How would you define a ‘great’ racing car? Race wins and championship titles are an obvious place to start – and admittedly, when we began the process of rounding up the ‘voices’ to fill this special magazine, published by the team behind Motor Sport, we had in mind the likes of the Lotus 72, Ferrari F2004, Porsche 917, Audi R10 and so on.
But as the interviews of familiar racing figures began, we realised greatness is often a very personal thing. Naturally, most – but not all – would pick cars they had experienced first-hand, as a driver, designer, engineer or team boss. And on occasion the cars that stood out in their minds as ‘great’ weren’t necessarily so in the grand scheme of history. That’s why you’ll find a Minardi here among Formula 1 cars from Lotus, Williams and McLaren.
Unexpected? Certainly. Wrong? Not to the man who chose it.
As the interviews accumulated, our magazine took on a life of its own, full of personal anecdotes about the myriad cars that made careers. Some of those we spoke to, such as Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney, couldn’t be tied to a single choice from multi-faceted lives at the wheel. Such heroes have earned the right to choose an F1, sports and Indycar, so we allowed them more than one bite.
Others refused to be confined by category. Hence the short ‘Odd ’n Sods’ chapter on cars that, by and large, are mere footnotes in lower divisions of racing lore.
Thus there is nothing definitive about the selection listed herein. Then again, there’s no claim that this compilation offers the ‘Greatest Racing Cars’ of history. It’s much more personal than that, much more quirky – and all the better for it.
The ’72 Eagle was a great car. We didn’t win the Indy 500 that year, but we broke every record there was. It was the first car to run a 200mph lap and we broke the track record at Indianapolis by 18mph that year, the biggest jump in speed in the history of The Speedway. We had pole after pole after pole.
Roman Slobodynskyj designed the ’72 Eagle but a lot of the ideas came from Dan Gurney. Dan really understood the concept and we developed that car together. A lot of my ideas went into that car, but Dan was at the top of his game in those days. All American Racers built some good cars through the late Sixties and in the Seventies. They were good cars, beautifully built, and the ’72 Eagle was one of the most successful cars in my career.
It was way ahead of its time and we had some tricks with the turbocharger that allowed us to make a lot of power. We learned how to make the power and the downforce, too, and it took everyone else a few years to figure out what we were doing. When Dan came up with the ‘Gurney flap’ wing it turned that car from a good car into a great car. With the Gurney flap it just screamed for more horsepower. Give me more horsepower, it said. I can handle it. That car was bloody fast!
We developed and raced that car through four or five years and I finally won at the Speedway with Dan in 1975. For a few years everybody bought Eagles and one year I think there were 25 in the field at Indianapolis.”
In 1972 All American Racers’ Eagle became the first Indycar to smash the 200mph barrier, a highlight in a record-breaking year for a great car
Indycar racing is always spectacular, but for many people the most dramatic era was the decade from 1963-73, when revolutions in tyre design, aerodynamics and turbocharging resulted in giant performance leaps – and finally that awesome milestone, the first 200mph lap.
After the serious arrival of the rear-engined car at Indianapolis in 1963 with Lotus, the track record at the big speedway went from 150mph in 1962 to 160mph in ’65, 171mph in ’68, and then 179mph in 1971. But the great god aerodynamics began to make itself known, presaging an even more impressive jump in speeds in 1972. In theory, wings had been banned by USAC in 1969 but the old club left a loophole by permitting wings if they were incorporated into the bodywork. So everyone began building huge, shelf-like engine covers that were thinly disguised wings.
McLaren’s 1971 Indycar, the chisel-nosed M16, took this to the maximum with a huge tail wing incorporated into the overall wedge-shaped design. Driven by Peter Revson the McLaren increased the track record at Indianapolis by 8mph, three quicker than Bobby Unser’s ’71 AAR Eagle. By May of that year it was clear the new aerodynamic age had arrived in open-wheel racing. The M16 was a quantum leap and it made everything else obsolete.
Rather than clamping down on the aerodynamic genie, USAC permitted free-standing wings for the 1972 season as long as they weren’t moveable or attached to the suspension. Also, tail wings could extend the full width of the car to the outer edge of each rear tyre, so the wings became massive, more than 5ft wide. All American Racers followed McLaren’s lead and hung its rear wing as far back as the rules allowed.
“We didn’t know for sure what was right or wrong, but we had the McLarens to use as a guideline,” says Unser. “No matter what, we were all dumb – Dan [Gurney], the designers, and me too. But I kept watching the McLarens and looking at that big wing acting as a lever back there.”
Roman Slobodynskyj led the design team for the ’72 Eagle, which would become a classic Indycar. They equipped it with twin side-mounted radiators, like the M16 McLaren, rather than a single nose-mounted radiator, so the nose was free to assume a chisel shape between a pair of big front wings.
A huge rear wing, its trailing edge 42in behind the rear wheel centreline, made for maximum aerodynamic leverage.