The Stuff of Dreams

DRIVING DAN GURNEY'S EAGLE AT BRANDS HATCH, 1967


Imagine driving a Formula One. The circuit is Brands Hatch, near the south coast of England. It's March 1967, and the machine is Dan Gurney's F1 Eagle, painted a glorious iridescent dark blue, accented with white center stripe, number five emblazoned on its nose and flanks. There are no decals, no wings, no airbox over the injector stacks, just a series of pleasing, unbroken lines. The contour of the front radiator inlet is suggestive of an eagle's beak. The suspension is a glittering array of cadmium-steel tubing, joined to wide, flat-treaded tires.


You slide down into the reclined seat. The cockpit seems to swallow you up. Not much room inside; hips and thighs hemmed in. That's aluminum you feel against your spine, beneath a thin layer of black leather. The windscreen sweeps around you and at the sides pinches your shoulders in. You get your bearing. Gas and brake pedals on the right, clutch pedal on the left–like a passenger car. The steering wheel is small, leather-bound, and padded. The gear-shift nudges your right thigh, with five forward gears. So far so good. Gauges: big black-faced tachometer staring back at you, smaller dials for oil, fuel and water pressure, plus oil and water temperature. You reach for the safety harness–there is none. You turn around and see the protective rollbar is less than stout. Note to self: don't go on your head.


Team Manager Bill Dunne leans in to remind you that the Gurney-Weslake V-12 engine behind you delivers a socko 400 horsepower, to a chassis so light a gust of wind could launch you into the hedges, if caught unawares. He points to the telltale needle on the tachometer and shakes his head, reminding you that if you exceed 8,000 RPM, he will know about it, and not be happy. You nod. Got it, Bill.


Dan Gurney, America's favorite-son Grand Prix driver, eyes you coolly from the pit counter, arms folded. Gone is Gurney's trademark boyish grin. What must be going through his mind, seeing you behind the wheel of his race car, his toy, his baby? He's got to be wondering why he ever agreed to this.


Only the day before, on this very circuit, in the Race of Champions, Gurney's All American Racers Eagle smoked a field of Ferraris, Coopers, Lotuses, Jack's world champion Brabham-Repco, John Surtees' powerful Honda, the works. Not once, but in three heats. It was the first F1 victory for an American race car since Jimmy Murphy's white Duesenberg turned the trick at the 1921 French Grand Prix.


Maybe this is all a dream, sitting in Gurney's Eagle, about to do a couple of laps at Brands. You pinch yourself. Ouch! No. You're awake. This is real.


You're ready. Pull down your goggles. Flick on switches for the slave battery, fuel pump, and ignition. Somewhere, an electric fuel pump begins ticking. Press the starter button and you get severely jolted as the Gurney-Weslake V-12 lurches and screams to life. Dunne moves his hand up and down, reminding you to be revving the engine, stupid, or the plugs will foul.


You depress the clutch and discover it's surprisingly unstiff–the way Big Dan likes it. Engage first gear, ease out the clutch, and–holy jeez!–the rear tires spin, and you're off, with no time to see the frowns on Bill's and Dan's faces.


Steer onto pit straight, wind beginning to buffet your helmet. By the time you shift into third gear, you're hitting 100 mph. It seems slow. The cold tires rumble, rocking the chassis this way and that, the steering feels heavy, and the engine sputters. You drop down a gear, steer around Paddock Hill Bend, increase throttle, and ease downhill to the Druids right-hander. The engine begs for release. Forget it. Brake early, feel the tires grip rounding Druids, accelerate coming out. Left around Bottom Bend and onto Bottom Straight, which isn't really straight, but sort of curls left, taking you back behind the pits.


Still loafing at 100 mph, feeling the cold stares of Dan and Bill, watching you from the backside of the pits. Feed in throttle for the uphill lunge to the looping South Bank left-hander, rounding the curve as you come up and over the top. A long downhill straight opens, beckoning you on. The engine shakes and sputters from the backload of unspent fuel building up in the cylinder chambers. Gas it. Your head snaps back. Engine pitch jumps to a hair-raising scream.


Yeah. This is it. Messrs. Gurney and Dunne can no longer see you, but they sure as hell can hear you.


The windscreen deflects the onrush of wind over your head, calming the air inside the cockpit. The ride smooths out, as if you're riding a cushion of air, which, in fact you are, as air pressure builds beneath the belly pan. The 1960s, remember? No wings or ground effects to glue the chassis and tires to the road. It was Colin Chapman who put suspension gauges on a chassis very much like this one–the Lotus 38–and to his dismay discovered that the Lotus chassis was closest to the ground while standing still. At speed, it lifted, even rounding the banked turns at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That led to wings, and ultimately to ground effects.


