Eagle MkIII: greatest sports car prototype? 'You couldn't outdrive it'

Sports Car News

A Daytona lap record holder for 25 years which swept all before it in IMSA, PJ Jones remembers winning America's top endurance race in the monstrous Eagle MkIII

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Eagle MkIII broke numerous records

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The downforce numbers alone are mind-boggling.

As the speedometer quivers over 220mph, 10,000lbs of downward push is gluing the carbon-fibre projectile you’re strapped in onto the asphalt, heading straight for the barriers at one of the States’ most formidable first corners.

The 300ft board passes. Then the 200ft. 100ft. Your father, a normally imperturbable Indy 500 legend, is watching on trackside – he thinks the throttle’s stuck open. When are you going to brake?!

You make it through the corner though, a combination of confidence and blind faith in the sheer downforce allowing you to be carried.

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Jones (with father Parnelli on left) was selected after impressing in support races

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This was what the Toyota Eagle MkIII did – a GTP car which almost defied reality and is a strong candidate for being the greatest sports car prototype of all time.

The MkIII, developed and run by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers squad, won 21 of the 27 IMSA races it entered from late 1991 to the end of ’93. Similar to the Porsche 917/30 in Can-Am, it was a car so good it effectively finished off the GTP category it raced in, which ended with 1993’s close.

It’s now three decades since the MkIII was wrestled to a 25-year lap record and last-gap Daytona 24 Hours victory by a young PJ Jones – son of Indy legend Parnelli – who says it was a car that “the harder you drove, the more it stepped up – you couldn’t outperform it.”

From the archive

Like many seminal competition machines, the MkIII first evolved as a solution to the issues of its predecessor, the HF89/90. Once Gurney’s team got its teeth into developing performance, the car became almost unstoppable.

Juan Manuel Fangio II, who took the MkIII to consecutive drivers’ titles in ’92 and ‘93, has gone on record complaining about how temperamental the HF89 was performance-wise, making its set-up sweet spot very narrow.

John Ward got to work on the chassis for the replacement, whilst Japanese engineer Hiro Fujimori addressed the aerodynamics and Drino Miller developed the power unit.

Key to helping remedy the previous car’s lack of stability was the aero aspect. In contrast to most of the rival GTP cars, whose underfloor was one piece, Ward decided to develop a front diffuser acting as a separate part of the MkIII, thus redirecting air and producing huge downforce.

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HF89 proved difficult to set up

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It wasn’t just the front end which was trick – Fujimori developed a dual-element rear wing several races after its introduction in late 1991, meaning the downforce the car produced leapt from over 6,500lbs to a staggering 10,000lbs.

More disbelief was generated by what was in the back – the power was provided by a production-based, four cylinder, 2.1 litre and highly-boosted engine to pump out 800bhp, at a time when most competitors were using V8, V10 and V12 units.

“The Toyota people in Japan said there’s no way that motor would run a 24-hour race,” recalls Jones.

“I think Drino was just was determined to show them that, ‘Hey, that’s not true!’ Drino always had a little battle with them – but I had all the confidence in the world in him, and he did it.”

The MkIII was first introduced for round 12 of 14 in 1991 at Laguna Seca, and Fangio took the No99 car to victory in just its second race at San Diego. For ’92, Jones was signed to drive the No98.

After “slaughtering” the opposition in a Toyota support series, young Jones had then beaten both his dad and future boss Dan Gurney in a celebrity race in Long Beach.

“We were doing really well, and the executives at Toyota were like, ‘We need to get PJ in the GTP car,’” he says.

PJ Jones AAR Eagle MkIII Toyota

Eagle MkIII was a winner almost straight away

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“So we arranged a test where I would ‘do battle’ with Dan – and I outran him. Two weeks later he asked ‘Do you want to drive my GTP car?’ I said ‘Absolutely!’”

Now he had his big chance for Gurney’s team, but as Jones found out at the first race in Miami both car and series were not something to be underestimated – he lasted one corner.

From the archive

“When we came down for the start, and I had all these big cars in front of me, and I couldn’t see through them, I couldn’t see around them.” he remembers.

“I lost my perception of where I was on the racetrack, something I had never experienced, hit a kerb and went sideways – that was the end of my race.”

“I thought ‘Dan’s gonna fire me!’ [But] he was awesome, a driver’s owner – he understood what it was like, that was really important.”

It was just as well, because Jones needed a few races to get a grip on the beast that was the MkIII – before he suddenly started reeling off poles and race wins.

“You had to have faith and that took a little getting used to,” he says. “Indy Lights was the most downforce that I’ve ever experienced, so I was trying to get used to how hard you could push the Eagle.

