Sunday, June 26, 2016


The racing life and times of Jerry Grant


Part three - 1969 to 1971


courtesy  of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection 


After the 1968 Indianapolis 500-mile race, Jerry Grant’s career went into decline. As Mark Donohue observed in his book The Unfair Advantage, “Jerry Grant peaked and then practically disappeared. Then he came back and almost won Indianapolis.” Donohue’s analysis may seem harsh, but is supported by Grant’s record.

Grant's Friedkin Bardahl DOHC Ford-powered Eagle made just one more 1968 USAC appearance at the two-heat USAC “Indy 200” at the Indianapolis Raceway Park road course, but failed to complete a lap in either heat race.

In late 1968, Grant’s well-financed car owner Tom Friedkin began to curtail his racing activities to focus on a new business. His friend Carrol Shelby introduced Tom to the officials of the Toyota Motor Corporation of Japan. Shelby Racing Company Inc. was building a preparing a pair Toyota 2000GT sports car for SCCA C Production class racing, and Toyota was looking for United States distributors.

Shelby related later that "I turned it (Toyota’s deal) down because I went to Lee Iacocca, and he told me not to take it because the domestic makers were going to push the Japanese back into the ocean." Friedkin struck an agreement with Toyota and founded Gulf States Toyota (GST) with exclusive rights to distribute Toyota cars in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. 

Rather than being pushed back into the ocean as Iacocca had predicted, GST made Friedkin a billionaire several times over; the company generated $6.9 billion in revenue in 2012 according to Forbes magazine.

1969

For the 1969 season, Friedkin contributed the 1968 Eagle chassis to a new partnership with Seattle car dealer Alan Green, who owned a 1966 Eagle which Johnny Rutherford had driven during the 1968 USAC season.  Grant and the team lost the Bardahl sponsorship to Bobby Unser and Wilke Racing. During the 1969 USAC season Unser campaigned the #1 “Bardahl Special” which mimicked the checkerboard look of Grant’s 1968 entry, except in bright yellow and black livery.

The Friedkin & Green Racing team’s older 1966 Eagle was fitted with a turbocharged Offenhauser engine for Indianapolis while the newer 1968 Eagle was fitted with a Chevrolet 320 cubic inch stock-block engine. At the Phoenix “Jimmy Bryan 150” after Grant qualified mid-pack, the stock-block engine overheated and he retired on the 34th lap.

In addition to the second generation turbocharged Ford and Offenhauser engines, which powered most of the entries, the 1969 Indianapolis 500-mile race entry list boasted a number of “stock block” engines. As far as naturally aspirated stock block, Gurney had his next generation 320 cubic inch Gurney Weslake engine while Andy Granatelli’s STP Racing team had the Plymouth 318-cubic inch engine.  

Jack Brabham entered a pair of  eponymous cars each powered by an Australian aluminum Repco V-8 engine and trucking company owner Max Dudley entered a Gerhardt chassis powered by a fuel-injected 320 cubic inch Chevrolet engine.   

Barney Navarro was back with his unique turbocharged 200-cubic inch inline Rambler six-cylinder engine, while Friedkin and Green Racing entered the 1968 Eagle chassis fitted with an experimental 202-cubic inch turbocharged Chevrolet engine. 

Reportedly a first at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, engine builder Jerry Eisert claimed the engine could develop as much as 700 horsepower and 450 ft./lbs. of torque at 6800 revolutions per minute (RPM). The second Friedkin and Green 1969 Indianapolis entry, the backup 1966 Eagle entry, was powered by a turbocharged Offenhauser engine.

Grant tried both the Friedkin and Green Eagle entries in practice without success, and then tried Jerry Eisert turbocharged Ford entry but still could not find enough speed. During the second weekend of time trials, after the first weekend was washed out by rain, car owner Rolla Vollstedt gave Grant a shot in his #17 Bryant Heating and Cooling Special” backup car.

The Vollstedt crew waved off Grant’s first attempt after three laps of the required four laps on Saturday May 24, then the following day in his final chance to “bump” into the starting field, Grant pulled into the pits after two laps, which ended his chance to join the 1969 Indianapolis 500 starting field. The Friedkin and Green team disbanded after the Indianapolis failure and sold the cars and equipment.

Jerry Grant landed with the low-budget team run by Marvin Webster which had purchased the 1966 Eagle and fitted the chassis with a fuel-injected stock-block Chevrolet engine built by Jerry Eisert. Marvin Webster owner of the Webster Gear Company in Mill Valley California had started racing quarter midgets and midgets with his son during the nineteen fifties, then had spent many years in sports car racing. 

