Return of the Native

Dan Gurney is set to relaunch his Indycar team. His racing sabbatical doesn't worry him unduly

At a time when Indy Car greats are retiring from active competition left, right and centre Mears, Unser, Rutherford, Andretti, Sullivan its good to have an American hero return to the sport. That's just will happen when Dan Gurney's All American Racers and Toyota debut the first Eagle Indy Car in a decade at the Homestead Motor Sports Complex on March 3.

While Europe may remember Gurney for his success in sports cars and Formula One, he also compiled a remarkable record in a variety of domestic arenas including Indy Cars, NASCAR, CanAm and TransAm. The first driver to win championship races in Formula One, Sports Cars, Stock Cars and Indy Cars, Gurney is one of a very few who can compare with Mario Andretti in terms of versatility.

Nor was Gurney's career limited to driving. He also built cars, forming All American Racers in 1966 with Carroll Shelby and entering Eagles in IndyCar, Formula One and Formula 5000 competition. After his retirement as a driver in 1970, Gurney experienced some of his greatest success, as the Eagle dominated Indy Car racing in the mid-'70s.

Ironically, though he authored the white paper that galvanised the Indy Car team owners in their 1979 revolt against USAC, Gurney was among the first to butt heads with Roger Penske, Pat Patrick and CART's other power-brokers over runaway costs and technology. Following the 1986 season, AAR bowed out of the Indy Car scene, but not out of racing. AAR had already joined forces with Toyota and, together, they went on to win the IMSA GTO title and the 1992 and '93 GTP championships with Juan Manuel Fangio, II, and another second-generation star PJ Jones.

But the GTP series was in its death throes, so AAR and Toyota turned their attention to IndyCars. AAR began testing a Judd-engined Lola in 1994 with hopes of racing their own Eagle-Toyota in late 1995. That didn't happen, but in October, Fangio shook down the new John Ward-designed Eagle MK V Toyota. Much work remains to be done before the start of the season. Nevertheless, Gurney is pleased with the progress to date and, ultimately, delighted finally to be underway.

"It was Churchill who said, 'This is not the end, it's not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning,' he says. "We're basically very happy with the car, very happy to be underway and testing.

"We have not yet tested with the engine we intend to race with, nor do we have a car to fit that engine. However, they are essentially the same in terms of performance. They (Toyota) are working on one or two mechanical reliability problems that they think they will conclude soon. At the moment, we're running with a bit of an rpm limit to the engines we have. Frankly, in terms of inhibiting our development chassis-wise, I don't think it has. We've been able to run hard enough to uncover all kinds of things that triggered more development on the car."

For all his popularity within the racing community, Gurney has been criticised for biting off more than he can chew. For example, had he focused on developing the Eagle Formula One chassis around a proven powerplant, instead of the problematical Weslake V12, he'd likely have more than one glorious victory at Spa in 1967 to show for his efforts. Gurney's critics contend that in jointly developing a new chassis and the Toyota engine he's going down the same road again in 1996.

"The critics may turn out to be right," Gurney laughs. "We realise that it's a big opportunity. We did the same thing with our IMSA GTP challenge. We didn't come out and whip everybody immediately, but we gradually got to where we were pretty doggone good. We feel that with the same sort of credibility, people, facilities, plus the improvements that we've made in terms of the quality and the training of the people, we should be able to do the same sort of things with Indy Cars later on.

"It's a huge challenge. We are even more aware of it than some others . . . Part of it is getting the powers that be and the funding side of things to realise how large a challenge it really is. If you're unable to do that, you're going to start with too little, too late . . . You have to be a great salesman, as well as a great engineer.

"We think that in the long run, hopefully not too long, being able continuously to evolve your own car and being able to make things right in your own place is a competitive advantage. At the moment, the first time we roll out, it can be a bit of deficit, as opposed to buying and up and running design from either Lola, Reynard or Roger Penske. We welcome that challenge and look forward to it."

One of Gurney's primary concerns is the fact that his team has not actually raced since the IMSA GTP swan song at Del Mar in 1993. Though AAR tested extensively in 1994, even that exercise was put on hold last season as the Eagle chassis and Toyota engine were completed. "That's a tough one," he says. "We tested 14 times in 1994 and in 1995 and, up until the most recent tests, we didn't test at all with the exception of one place which was a straightaway only, so we lost a lot of momentum that we had going in 1994. It's a great concern, but OK, we accept it and we're going to go out and try not to be embarrassed."

At least two people on the team kept sharp by racing during the past two seasons, Fangio and Jones. Jones raced NASCAR SuperTrucks while Fangio made his Indy Car debut last summer in four races with PacWest, subbing for the injured Danny Sullivan and earning a seventh place finish at Mid-Ohio.

"It was an irreplaceable experience for Juan: it was a reality check in many ways and a good one," says Gurney. "Frankly I had even higher expectations, but racing luck gets involved sometimes and you can't predict how things will go. I've never doubted Juan's or Jones' ability rapidly to ramp up to where they're one of the real serious contenders and I think you'll see that."

Jones' fans will have to wait a while, however. Owing to the limited availability of the final '96 spec Toyota, Fangio will open the season in a singleton entry before Jones joins the fray in a second Eagle-Toyota in June. Toyota sought and was granted an exemption from CART's rule requiring new engine manufacturers to supply a minimum of two cars in the first season of their programme.

CART's flexibility came as welcome news to Gurney, who battled long and hard with CART in the early 1980s over rules weighted increasingly against production-based engines, ultimately leading to his withdrawing from an organisation he helped create. Ironically, he returns to CART at the same time that the organisation that long championed the stock block, has formed the Indy Racing League in competition with CART and the PPG Indy Car World Series.

Gurney offers a valuable historical perspective on the current schism between CART and the IRL.

"When CART came around it was because of the fact that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had control of Indy Car racing and they, for various reasons, did not provide leadership," says Gurney. "If they had been (providing leadership), I don't think CART would be here today, at all. In order to become a viable business, as opposed to a hobby, it needs great leadership, not part time, but full time.

"Initially CART existed because of the participation of Roger Penske and Pat Patrick . . . But they were both businessmen, who were already spread pretty thin. They had to find a CEO and leadership within CART. It didn't happen at first. There were some good achievements, but it wasn't until there were two or three of them that (CART president) Andrew Craig appeared. Other team owners took responsibility and found him, and probably both Roger and Pat took less of a hands-on position. Now there is good leadership in place, with good planning and global view of things. I really think it has overcome some teething problems.

"In many ways we're on the brink of a golden age. This is a battle for control. It's a big plum. We're going to find out if the IndyCar guys have sufficient courage to be steadfast with what they say they want to do. Number One, that's what's required because we're up against some formidable things. If Tony (George) says there's room for two series that's fine. But we have to pay attention to what our job is and what our mandate is. If he does the same with his, maybe he's right: we'll have to find out.

"It also wouldn't surprise me to see that other competing series, whether it's Formula One, NASCAR, NHRA, or IMSA or SCCA might get a little smirk on their face every time we get ourselves in more hot water. That's just the human and natural thing. A lot of times they might pour salt on the wound. If we're aware of that, I think we'll come through just fine. Now is the time to show we have the courage to get on and do it."

And amidst all the uncertainty surrounding the sport of IndyCar racing in 1996, there is no doubt about one thing: Dan Gurney has never been a man wanting in courage, whether in the cockpit or behind pit wall. His return to Indy Car racing is cause for celebration, no matter what side of the IRL/IndyCar fence you're on. D P