The Eagles have landed at the Petersen
The author recently visited the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and toured one of the featured exhibits “The Eagles have landed” in the gallery funded by the author’s friend and single engine wheel-driven Land Speed Record holder Charles Nearburg. The exhibit focuses on the cars and accomplishments of Southern California racing legend Dan Gurney and we will take a look at several of the open-wheel cars on display.
From left to right – the All-American Racing (AAR) Gurney-Weslake V-12 Grand Prix car, the 1968 AAR Gurney-Weslake Ford powered Indianapolis car, and the AAR-modified Mclaren “McEagle” Can-Am car.
From left to right- the 1971 turbocharged Offenhauser powered Eagle, the 1975 turbocharged Offenhauser powered Eagle, and the 1977 Eagle SCCA Formula Ford.
Dan Gurney only drove the 1968 AAR Eagle in five United States Auto Club (USAC) races; four road course races and the Indianapolis International 500-mile Sweepstakes. The Eagle’s season started at the Stardust 150 at the windswept Stardust international Raceway outside Las Vegas Nevada. Gurney qualified his new Eagle powered by the 303-cubic inch Ford stock block V-8 engine fitted with aluminum Gurney-Weslake cylinder heads for the pole position, but the front suspension of the car broke before Dan took the green flag.
At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gurney qualified the Eagle in the tenth position with a four-lap average nearly five miles per hour slower than Joe Leonard’s pole-winning STP Lotus 56 turbine. During the race, Gurney never led but brought the Eagle home in in second place followed by his teammate Denis Hulme in fourth place. Two weeks later on June 15 1968, at the 2-1/2 mile Mosport road course in Canada, Gurney and the Eagle started from the pole position for both the 98-mile heat races. Gurney totally dominated the races, and led all 80 laps and won both the heat races.
Gurney and the Eagle did not appear in other 1968 USAC races until the season ending Rex Mays 300 at the Riverside International Raceway. For the second year in a row, Gurney qualified for the pole position and won the Rex Mays 300 for the second year in a row. Unlike the previous years, Gurney and the Eagle were totally dominant, as he led all 112 laps around the winding 2.6 mile road course. In retrospect, the 1968 AAR Eagle has to be considered a success; three race wins and one second place in a limited five-race season
Dan Gurney retired as a driver in 1970, and he later admitted that the transition was difficult at times as rather a seat of the pants engineering evaluation, Gurney had to rely on feedback from new AAR driver. Bobby Unser. The 1971 Eagle Indianapolis car was a revision of the 1970 Eagle fitted with a turbocharged Offenhauser power plant. The 1971 Eagle was brutally fast and Unser was the fastest qualifier at seven races and set four new lap records.
Reliability proved to be a problem and between mechanical failures and crashes, Unser only finished five races on the 12-race Marlboro Championship Trail but in two of those races, at Trenton New Jersey and the Milwaukee Mile Unser emerged victorious. In August at the Milwaukee Mile, Bobby led all but nine laps, and at the Marlboro 300 held in October at Trenton, Bobby led the first 70 laps before he pitted and turned the led over to his brother Al for the next ten laps before Bobby in the #2 Olsonite Eagle took back the lead and led the rest of the way.
For 1980, Gurney together with All American Racers designers Trevor Harris and John Ward created an amazing design that used the Boundary Layer Adhesion Technology (BLAT) ground effects system. Instead of using tunnels underneath the car as with other designs the BLAT concept used a twin vortex generating shape at the trailing edge of the rear bodywork. The routing of the naturally aspirated aluminum block 358-cubic inch Chevrolet engine exhaust system added further energy and downforce to the airflow.
By 1981 BLAT had reached its ultimate development with this Pepsi Challenger and driven by veteran Mike Mosely qualified at 197.141 miles per hour (MPH) to start in the middle of the front row for the Indianapolis 500-mile race. While former Eagle pilot Bobby Unser streaked away from the pole position on his way to a disputed victory, Mosley was the first car sidelined after just 16 laps with an oil radiator leak.
A week later at the Gould Rex Mays Classic, Mosely and the Eagle suffered an early engine problem and failed to make a time trial run, so the Pepsi Challenger started 25th in the 26-car field. Mosley worked his way forward through the field and took the lead on lap 106 and he built up more than a one-lap advantage over second place Kevin Cogan when the checkered flag dropped after 150 laps around the one-mile oval.
Sadly the Milwaukee race was the high water mark for the Eagle’s 1981 season, as in its remaining three appearances, the car was sidelined with mechanical troubles. Later in an ironic turn events the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) organization, which Gurney had helped, found after displeasure with USAC rule-making outlawed both the BLAT concept and the use of aluminum stock-block engines.
"The Eagles have landed" exhibit which includes the historic Moet champagne bottle from the 1967 24 hours of LeMans and Gurney's Bell ground-breaking full-face helmet worn in the 1969 Indianapolis 500-mile race continues at the Petersen Automotive Museum through January 10 2018
Photos by the author