The Eagle engine's landed

A fire and an airport strike hampered Dan Gurney’s bid to race at Monaco ’68, as Jo Ramirez tells Rob Widdows

Jo Ramirez is best known for his long stint at McLaren, in particular his role as team co-ordinator in the Prost and Senna years. Before those tumultuous days Ramirez spent many years as a mechanic, coming to Europe from his native Mexico to work for Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ford, Eagle, Tyrrell, Fittipaldi, Shadow, ATS and Theodore. This man was born with racing in his blood.

The tale he has chosen is from his days as a mechanic to Dan Gurney at Anglo American Racers in Rye, East Sussex – the British arm of Gurney’s All American Racers team in California. In 1967 the team took its one and only victory with the Eagle AAR104-Weslake at Spa-Francorchamps on an unusually warm and sunny day in the Ardennes. Gurney’s great American dream had been realised, but it was a win that flattered to deceive. The following season started badly.

“Over the winter we moved the factory and decided to build our own engines,” recalls Jo. “It was a brave move, but in all the enthusiasm we didn’t get our sums quite right. As a result we were way behind schedule and missed the Spanish GP at the beginning of May. I was still finishing the last engine when the team went off to Monaco at the end of the month. Our test shop wasn’t ready so I had to borrow Peter Westbury’s dynamometer in Dorking which was only meant to take F3 engines. The big Weslake V12 completely filled up this little room, while all the fuel and oil had to be fed in by gravity.

It was all a bit agricultural, very primitive, and I couldn’t run the engine at more than 4-5000rpm because the room got so hot and filled up with fumes. I had to keep the door shut because of all the noise blasting round Peter’s factory, so I kept stopping for a breather, running it up, shutting it down and coming up for air. But at least it ran and there were no leaks. Then an oil pipe touched the red hot exhaust and the whole thing lit up in a ball of flame, trapping me in a corner of the room.”

For a few seconds things looked pretty nasty. But Jo was lucky.

“Somehow I climbed over the dyno, jumped over a wall of fire, and tumbled out through the door with the flames following after me,” says Jo. “Anyway, the lads in the factory came with extinguishers and took me to the hospital with cuts and minor burns. Somebody cleaned up the engine, we changed the damaged wiring, put the engine in a van and took it to Blackbushe aerodrome where a Cessna was waiting to take it out to Monaco. It was a very small plane, only just room for the engine once we’d taken all the seats out, so I stayed at home. After all I’d been through I wasn’t too bothered!”

All’s well that ends well, then? Not quite…

“When the plane got to the south of France the pilot was told the airports were on strike and he couldn’t land at Nice, so he headed for a small airfield near Cannes. It was getting dark and this airfield had no lights… They had to have the engine for the Grand Prix so Dan rounded up as many people as he could find with cars to come to this little airport. They parked along the sides of the runway with their headlights on so the pilot could see where to land. Winning the GP on the Sunday would have been enough to justify this whole saga, but Dan qualified at the back and retired after just nine laps. That’s motor racing for you. But Dan Gurney was one of the key people in my career. He was one of the best bosses and friends I’ve ever had in motor racing.”

Anglo American Racers withdrew from Grand Prix racing at the end of 1968.

Jo Ramirez followed Gurney back to California where he worked on the Indy and Can-Am programmes before joining JW Automotive in 1971, where he looked after the Porsche 917 of Jo Siffert and Derek Bell.

And thereby hangs another tale – one of a million more from a true racing man.

Jo Ramirez was born in Mexico City, a childhood friend of the Rodríguez brothers. He followed Ricardo and Pedro to Europe, working as a gofer at Ferrari. Ramirez worked for many Grand Prix teams before joining McLaren International in 1984 as the 64th employee under Ron Dennis. And there he stayed, a much-respected member of the F1 fraternity, until his retirement in 2001. He is author of ‘Memoirs of a Racing Man’, his story of five decades in motor racing.