The legendary Dan Gurney – racer, team owner, and constructor – was a pillar during Indy’s wildest era. Turbocharging, advanced aerodynamics, and modern chassis construction methods sent speeds soaring in the 1960s and Gurney’s All American Racers outfit was pushing the boundaries from the moment they entered the first Eagle in 1966.
The brave men who wore those four-wheeled rockets broke barriers and crossed thresholds that seemed impossible at the time, and with three Indy 500 wins between 1968-’75, AAR and its Eagles became synonymous with success at Indianapolis.
Looking back at the proud Southern California-based group and all of their achievements at the Speedway, it’s remarkable to think 2015 marks the 30th anniversary since the last of Gurney’s Eagles raced at Indianapolis.
“You know, I kind of liked the looks of it,” Gurney said of the Cosworth DFX-powered Eagle 85GC. “It was generally pretty clean and down to weight and it did everything reasonably well.”
AAR went to Indy with a pair of Eagles for 1983 Indy 500 winner Tom Sneva (LEFT) and rookie Ed Pimm, who won the SCCA Super Vee championship the same year, and as Gurney recalls, the mercurial “Gas Man” caused quite a stir in and out of the car.
“One of the most interesting things of the time spent there was Tom Sneva, who was an extraordinary driving talent among the favorites at Indy,” said the beloved 84-year-old. “But he could be an extraordinarily different fellow to work with, even though he was prolific in terms of ideas and in terms of his ability to explore things with the racecar.
“Tom did things in a ways that I think it was… it could be very challenging for a team. His modus operandi was to go to other teams and talk to them all the time. It was a very unusual way of doing things. He would bring back ideas on what we might try, but their cars were different than ours. We had Eagles and they did not.”
Even though Sneva’s insights on the best ways to make a March or Lola chassis perform had no bearing on his Eagle, Gurney was impressed by the rapid rate his lead driver helped AAR tune the 85GC.
“There is no doubt that he had enormous talent for doing the explorations that he was involved in,” Gurney noted. “He could run it right up to the limit on each thing he was trying. We packed about two months of testing into a few days. That was the thing that I recall as being extraordinary.”
In typical Gurney fashion, a few far-reaching options were also tried prior to time trials.
“Tom wasn’t afraid to give it a try, and we reached a point where he actually drove without a rear wing of any kind on the car…” the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix winner said with a laugh. “He managed to do it without spinning or anything. It went darn fast, well over 200. But it wasn’t quite as good as when it had a little bit of wing on there and a little bit of angle on it. That was the process we went though.
“We probably changed springs, I don’t know, 10, 15 times in between normal delays at the Speedway. All of the anti-roll bars and the wings and the ride height and the toes and other things were constantly changed and tested. He explored the whole supply of different things we made for the car, and even tried running without some of them…”
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Sneva’s testing skills paid off in qualifying where he placed the No. 2 Eagle 13th on the grid with a four-lap average of 208.927mph. After failing to make the race in 1984, Pimm (ABOVE) had an accomplished teammate and veteran owner ensure the No. 98 made the field of 33, and the average speed of 205.723 he produced was good enough for 22nd on the grid.
With two Eagles against 31 Marchs and Lolas, the odds were stacked against the AAR cars, but the heavy testing workload prior to race day gave Gurney’s clan an advantage. By lap 100 – the halfway point, Sneva was part of the lead pack, holding station inside the top 5. Sneva’s impressive drive lasted 123 laps before a crash in Turn 1 ended his day.
A tangle between Rich Vogler and Howdy Holmes sent Vogler into the wall, and with an accident to avoid, Sneva’s Eagle swapped ends and clouted the barrier. The Gas Man’s chance at winning his second Indy 500 was gone, and with it, Gurney’s last chance at a fourth Eagle victory was also lost.
“It was going to be competitive, for sure, towards the front,” Gurney recalled. “Of course, he was running second when he crashed. Whether Tom knew what he had or not, our cars were very capable.”
Pimm (RIGHT) held on to salvage a solid ninth on his Indy debut. His performance was second-best among the six rookies in the field, and only Arie Luyendyk recorded a better finish in seventh.
“With Ed Pimm, you have to know more about the reality of what he was up against,” Gurney remarked. “Ed was intent upon building a good enough reputation so that he could advance up through the ranks and become a top driver, and I believe he accomplished what he set out to achieve in the race.”
AAR was busy in 1985 with its CART IndyCar program and a burgeoning sports car relationship with Toyota. Gurney’s team would go on represent the Japanese brand in dual CART and IMSA efforts, with the former running through the 1999 season. And since then, Dan’s Alligator motorcycles, the DeltaWing, and Nissan’s brand-new WEC LMP1 challenger have been brought to life in Santa Ana.
In a time when the only Indy car chassis used today is made in Italy, Gurney paid tribute to the West Coast racing DNA that went into his Eagles.
“California had a tradition of supplying a lot of cars and talent, drivers and mechanics and designers and fabricators and everything,” he enthused. “We’re awfully proud about having a chance to compete coming from Southern California. The area that was a big part of the aviation and the space industries, in that order, and contributed a lot to what we did because we certainly felt like we could do all kinds of things. And we still do.”