The gear selector has a nice sliding action, and you can feel it ratchet into place, as you upshift to fourth gear, speed at what must be 130 mph. Yes, this feels fast. Down over the dip at Pilgrim's Drop, getting jarred as the stiff springs compress and rebound. Uphill into the Hawthorne Bend right-hander.


Too fast! Jam on those brakes. The nose dips. The tires tremble and smoke. It's ugly, but in an instant, you're at a snail's pace–and far short of the corner. The engine jerks and stumbles, about to die. Nuts. Drop down a gear and accelerate around the curve, feeling like an imbecile. All those expensive racing lesson haven't prepared you for this at all.


Bare trees rush past on either side of the road. Somewhere overhead the sun is trying to shine through the heavy cloud layer. Round the Westfield right-hander, to begin the return leg back to the start-finish line. The road plunges downhill to the second dip–scrunch!–then uphill to the Dingle Dell right-handers–that's a silly name for a curve–left around Stirling's Bend, and on to Clearways, accelerating. Brake and feel the road fall away, as you turn into the fast right-hander. The pits and main grandstand scroll into view. Gurney and Dunne appear relieved to see you.


Relax, guys. I got this. I won't put a scratch on your race car.


Their eyes follow you as you zoom past at a brisk 120 mph, not outrageously fast, but fast enough to make them sweat.


You're getting a feel for this, confidence growing. Hey, this sucker isn't that tough to drive.


Paddock Bend, enter faster than expected, get wide, feel the outside tires do a tap dance on the rough. Nuts. Down around Druids and Bottom Bend, and back behind the pits. There's Dan and Bill again, frowning as you pass by.


Leaning harder on the loud pedal, the machine feels more alert, expectant, as if it had been dozing, and now senses that you're getting serious.


Uphill to South Bank, feeling the road flatten out, as you turn in. The radius tightens, the front tires breaking loose; you feel it in your hands as you turn the wheel even more to keep the nose pointed into the curve. Back out of the throttle. The front tires settle and grip. The turn opens and you gas it for the fast run down to Pilgrim's Drop. Upshift to fourth, then fifth. Watch the tach climb to 8000 RPM. Allow yourself a slight grin. That's 150 mph, sweet as can be. This time over the Dip, the suspension jolts you good, slamming you spinal cord. Ugh. Uphill to Hawthorne, very quickly. This time, ease on the brakes. Downshift. Turn in.


Sideways


Panic!


Crank the wheel the other way, hold on, and pray. Trees rush at you. You're going to wrap the Eagle around one and die horribly, or spin out and be embarrassed. Can't decide which is worse. The slide was only momentary. You straighten the Eagle and exit, aged another ten years.


But no wiser.


Entering Westfield, you push it, hit the apex with power on, feel the Eagle slide, not a big slide, but a controlled, neutral slide, within your limits. There's a lesson, here. Get your braking right, stay on line, ease on the throttle, and everything flows from there.


Downhill again, the Eagle wants to run. Crunch of spine over the second dip, right at Dingle Dell, left at Stirling's, smoother, faster. Gurney would be proud if he could see you now. He would take his Eagle back in a heartbeat, but being a racer, he would be proud. God love him and all racers everywhere.


Hey, it's hot in here, you realize suddenly. Outside, it's a typically cool, overcast March day in England, but inside, with all that aluminum embracing you, convecting radiator heat, the cockpit feels like an oven. You can only imagine what it must be like at, say, Reims, on a broiling July afternoon.


Zeroing in on Clearways. Throttle slides drawn back, reveling in the soul-stirring howl that is the trumpet call of all 12-cylinder racing engines. Up and over the brow and into the curve, drifting wide as the road falls away, understeering like crazy, but you're on top of it, feeding in throttle, getting the chassis to lean into a slight oversteer, on line to an inch. Exit clean and fast. Wonderful!


Jaws agape, Gurney and Dunne watch you drift their machine out of Clearways, and go to wave you off, but are too late. You've already flown past, leaving them with the scream of exhaust reverberating in their ears.


That's Paddock Bend up ahead, coming on fast. Don't panic. Ease on the brakes. Downshift. Carry some speed into the curve.


Fast in, faster out. That's what the pros say.


