IT'S A LITTLE harder now, in 2012, to comprehend Dickens' famous "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" opening line. While people always feel that they live in the best and worst of times, we have a sense today that the best is sometimes only adequate and that the worst is merely appalling.
It was not always so.
There was a time, in the mid-Sixties, when the highs and lows carne along in great walloping spikes, like the brain waves of a psychotic genius. Ir was an era of genuine creative turmoil when, for better or worse, America was on a roll.
Revolutions, large and small, were going off like firecrackers at a Chinese New Year's celebration, and all kinds of people were about to come" slightly unglued and grow lamb-chop' sideburns. We had revolutions in everything music, civil rights, sex-and the racing world even had a few.
We saw revolutions in engine placement, tires, suspension and aerodynamics, along with some that never took hold, like the. turbine-car revolution. These were all a mixed blessing for people who like things pretty much as they had been, but it was undeniably an interesting time to be alive.
Let's look at 1967, in particular. (We have to, because that's the year this story is about.) It was the year three astronauts, Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White, died in their spacecraft when it caught fire at Cape Kennedy. Christian Barnard performed the first heart transplant, and the word "hippie" entered the English language. It was the summer of Haight-Ashbury, LSO, merry pranksters and music by the Doors, and the Jefferson Airplane. A lot of people bought Mustangs, Camaros, Honda Superhawks and Triumph Bonnevilles.
Ir was also the summer that, in one magical period of just three weeks, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney managed to run away with three of the best trophies in automobile racing.
Foyt started it, on Memorial Day weekend, when his Coyote-Ford out lasted the eerily fast Granatelli-Turbine of Parnelli Jones to win his third Indy 500.
Less than two weeks later, on the 10th and 11 th of June, Foyt and Gurney teamed up in a Ford GT-40 MK IV to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The following weekend, Gurney won the Grand Prix of Belgium at Spa, in one of his own Eagle- Weslake cars...........
forty-five years ago month.
Foyt, the Texan from Houston, was reared around the family garage, watching his father work on midgets and stock cars for other drivers. There are photos of Foyt at the ages of 3 and 5, sitting behind the wheel of small, open wheel race cars his dad built for him, and you can see that young A.J. is already in full possession of his competitive senses. The jaw is set, and the eyes send out a fierce indignation to anyone who might imagine he could drive faster than the kid. A born racer; a genetic code waiting around for millennia to click with the appropriate technology, like a silver bullet in a revolver, finally lining up with the barre!.
And when the hammer carne down, he started winning everything. By 1967 _he'd won four USAC championships, two Indy 500s and scores of other races in midgets, sprints and stock cars.
Gurney, on the other hand, grew up on Long Island, where his father was a singer with the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. This genteel background, however, did nothing to suppress a rebellious interest in that newest of American art forms, the street rod. When the family moved to Riverside, California, Dan got his first legal racing experience, running in speed trials on the dry lakes. After an Army stint as an antiaircraft gunner in the Korean War, he bought a Triumph TR-2 and drove his first road race at Torrey Pines, in 1955, taking 3rd.
More good finishes led to a 1957 ride in Frank Arciero's 4.9 Ferrari at Riverside, where Gurney, as a virtual unknown, trounced thel),est drivers in the country and narrowly lost to Carroll Shelby's 4.5 Maserati. Two years later he was driving for Ferrari. Enzo often referred to the flat-topped, clean-cut Gurney as "my American Marine."
And that was the impression he made on most of us when we started following his career. Gurney was the all-American boy, a kind of youthful Gary Cooper figure who could be dead serious when it was high noon at the race track, but was otherwise friendly and easygoing. Like Foyt, he also held a firm conviction that he could drive anything, and win. Stockers, sports cars, Indy cars, it didn't matter. By 1967, Dan had won the French Grand Prix twice, the Mexican GP once, Nassau twice and three consecutive NASCAR races at Riverside in Ford stockers. He' d also run at Le Mans, but hadn't won there.
Before we get too deeply into Le Mans, however, let's back up for a moment and look at the first race, Indy. Indianapolis was in the grips of a technological revolution in 1967. Just six years earlier, Jack Brabham had arrived with his "little green car," a rear-engine Cooper-based F 1 design.This car, sponsored by Jim Killberly,' gave the whole Brickyard a disturbing,subliminal lesson in physics, finishing 9th despite a lengthy pitstop and a dearth of horsepower from its Coventry Climax engine.
Colin Chapman then pricked up his ears, no doubt sensing that best of all possible combinations, large dollars in the presence of a technology vacuum. Figuring it might be easy to win an archery contest with a Weatherby Magnum, he brought his spidery rear engine monocoque cars across the pond to do battle with the traditional Offy engined USAC roadsters. While it wasn't as easy as expected, Jim Clark and his Lotus finally won in 1965.
By 1967, the day of the Offy roadster was over, and a lonely Jim Hurtubise failed to qualify in the last front-engine roadster to appear at Indy. Everyone on the grid was wearing a car at least partly inspired by Chapman, many of them now American-made. Even AJ. Foyt had one.