The Webster/Grant team appeared at five 1969 USAC road course races and qualified for two of those races. Grant finished in fourth position, six laps behind winner Gordon Johncock in the ‘Rocky Mountain 150’ at Continental Divide Raceway in Castle Rock Colorado, and  then raced in both two heats of “Dan Gurney 200” contested at Grant’s home race track Seattle International Raceway with mid-pack results. 

1970

Jerry Grant wound up the owner of the former Friedkin and Green 1968 Eagle and after fitting it with new modern bodywork and a 159-cubic inch turbocharged Offenhauser engine, entered it for the 1970 Indianapolis 500 with sponsorship from Nelson Iron Works, a miscellaneous and structural metal fabrication company from Grant's hometown of Seattle Washington.

This photo of Jerry Grant in 1970 at Indianapolis appears courtesy of INDYCAR

In what Grant later described in an interview with respected Associated Press auto racing writer Bloys Britt as “the thinnest of shoe strings,” with only “hot dog money,” Grant practiced little during the month of May 1970. On the final day of time trials, May 23, Grant presented himself for qualifying and then posted a 165.983 MPH four-lap average to “bump out” Steve Krisloff and start in the 29th position.

During the 500-mile grind Grant told Britt “the engine lived, that’s about all I can say. You dare not try to pass anyone for fear the acceleration might overtax your engine. All I did was hang in and drive to finish.”   Grant finished the ’500’ in seventh place, two laps behind Al Unser and earned $$26,977.  

Grant appeared in four other USAC races during 1970; three ovals and one road course. His best finish, a sixth place, came at the ‘Rocky Mountain 150’ at Castle Rock Colorado. Jerry qualified a conservative 21st for the inaugural “California 500” at Ontario Motor Speedway, but couldn’t nurse his #89 Eagle/Offenhauser to the finish as the ignition failed on lap 63. 

1971

For the 1971 Indianapolis 500-mile race, Grant, now 36 years old, was entered as the driver for the newest “super team” Shelby-Dowd Performance, owned by Carroll Shelby and his long-time team manager Al Dowd with mechanic Carroll Smith. The entry was the 1969 AAR ‘Santa Ana” Eagle that had been driven to a second place finish by Dan Gurney in the 1969 ‘500.’ In 1971, it was no longer powered by a Gurney-Weslake engine, but by the latest generation 700-horsepower turbocharged Ford V-8 engine. 

The plan for the Shelby-Dowd team with financial backing from Southern California building material manufacturer Norris Industries, was to compete in all three legs of the USAC $2 million “Silver Crown” at Indianapolis, Ontario and the newest 2-1/2 mile oval Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.   

Shelby has originally started the  1971 USAC program for former funny car drag racing star Danny Ongais until a pre-race practice crash at Phoenix, and after Ongais resigned, Grant was selected as the replacement driver. 

Grant still owned the 1968 Eagle/Offenhauser and he entered it as #78 for Connecticut rookie sports car driver Sam Posey with sponsorship from Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor Restaurant chain. 

Jerry Grant spun the Norris Eagle in practice on May 13 as he exited turn three. The car slid a heart-stopping 540 feet into the infield grass undamaged.  Grant qualified the #92 “Norris Industries Special” on the first day of Indianapolis ‘500’ time trials, on May 22 with a four-lap average of 168.492 MPH. 

Unfortunately, that qualifying speed proved not to be fast enough, and Grant was “bumped out” of the on the following Saturday by Sam Posey in Grant’s own Eagle the "Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor Restaurant Special" with a run that was .284 MPH faster.

Later that day, disaster struck again; as rookie Steve Krisloff in Andy Granatelli’s STP-sponsored turbocharged Ford powered McNamara bumped Posey from the field. The next day found Jerry Grant back behind the wheel of Rolla Vollstedt’s #7 “Bryant Heating and Cooling Special” trying to bump into the starting field for the second time in three years. Once again, Grant made two qualifying attempts but the Vollstedt crew waved off each attempt after just one lap.

After the failure to qualify for the Indianapolis ‘500,’ Grant was replaced as the driver for the Norris Industries team’s other two 1971 races by Jim Malloy. The Shelby-led team disbanded and the Eagle did not race again. It was later found still in it Norris livery and purchased by Ray Evernham who restored it to its 1969 Gurney livery on Evernham's Velocity TV program "Americarna."

After a thirteenth place finish in his own car at the Rex May Classic in Milwaukee the week after the Indidnapolis’500,’ Grant dropped out of the USAC racing scene. Truly, Jerry Grant’s racing career had reached its nadir.  

In our next installment, we'll see how Jerry Grant's career rebounded to new heights

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