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Though he never won the 500, the revolutionary swing from front-to rear-engined cars at Indy that began nearly two decades ago was accelerated by Gurney. He had perceived rear-engined cars to be the Indy racers of the future. In 1961, when Jack Brabham, who had twice been world champion in rear-engined Cooper cars, finished ninth at Indianapolis in a Cooper despite having far less horsepower than the American Offenhausers, Gurney was convinced. He brought the Ford Motor Company and Lotus designer Colin Chapman together to make reality out of his idea: a rear-engined Lotus-Ford V-8. In 1963 Chapman entered two of them at Indianapolis, with Jimmy Clark (who would win the world championship that year) and Gurney as drivers. But because Clark was Chapman's regular Lotus driver, Gurney became the No. 2 driver, his Lotus the No. 2 car and their needs the No. 2 priority. He ended up starting the race with a broken valve spring. Clark came in second; Gurney, who feels he had been naive about assuring himself more equitable treatment in the Lotus effort, finished seventh.
Gurney took consolation in the fact that the success of the Lotus-Ford endeavor meant about $180,000 to him. It remains his big killing in the sport, though it is a relatively modest one.
Gurney has had a series of business setbacks over the years, and' the cause has been the same each time: overestimating someone. More of his "great judgment," as he would say. More than simply "Gurney luck." Maybe even a result of being so unwaveringly "true to self and true to others."
"I've always had enough money to satisfy me, and that has probably lulled me into a false sense of security," he says. "There were years where I paid 70% taxes when I never should have; I thought I had the right tax advice at the time. I had an auto-supply business called Checkpoint America started, but my partners never really got it off the ground. I went into an oil deal, All America oil—it was a good product and could have been worth something—but my partner in that got shot by a disgruntled employee he had fired. That brought that thing to a halt. I got into the wheel business, Dan Gurney Industries, but it was too late with too little capital; and my general manager couldn't handle it anyhow. We're still trying to pay that whole thing off. I got involved in a bicycle-building business with a guy who was a friend of a guy who worked for me, but he wasn't up to it."
Gurney's thoughts turn to another ex-driver, Roger Penske, who has become a wealthy man. "If I were to pick the single thing I admire most about Roger, who's a bright guy anyway, it's that he's figured out how to pluck the right guys out of a pool of nice, aggressive, competent young men and then get the most out of them. I think that has been the reason for my failures."
Penske has gained fame through racing, but his fortune has come from related ventures; Penske racing is subsidized by other Penske enterprises. AAR has no such subsidy; their sponsorship from Theodore Yip is modest. The object of All American Racers is to build successful race cars and sell them. It is the only Indy team that operates this way. Gurney calls himself the "last of the Mohicans." Then he laughs and says, "Or maybe it's the last of the idealists." Gurney has been so much in love with racing and his love has been so pure, it may at times have been blind.
"Part of the problem is that in my idealism, or naivet�, whatever it is, I've tried to keep going in a business that isn't a business," he says. "You wonder why anyone would punish themselves that much. I don't know if our way is realistic or not. I think it's pretty remarkable that we've managed to keep going this long."
How much longer he will be able to keep going depends a lot on how the new Eagle-Chevy fares this Sunday. The Eagle is easily the most innovative car in the Indy field, but that may be a dubious distinction, for the price has been a lack of development time. Not only is the engine a test-bed, but the Eagle chassis is original, unlike that of the pole-winning Chaparral, which is a close copy of the 1978 Formula I Lotus. It has a wide front track and no side pods like other ground-effect cars. Surrounding the engine behind the rear wheels is a big box, which creates a down-force that keeps the car snugly on the track. It is an odd creature, but handsome; with its forward cant toward widely spaced front wheels and its rearward bulk and slim sides, it looks something like a sphinx.
The other ground-effect cars create a vacuum under the entire car. The big drawback, however, is that the car is sucked to the straights as well as the turns, which slows it down. The theory behind the Eagle's big box is that it will give the car traction in the turns, yet free it on the straights.
"I think we've got a good car," says Gurney. "The crew feels very bullish about it. If we get this Chevy to put out the power we expect and run the distance, we'll be in pretty good shape. I think one decent performance will change the complexion of things, and we'll even get the sponsor we need. Right now we're in an awkward selling climate." He sighs. "It's hard for us to generate much faith in us at the moment." He laughs.