Foyt was the last man to win Indy in a traditional roadster, in 1964 and he hated to see the "dinosaurs" go. He felt, perhaps rightly, that technology was becoming more important than driving skill and that money had displaced experience. He was a firm believer in the dirt-track school of hard knocks as a means of sorting out drivers. Indy was a ride you should earn, preferably at the wheel of midgets and sprint cars. Besides that, the old roadsters were beautiful to look at.
Nevertheless, there was Aj., 4th on the grid in May, 1967, leading the second row in a rear-engine, Ford-powered car of his own design, the Coyote. Chief mechanic was Foyt's dad, A.J. Sr. Home brew, all the way. Gurney was just ahead of Foyt's car in the middle of the first row with his Eagle-Ford.
As if Indy hadn't suffered enough technological shake-ups, Andy Granatelli showed up with a 4-wheel-drive turbine car-a car with a Pratt & Whitney ST6B-62 helicopter engine, for God's sake, and it was blindingly fast. Everyone but Granatelli and driver Parnelli Jones spent most of the month leading up to Memorial Oay trying to get the car disqualified. It was too wide. It put out too much heat. You couldn't see over it. The heat distorted your vision. And so on.
If anyone but Parnelli Jones had been driving the car, it would probably never have been allowed off the transporter. It was a delicate matter, like telling John Wayne he' d brought the wrong kind of Winchester to a range war.
Gurney told me he didn't mind the car all that much, but its silence was a little unnerving, "like watching a race on television with the sound turned off."
Somehow the car was allowed to run, however, and it almost won. On the second of two race days-the first stopped for rain-the turbine's transmission packed up with only 10 miles left in its 500-mile flight. Jones was out, and suddenly Foyt was in the lead, picking his way through the flying debris of a last lap accident to take the checker and win his third Indy. .
Gurney had dropped out with a broken valve spring that caused his engine to misfire with a sound like a shotgun blast. "1 drove it like that for 15 laps," he says, "and it just about blew my eardrums out. I mean, it was loud.
So Foyt, last of the roadster winners, sat in Victory Circle with his rear-engine Coyote-the first driver, incidentally, ever to win Indy on Goodyear tires. Foyt was now firmly ensconced in the modern era. With three Indy victories under his belt, Al was asked if he might retire. He was thinking about it, he said, but hadn't decided. Ten years later, in 1977, he would win his fourth Indy 500.
In 1992, 15 years after that victory, I called AJ. Foyt's shop to get his comments on the 1967 race. His secretary told me he was unavailable to the press because he was on his way to Indy and doesn't like to be distracted when he's getting ready to drive. So much for early retirement.
Back to 1967. With Indy won, Foyt barely had time to bank his $171,527 in prize money before flying to France to drive a Ford GT-40 in his first visit to Le Mans.
Ford, in the mid-to-late Sixties, spent so much money on racing that you sometimes wondered if the firm wouldn't have been money ahead by giving everyone in America a free Fairlane and a tank of gas. But the performance image meant big sales among the youth market, and winning Le Mans was a part of the strategy.
Ford had already won Le Mans resoundingly, of course, the previous year, in 1966. After three years of trying, the GT-40s had flashed across the finish line in 1-2-3 photo formation, the Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon car taking the win in a very confusing finish.
Ken Miles and Denis Hulme thought they had won, but it was ruled that their forward grid position at the start of the race had kept them from covering as much ground as the McLaren Amon car. In lining up for the photo finish, they'd given away their lead. The Ronnie Bucknum, Dick Hutcherson car finished 3rd. It was a puzzling bit of race strategy and rules manipulation left bystanders scratching their heads, and the foreign press asking (pointedly) why there was no American in the winning car.Despite all this confusion, the win was a great achievement and Ford wanted to do it again. To those ends, it assembled a tremendous team for 1967, with no fewer than seven of its 7 -liter cars, mixing in a group of American drivers whose names would be recognizable to the folks back home. Teamed up were Foyt/Gurney, Bruce McLaren/Mark Donohue, Mario Andretti/Lucien Bianchi and Lloyd Ruby/ Denis Hulme in the new Mark IV cars, while Frank Gardner/Roger McCluskey, Jo Schlesser/Guy Ligier (from Ford France), and Paul Hawkins/Ronnie Bucknum drove the older Mark lIs. Mirages and Mustangs included, there were 13 Fords in all.
With that array, an optimist might have expected a mass-formation finish of Blue Angels' proponion, but Le Mans is no respecter of hubris. And besides, God didn't make Ferraris and Pórsches to roll over and play dead. Le Mans is a place where anything can go wrong, and it usually does. As Ford would discover.
The start was a good one for Ford, with Bucknum leading early, and Gurney not far behind. During the second hour, however, Bucknum carne in with overheating problems and had to slow down, leaving the Gurney/Foyt car with a good lead and Phil Hill's Chaparral about a minute back. Behind Hill was another smattering of GT-40s and the odd Ferrari P4.
