Dan Gurney was always going to excel at a challenging circuit like Bridgehampton. But his 1966 success there owed as much to his engineering mind as his driving talents.
I owned a Lotus 19B that we’d modified a great deal. Jerry Grant and I were leading at Daytona in 1965 when it broke. After it was written off during a tyre test, I bought a Lola 170 because it was the best car available. When it came to engines, though, I was a Ford guy from way back Flatheads forever and all that hot-rod stuff.
The Ford big block wasn’t available at the time, but we thought the small block was pretty good anyway. The 289 had been very successful in the Cobras. We ran ours at 305 cubic inches and we were making about 465 horsepower while most 289s couldn’t reach 400. The secret behind these big outputs was our cylinder head.
I had witnessed how successful Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin had been in getting obtaining lots of power out of a two-valve pushrod unit just by running a straight port down to the valve, and I wondered whether we could do something like that with the small-block Ford. So I went over to Harry Weslake’s and told him what I had in mind.
Harry was the repository of so much history and knowledge, and the cylinder heads we came up with were excellent. Later, we put them on our Champ Cars and won seven races with them. As a matter of fact, John Wyer used them in the GT4Os that won the manufacturers’ championship.
The Lola was competitive right away. It was a fundamentally nice car very attractive, and it drove like it looked. There were plenty of people who had a lot of success with the T70. Our version was a little lighter than our Chevroletpowered counterparts because the Ford engine was smaller, but we needed a little bit more power.
At Bridgehampton, those new 2E Chaparrals showed up with big rear wings. That was typical of the Can-Am series: you never knew when something mysterious was going to come along and render everything else totally obsolete. The Chaparrals looked really impressive, but we were able to keep up with them. Of course, I liked Bridgehampton a lot. It was a very challenging track with several blind corners and subtle elements that gave you something to really sink your teeth into.
I qualified on the pole and was leading handily. But toward the end of the race, Chris Amon’s McLaren started shortening the gap. This may have had something to do with tyres: I was on Goodyears and Chris was on Firestones. I really had to knuckle down and not make any mistakes to keep him from getting by. Not that I would have blocked him. Nobody blocked in those days.
I managed to keep him behind me right to the end, but it was a struggle. He was definitely making me perspire.
As the season progressed, we tried bigger engines a 325 cubic inch and then a 343. Looking back, I think that we should have gone for more revs. The next year, we used the 351 Ford block and raced it at 377 cubic inches. We managed to qua* that on the pole at Riverside, but we didn’t take any more race victories.
Amazingly, Ford never did manage to get into Can-Am.
And we never did get round to building a Can-Am car of our own. We were just too busy in other formulae.
Still, I thought Can-Am was a terrific series because there was so much innovation. It was right at the other end of the spectrum from a spec series. These days, cars are designed by the rules as much as the engineers, and that just stinks to high heaven. It was a lot more fun when you could strut your creative stuff. And it was very exciting to know that, if you were smart enough, you could drastically change the balance of power.
Interview by Preston Lerner