For the birth of the Gurney Flap, we owe a debt of gratitude to agitation and frustration. If only there had been cameras on hand to capture the manic emotions at play in Phoenix back in 1972 as development of All American Racer’s new Eagle 7200 Indy car was stuck in an unsatisfying rut around the rugged one-mile oval.
Bobby Unser, Indy car’s speed king, was also the long-established prince of testing Dan Gurney’s patience. As raw pace continued to elude AAR’s new open-wheel challenger ahead of the season opener in the desert, the first call in Uncle Bobby’s playbook was to badger the Big Eagle for a cure.
“We’d been there driving for three days in Phoenix, and we were not doing competitive times,” Gurney told Dave Despain in a 2014 interview. “Bobby comes up to me and says, ‘Boss, you’re supposed to be able come up with things all the time – can’t you come up with anything, for crying out loud?’”
Post-feisty exchange between two titans, Gurney thought back to sports cars he’d raced – Can-Am McLarens and Ford GT40s – that used vertical spoilers attached to the rear bodywork. Before wings entered motor racing, the bolt-on items, used to spoil the air’s path as it departed the car, were a crude but effective device to make downforce. In the age of wings, spoilers had been largely forgotten outside of NASCAR, where they still remain in place today.
“I wondered if that would work on a wing – a spoiler on the wing, not on the body,” Gurney added. Nearby, Unser’s bundle of nerves was waiting to be soothed by Dan’s curiosity.
“I said, ‘I’ve lost my speed,’ and so Gurney comes over to me,” three-time Indy 500 winner Unser says. “I can tell he’s upset, but I am too. It’s my test, but I can’t go as fast as I’d been going, and he says, ‘I’ve got something I’d like to try.’ I say, ‘Anything you want! How are we going to make it? When are we going to make it? What are we going to do?’ I’m getting a bit testy. He says, ‘Well, you just carry on with what you’re doing,’ and he took off.”
Still out lapping while Gurney drew up his L-shaped experiment in his mind, Unser worked himself into a lather under the low evening sun.
“My head’s going a million miles an hour,” Unser continues. “That friggin’ thing just won’t go fast, and it’s not the engine. It’s just not sticking good. I run it and I come back in. We’re all trying to think of things, and pretty soon Dan comes over and says, ‘When would be a good time to try my deal?’ I say, ‘Right now!’ and of course I’m getting testier.
“He’s straight over to the trailer and he’s got some vice grips and a hammer going over there. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing. Pretty soon he’s back with a long, bent piece of aluminum. Nothing else, just a 90-degree strip of aluminum, and I just look at it and I’m about to lose it.”
AAR chief mechanic Wayne Leary must have wondered if boxing gloves would be needed…
This story is excerpted from an article appearing in The Great Cars Issue of RACER Magazine, on sale now. To subscribe now at a special discount rate, click here, or to buy The Great Cars Issue online, click here.
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