A touch of throttle as you coax the Eagle in, feeling the downturn in the road, the front tires snowplowing, pulling you outside toward the verge. You expect this, are patient, and feed in more throttle, and whip through avoiding the outside bumps.


Man, that was nice. You could really feel the g-force working on you that time. Old Dan couldn't do it any better, or faster.


Could he? Naw.


RPM up, going like the hammers down to Druids. Hit it fast and smooth, clip the apex, and swing around with a touch of oversteer. Down around Bottom Bend, gas it for the fast run back behind the pits. Really cooking. Lots of bumps along here, giving the side-mirrors a righteous shaking. Funny, you didn't notice those bumps before. Then again, you weren't going this fast before.


Your stomach is jammed down around your knees on the abrupt uphill swoop into South Bank. Watch your entry. Steady. Brake, downshift, turn in. Feed in throttle gradually to neutralize the understeer. That's it. Exit on line. Bury your right foot. A wonderful rush of acceleration–all four-hundred horsepower kicking in. Fourth gear. Fifth. Hands firm on the wheel. Engine shrill as a banshee, drilling a hole in your back. Smack down the center of the road. Perfect.


Nail the dip at Pilgrim's Drop. Umph! goes your breath. Everything happening at lightening speed. Keep your wits. Brake for Hawthorne, slowing, downshift to fourth gear, tires clawing asphalt as you turn in, centrifugal force jamming your shoulder against the left side of the cockpit. This is what it's all about. Fright. Exhilaration. Cold sweat. You feel it all.


Gas it. The road to Westfield shrinks. In fact, the circuit shrinks as speed climbs, curves arriving at an alarming rate. Around Westfield, down over the second dip. Up to Dingle Dell and Stirling's, so fast they pass as an esse curve. Around Clearways and over the start-finish line. This time, the pits blur past, and you don't see Gurney and Dunne, but an image of them forms in your mind of arms waving frantically.


Forget them. You're into it. Another lap, maybe breaking the lap record, and Dan and Bill will grin and ask you to join the team.


It could happen.


The tach's telltale needle moves past 8000 RPM–considerably–and is pegged at 9600 RPM. How the hell? 9600? When did that happen? In disbelief, you look again. Yep. 9600 RPM.


Paddock Bend curls over the next rise, drawing you in. You enter understeering horribly, eyes filled with green countryside outside the curve–where the Eagle's beak-nose is pointed.


Every fiber in you screams–back off!


Cool reason intervenes. Back off? No, you floor it to break loose the rear tires, and exit power-sliding.


See that? A big-time cornering job around a big-time corner. You're intoxicated now, absolutely hooked on speed.


Druids. It looks impossibly small, impossibly tight. But those vice-grip brakes take hold. Roll in, carrying plenty of speed, nail the apex, and exit quickly and smoothly. On to Bottom Straight, right foot planted, body hammered by the bumps, eyes blurred. Is that Bill running toward you? What's he yelling? And Dan, running, too, shaking his fist? They sure look angry about something.


South Bank looms, at the top of the next hill. Up and in–and drawn outside. A stab of throttle shifts weight back onto the rear tires, neutralizing the slide. A heartbeat later, you're screaming down Pilgrim's Drop. Fifth gear. Asphalt a gray blur as it streaks beneath your wheels. Tach inching up to 10,000 RPM–170 mph. Old hat.


You know the dip is going to kill you this time and brace for it as best you can. Whap! The suspension crunches against the bump stops and locks up solid for about a second. Your lower organs may hemorrhage, and you're certain your spine has compressed an inch at least.


That blur up ahead is Hawthorne Bend. A press of brakes and all is well. In fact, you round the curve knowing you have yet to get it really and truly right. Next time. Next time you'll get it dead solid perfect. If Gurney and Dunne haven't thrown up a roadblock at the start-finish line.


Same thing with Westfield. You're scaring yourself silly, but somehow you know you're nowhere near the limit. In fact, you're getting bored with yourself. On down to the second dip–Whap! Up to Dingle Dell and Stirling's.


Faster. You gotta go faster.


Clearways looms, snaking over the next hill. Carry some real speed into it this time. You're there, braking as the Eagle soars uphill, lifts, and floats over the top. For some reason the chassis doesn't settle back on its springs, as it usually does at this point. No matter. Downshift into third, and turn in, still floating, drawn way off line.


You back off, but it's too late. The car won't respond to your input.

The outside front tire–the one that normally bears the chassis load at this critical point–has lost contact with the road. In the next moment the Eagle is skating on grass, about to be flattened by an earthen embankments. Brakes and steering are totally useless.