As night fell, the usual casualties began to mount. First Ruby went off Mulsanne corner and got himself stuck in the sand, then McCluskey spun at Tertre Rouge and pitted to straighten his tailpipes. Hawkins and Gardner had tire and wheel weight problems. Fixable stuff, but time-consuming.
After six hours; it was still Gurney/Foyt, with the McLaren/Donohue Ford in solid 2nd place. Then, suddenly, the Esses were engulfed in confusion, brake lights and dust.
It seems Andretti had run into brake trouble approaching the bend, clouting both sides of the road. In the ensuing melee, McCluskey and Schlesser crashed hard, tearing off wheels and suspension pieces. Three Fords written off, and Ruby's car still in the sand. Then McLaren's whole tail section carne off and had to be retrieved. Meanwhile, as Gurney climbed into the number 1 Ford for another turn at the wheel, Hawkins showed up in the pits on foot, his car having dropped a valve.
So then there was one.
Just a single Ford team car on the track, out of the original seven. But it was a good one. The Gurney/Foyt car continued to circulate like clockwork. After a time, the McLaren/Donohue car got back into the fray, its rear deck hinged with mechanics' belt buckles, but it was out of contention. Gurney and Foyt were the last hope for victory.
In his autobiography, Foyt tells of driving the 2-to-6 a.m. shift and being extremely tired, having been unable to sleep earlier when Gurney was driving. He wearily watched the hours and minutes tick away, as early morning fog and campfire smoke moved over the dark circuit. At last his stint was over and he pulled into the pits. As the car was being refueled, he was told to get back in the car. Gurney could not be found. No one knew where he was. Foyt would have to drive another four hours.
Foyt said that Gurney later told him he intentionally missed the driver change because he hated driving the dawn shift, with the morning fog and the sun coming up.
I asked Dan about this incident and he laughed. "Actually," Dan says, "1 showed up 10 minutes early for the driver change, carrying my helmet, but A.J. had come into the pits ahead of schedule for some reason and had already gone back out before I got there. Anyway, we could only run about an hour and a half on a tank of gas, so he didn't have to stay out there for four hours. It makes a good story, though."
How did the two of them get along? "Just fine," Gurney says. "1 had tremendous respect for A.J. before that and even more after I drove with him. I think we got along well because we both respected each other, and after Le Mans we got along even better."Missed driver changes aside, the Ford held its lead against a late surge in speed by a pair of Ferrari P4s and rolled home a winner. The McLaren/Donohue car was 4th. Gurney and Foyt had won Le Mans, covering 3249.6 miles (roughly, New York to LA) in 24 hours at average speed of 135.5 mph. Gurney stayed in Europe whulst Foyt went home.
Spa, in its old configuration, was one of those circuits that could be said to separate the brave from those who are merely blessed with good reflexes. Each lap consisted of 8.76 miles of extremely high-speed dips and swoops over Belgian farmland, with enough pine trees, barns, embankments and dropoffs looming nearby to give an overly introspective driver abad case of second and third thoughts.
The F1 lap record, last set in 1960 by Jack Brabham in a 2.5-liter Cooper-Climax, was 137.6 mph, and speeds of 180-plus mph were common on the faster sections. This in cars whose aerodynamics were still based on scientific measurements taken off a large Cuban cigar. A few cars were beginning to sprout small nose tabs and experiment with chin spoilers, but real downforce, when it existed, was largely accidental. With all that speed and unbearable lightness of steering, Spa was abad place to go off the road, as many drivers had discovered.
On race day in 1967, Gurney found himself in the center of the front row (again, just like Indy), his Eagle-Weslake V -12 lodged between the Lotus Fords of Graham Hill and pole-sitter Jim Clark. Clark had been breath takingly fast in practice, qualifying 2.1 seconds faster than Gurney, and he didn't slow down when the green flag dropped.
Gurney had a terrible start. He was sitting on the downhill grid, waiting in neutral so as not to fry the clutch, when the flag dropped. Jackie Stewart shot by into 2nd spot, at the wheel of the amazingly complex BRM H-16, off to give the racing world an early glimpse of the driving style it would come to expect from the young Scot. Nevertheless, Gurney worked his way up from the back gradually reeling in Stewart's car, which was jumping out of gear and juddering all over the road with suspension problems.
Suddenly, on the 12th of 28 laps, Clark pulled into the pits with a sparkplug blown clean out of its threads (now that's compression), and Gurney was in 2nd. Twenty seconds down, Gurney poured it on to catch Stewart. During this hot pursuit, Gurney set fastest lap with a new record of 148.8 mph, despite recurring problems with an engine miss, and was able to pull redline in top gear-196 mph-on the faster sections of track. With 8 laps left, Gurney carne up behind Stewart and noticed smoke coming from his gearbox. "This could be good," Gurney said to himself. And it was. He passed Stewart and scored a first Grand Prix victory for the All-American Racers from Santa Ana, California.
Another fine moment in a memorable season: Gurney, one of the two great all-purpose American drivers, winning again so soon and adding to that magical early summer string of victories. In the years ahead, both Gurney and Foyt would win many more races, but never quite so convincingly, in such a small space of time.