper, the man who made rear engines de rigueur, has reached down to Italy for a three-liter Maserati with which to power his new Coopers. Jack Brabham will have his own chassis again—and an engine based on the American Oldsmobile V-8.

As of now, the odds favor Ferrari, who knows a good thing when he hears it running. Although, maintains Shelby, he "doesn't know sic 'em about chassis." Chapman is the one for chassis perfection. "His theory is to start out making everything too light," says Shelby; "then he runs the hell out of the cars and, as things break, he toughens them up. This is pretty tricky stuff."

But AAR is prepared to be as tricky as need be. When the American Eagle project is finished and the car sits at Santa Ana with its made-in-America look, Gurney (in his leathers), Shelby and crew could pose for a Norman Rock-well painting. And rightly so. The car and engine are Shelby-Gurney designs, no matter who put some of the parts together. This blending of talents, Gurney feels, is quintessentially American. "This land is a melting pot of people who came over here to the American way." says Gurney. "Our car has that same melting-pot touch; we feel it is a true representation of all of us at AAR."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5