Next up for you, pal, a trip to the hospital. You hope you are still conscious for it.


Grass, smoke, gravel, dirt, dust, swirls past with cyclone force, as the Eagle whips into a violent spin. Your head feels like a soccer ball getting kicked from all directions at once.


Then, silence.


The dust and smoke clear, and Gurney and Dunne lean in with concerned looks, asking if you're all right.


You feel dizzy, sick, battered, relieved, embarrassed.


The beautiful blue Eagle is covered with dirt and clumps of grass, but miraculously it's unbent. Once they discover you're not hurt, they're going to have you drawn and quartered, and the pieces tossed to the dogs at that sheep farm you drove past this morning.


But first, they'll want to know what the hell you were doing out there?


What on earth are you going to tell them?


All you know for sure is this: the Eagle is one incredible machine. By winning the Race of Champions in such convincing fashion, Gurney has made a statement. He's pulled together all the right people, made the necessary deals, arranged the financing, and created a team and a race car that is more than a match for the world's best. The fact the chassis carries America's racing colors, is his doing. On March 12, 1967, the future looks incredibly bright for Dan Gurney and his All-American F-1 team.


In three months, at Zandvoort, Colin Chapman will take Formula One to the next level, with the introduction of the Lotus 49, powered by an engine that will dominate F-1 for the next 15 years, the Ford Cosworth V-8. In a single weekend, the Lotus-Cosworth combination will render the competition obsolete.


Except for Gurney's Eagle.


By then, he will have the mag-ti car, so named because it's fabricated from magnesium and titanium for extreme lightness. The mag-ti Eagle will be right there with the Lotus 49, near the 1100-pound weight minimum limit. The Gurney-Westlake V-12 will run with the Cosworth V-8, and, on the straightaways, out-pull it. Gurney's All-American machine will be right there, race after race, on the front row, beside the Lotus-Cosworths of Jim Clark and Graham Hill, and ahead of everyone else. But what Gurney won't have is the financing to continue developing the Eagle, to make it bullet-proof. The Eagle will be fast–blindingly fast. It will lead races, but it won't finish many of them, and will win only one more race, at Spa-Francorchamps. Winning the Belgium Grand Prix, as important as it is, will not be as convincing as that March day at Brands Hatch when Gurney dominated the competition. At Spa, it will be a case of nursing a sick machine to victory.


But at Brands Hatch–for one shining moment–Gurney's Eagle was the best race car in the world, and Dan Gurney a lock to be the next world champion. It may have been the defining moment of his racing career: the all-American boy, bearing America's racing colors, driving a car he had created, topping world-class competition.


The stuff of dreams.


Such was Grand Prix racing in the 1960s, that racing stars such as Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham, and Bruce McLaren, could build and win races in their own cars, and independent entrants such as Rob Walker, Ken Tyrell and Frank Williams could buy F-1 chassis and engines off the shelf and compete successfully with the factory teams.


It didn't take a terribly large amount of money or an army of engineers and crewmen to compete in F-1 then. It took imagination, desire, passion, business savvy, and a dream. It took the ability to strike a deal with a tire and an oil company to put up the financing, lining up a host of reliable suppliers, hiring a design engineer, securing the services of perhaps five experienced mechanics to maintain two cars, and the drawing power of a star driver to pull it off.


Anything could happen in the 1960s, and often did. A driver in a year-old, underpowered race car could dominate a race, as Stirling Moss did–twice. Or, walk away from a sure world championship, as John Surtees did, after winning the 1966 Belgium Grand Prix, fed up as he was with the byzantine politics at Ferrari. Or, in Jack Brabham's case, winning the world championship in a car bearing his name, powered by a stock-block American V-8 engine. Or, as Graham Hill did, driving the greatest race of his career, and, with victory in sight, spinning off the road due to failing brakes, and telling the world it was his fault.


These are the stories you'll find in this book, stories about drivers who, like Dan Gurney, on a given day, at a given circuit, did something unique that spoke volumes about who they were. This book is also about the circuits they mastered on that day. Each chapter is devoted to a particular driver and circuit, and organized to follow the course of a typical season in the 1960s, beginning with Monaco.


But what about Dan's Eagle you just spun? You look around. Gurney and Dunne are nowhere to be seen. You're not at Brands Hatch, but inside an automotive museum, staring at Eagle chassis number AAR-104, the mag-ti Eagle that came home first at Spa. Not a speck of dust on it. You have been dreaming


- END -

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