The All-American Eagle back on the racetrack
February 24, 2005 One of the most famous Formula One cars of all time will be on show this coming weekend at the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit near Melbourne. Dan Gurney's 'screaming' Weslake V12-engined Eagle F1 will be in full flight at the Shannons Phillip Island Classic (February 26-27). Built by Gurney's own All American Racers, the Eagle F1 took Gurney into the history books when he won the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix, becoming only the second GP driver in history after Jack Brabham to win a Formula One race driving the car he built.
This car, which was raced by both Gurney and team-mate Bruce McLaren in 1967, is one of 17 very special racing and sports cars flown from Europe, Britain and America to join a record 430-plus local entries in 33 races at Phillip Island over the weekend.
The story of the All-American racer is an interesting one, and nearly as fascinating as Gurney's long and chequered career as a consistent and landmark innovator at the highest level of motorsport for six decades.
As a racing car driver his record makes him one of the greatest drivers of all time. As a constructor he built a company to build an all-American Formula one car which he drove to victory himself. He's won at pretty much everything he's ever attempted, including the first no-holds-barred Cannonball Run which spawned the movie.
He's even the guy who started the Champagne-spraying tradition - that's Dan on the victory podium at LeMans starting a fine and universal tradition.
Gurney got a late start in motor racing due to action in the Korean War and didn't seriously take to the sport until he was 24 years of age in 1955. A recommendation from Phil Hill to Ferrari saw Gurney rocket to prominence, entering Formula One just four years after his first race. He had driven just 23 races of any form before he made his Formula One debut in 1959 for the famous Maranello marque.
As a driver he has entered every major motorsport hall of fame relevant to his era - he is one of only two drivers in history to have won races in Formula One (4), Indy Car (7), NASCAR (5) and Sports Car Racing, highlighted by his win in the GT40 at the Le Mans 24 hour where his spontaneous gesture of spraying the champagne on the victory dias began a global motorsport tradition - yes, folks, Dan Gurney is credited with creating MotorSport's money shot, the enduring public image of four wheel success.
Gurney has another element to him which endeared him to the public - a cavalier charisma highlighted by his win in the original, no-holds-barred Cannonball Run - the 1971 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was the public roads race that inspired the films, created an international outcry and will be forever enshrined as hotrod culture legend.
The initial record set by Gurney and motorsport journalist Brock Yates for the 2,900 miles on public roads was 35 hours, 54 minutes - an average of 80 miles per hour including petrol and food stops, and it was only broken in the fourth and final Cannonball Run in 1979. Legend has it that Gurney was booked by Nevada police for travelling at 135mph in a modified Daytona Ferrari during the race, though Dan recalls it as being a slightly lower speed these days.
As a driver on the racetrack, he was regularly paired with other superstars in long distance races and shared a race-harness with Jean Behra, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Chris Amon, Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren, Richie Ginther, AJ Foyt, Dale Earnhardt and John Surtees.
In a golden era of motor racing he raced against and regularly beat a who's who of the all-time greats such as Jackie Stewart and Stirling Moss.
By the time he retired at 39 years of age in 1970, Gurney had competed in 303 events in 20 countries gracing the podium 99 times, with 95 front rows starts some in other distinct forms of motorsport as far flung as Trans-Am and Can-Am.
Gurney drove for 25 different makes of cars including Ferrari and McLaren, and gave Porsche and Brabham their first F1 wins but it was his feat in the 12 cylinder Eagle at Spa Francorchamps in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix which makes him so much more relevant to motorsport history.
The car he drove the victory was designed and built by his own company which he had formed with Carroll Shelby - he remains the only American to have achieved the feat and if he wasn't already a household name in sports car mad America of the sixties, he became the all American hero of the day and the public rejoiced in his achievements .
The cars which he built are regarded as some of the most beautiful in Formula One history. The car in action this coming weekend is one of only four F1 cars to race for the marque (plus another assembled from bits) are among the most treasured ex-F1 cars on the planet.
An early proponent of aerodynamics, his name is still an everyday word in American racing thanks to his invention of the Gurney Flap, a modification made to racing car aerofoil wings to increase downforce.
Gurney was an early adopter amongst the most bleeding edge first users of technology in the world. Among a marathon list of innovations he was associated with, he is also remembered as the first F1 driver to wear a full face helmet.
Astoundingly, Gurney's All American Racer Eagle race cars endured until recently, winning countless American championships and pushing the forefront of race design all the way to 2000 when Gurney decided to "escape from motor racing" and took on new adventures.
In 2000, Gurney retired from race car building and diverted his attentions to a project he'd been wanting to finish for two decades. In 1980, Gurney had conceived and built a prototype of a radical new motorcycle design and over the years had built a series of development prototypes, each built on the experience of the last.
The design involves a rethink of the traditional motorcycle layout and has the rider feet first and much lower than a traditional motorcycle layout. One of Dan's assets in building the Alligator was the existence of his own elite level race constructor factory and staff, so it's not surprising that the Alligator is fabricated with some rare composites and is a featherweight by motorcycle standards.
Let's put this in perspective. Gizmo recently tested the Buell, which we felt was one of the lightest roadgoing motorcycles ever built.
The Alligator weighs 30kg less than a Buell, coming in at MotoGP weight minimum levels. The Alligator also has a very small frontal area and a very efficient aerodynamic shape, so it has optimised all those aspects to achieve excellent performance. Watch for an upcoming interview with Dan, and if you're within driving distance of Phillip Island this coming weekend, be sure to make the journey.
For more details on the meeting, visit the Victorian Historic Racing Register site.