“When I set the track record at Laguna Seca, I was out there in practice and just told myself, ‘I’m gonna get through Turn 4, and I’m gonna run wide open, I’m not lifting!

“I lifted a little less every lap, and it eventually it did it. Wow. The harder you went, physically, mentally, if you just got up on the steering wheel muscled it into the turn – it performed.”

It wasn’t just maintaining speed where you had to hold your nerve:

“You passed the 100 marker before you brake – I mean, that’s amazing”

“The other thing that kind of took me a little while to get used to was the carbon brakes,” he says.

“You step on the pedal, and nothing happens for 100 feet. You think ‘Oh my god, I’m in big trouble, this thing isn’t gonna stop!’ And then all of a sudden, it’s like somebody threw the parachute out.

“So you have to build up to that confidence of how deep you can brake. When you drive somewhere like Watkins Glen and you drive up to the 100 marker, or maybe past it, before you brake – I mean, that’s amazing.”

Jones, of a larger build than Fangio, was able to muscle the immensely physical car to a large number of poles, and between them they started cleaning up the wins.

Whilst the youngster would pick a couple of victories in 1992, Fangio chalked up seven on his way to the title. Come Daytona though, it would be Jones and his team-mates Rocky Moran and Mark Dismore who would take the plaudits, starting with an incredible pole lap – setting a record which would last for over a quarter of a century.

What stands out for the American though is the physical effort required to make it happen.

“It was just about trying to maximise every single corner – I think if you look back at that graph, I really probably won that pole in the Bus Stop [now Le Mans Chicane], that car was amazing at the corner – you could go so deep into the corners, and I was very good at late braking.

“Coming down to the Carousel, with no power steering, you could hardly turn the steering wheel it was so heavy – they would put more caster in for me which allowed me to turn, but Fangio was smaller and couldn’t handle that, which is why I managed to get so many poles over him.

“I left nothing on the table – but [even] I was surprised I went that quick.”

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Two Eagles battle at Daytona

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Though the waning of the GTP era meant the field was down on top class entries compared to the previous year, there was still some fearsome competition out there.

Le Mans legend Derek Bell was gunning for a record ninth Daytona win in a Nissan NPT-90, Geoff Brabham was behind the wheel of a Nissan ZX whilst Tom Walkinshaw was fielding Davy Jones’, Scott Goodyear and Scott Pruett in a Jaguar XJR-12.

“It didn’t really hurt the car, but it did hurt my pride”

When the flag fell though, Fangio and Jones hared off into the distance, with the latter settling into the lead.

As the sun set Davy Jones Jaguar then moved into first with the PJ Eagle in second, before disaster struck for the MkIII – team-mate Dismore mis-negotiated a backmarker and went straight off into a hay bale.

“I was stuck there in the mud until some corner workers helped push me out,” he said at the time. “It didn’t really hurt the car, but it did hurt my pride.”

From the archive

Dismore managed to get back to the pits relatively unscathed, but victory chances were now looking bleak.

Things were became worse when Moran vomited in the cockpit mid-stint, something the team neglected to tell Jones as he started his next run.

“I got in and I asked the crew, ‘What is that smell in this car?’” he told Toyota in 2019. “They said, ‘Oh, Rocky puked all over’. I looked at my hands and I had stuff all over me.

“I ended up driving about 13-and-a-half hours of that race! But I was young and was just like ‘Alright!’ It didn’t phase me.”

Come sunrise and the Jones/Moran/Dismore MkIII was closing back up on the leading Jaguar, until a rear axle issue then required a 74-minute pitstop – now it really did look like it was all over.

Fate thought otherwise in this up-and-down race though – first the Jones Jaguar’s engine failed, before Bell’s Nissan croaked too with 1hr 40min remaining – the Eagle MkIII of PJ and co cruised to a famous Daytona victory.

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Jones (holding trophy) celebrates with Moran and Dismore

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“It was a rollercoaster, even this morning,” he said post-race. “One time we’re 30 laps down, the next time we have a chance of winning, then we’re three laps down again!”

As Jones says now, once the dual element rear wing was introduced “it was all over” for the competition in ’93 – Fangio would take six wins on the trot to take the IMSA title again that year, and Jones would claim another pair of victories in a golden era for Gurney’s team.

The American can only look upon that early phase of his career with fondness.

“You look at those times now, where you’re fast, you’re dominating and you’re doing things right – those great moments like Daytona, taking the pole at Laguna Seca, setting the lap record at Lime Rock – it’s all right up there.”