Jerry Grant passed away last week. Grant, 77, was renowned as a nearly man who threw away the 1972 Indy 500 when he made a confused, unscheduled pitstop with a dozen laps to go, handing victory to Mark Donohue. Later that year aboard one of Dan Gurney’s AAR Eagle-Offies in qualifying for the California 500 at the Ontario Motor Speedway Grant became the first man officially to lap a closed course at 200 mph.
Grant was a tall, full-framed man who made his name in the early ‘60s driving first a Ferrari, then a Lotus 19, and went on to become Dan Gurney’s favourite co-driver and teammate. Grant co-drove an AC Cobra with Gurney in 1964 at the Targa Florio and Le Mans and the pair came within a few hundred yards of winning Sebring in 1966 aboard a Ford Mk II. Grant also raced Gurney’s AAR Lola T70-Ford Can-Am car in the ‘66 United States Road Racing Championship, taking four poles and winning at Bridgehampton.
From the Pacific Northwest, Grant came to prominence in 1963 at the wheel of his own Chevy V8-powered Lotus 19. In that year’s west coast fall sports car races at Laguna Seca and Seattle he battled with the likes of Jim Clark, Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones. Gurney was so impressed that he invited Grant to be his co-driver in his own Ford-powered Lotus 19 and Carroll Shelby’s team of Shelby Cobras.
“I got a call from Dan and he asked me if I wanted to join him driving for Ford Motor Company in the United States and Europe,” Grant remarked a few years ago. “That was like Christmas a thousand times over.”
In 1966 Grant co-drove one of Shelby’s new 7-litre Ford Mk IIs with Gurney in the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours. They finished second at Daytona and led Sebring most of the way only to suffer an oil pump failure on the last lap only a few hundred yards short of the chequered flag. Gurney pushed the car home but was disqualified because a new rule required that cars crossed the finish line under their own power.
Grant first qualified for the Indy 500 in 1965 and raced in ten 500s through 1976, often in AAR Eagles. In 1972 he was AAR’s number two entry at Indianapolis beside Bobby Unser who qualified on the pole that year breaking the previous track record by almost eighteen mph the largest margin in Speedway history. Grant qualified fifteenth, six mph slower than Unser.
On race day Unser was an early retirement with a blown engine but Grant moved up and spent most of the race fighting with Mark Donohue and Gary Bettenhausen in Penske’s pair of McLarens. Late in the race Bettenhusen dropped out with ignition problems and suddenly Grant looked a likely winner, running well ahead of Donohue.
Grant made his final stop for fuel after 166 laps (of 200) but 22 laps later he surprised everyone by stopping again. A front wheel had gone out of balance but Grant’s neck also began to give out and he was struggling to keep his head up. In the confusion Grant missed his pit and stopped in Unser’s pit stall where he was erroneously and illegally given a few gallons of fuel.
He rejoined and crossed the line ahead of winner Donohue only to be told his last twelve laps had not been scored. Grant was classified a bitterly disappointed twelfth.
Grant qualified for four more Indy 500s and ran his last Indy car race in 1978. He went on to represent Champion Spark Plugs for many years and was always a popular man at the race tracks with his easy manner and quiet but sharp sense of humour. Through the end of his life Grant remained fast friends with Gurney.
“Jerry Grant was a natural,” said Gurney. “He was brave and playful and always could rise to the challenge. Apart from being an excellent racer, he was an accomplished story teller and after dinner speaker, an ability which served him well in his business career after his retirement from active driving. In the middle 60’s we shared many adventures on and off the track here in the US and in Europe. We stayed friends ever since and many Sundays went riding our motorcycles in the Southern California countryside.”
Motor Sport extends our condolences to Jerry’s wife Sandy, their family and many friends.