ALL-AMERICAN COMEBACK-WITH TOYOTA HELP
by Larry Roberts
September 04, 1998
Through media reports and fax transmissions that have come into our offices, I've been following the exploits of the two CART teams that utilize the problem-plagued Toyota purpose-built RV8C racing engine. In spite of the fact that the Reynard 981s run by the Arciero-Wells and All American Racers (AAR) teams are piloted by fair-to-middling drivers (P.J. Jones, Max Papis, Robby Gordon and newcomer Alex Barron), the Toyota CART engine just hasn't been up to the job. The Reynard chassis is run by over 20 of the CART regular (including the point leader, Alex Zanardi) but the front-runners are using Ford/Cosworth, Honda or Mercedes-Benz engines. The Reynard is a safe chassis choice for a team that wants to stay in the money and go with a proven winner. Since it costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 to $15 million to field even a single mediocre car in the CART championship, a potential corporate sponsor willing to put up twice that much money for two cars wants as much reliability and positive exposure as possible. Obviously Toyota is going to stay with Toyota power since it's paying the bills.
With this in mind I was amazed to find that the All American Racers team had fielded a new, unproven, Toyota-powered Eagle chassis for the 27-year old Barron to drive against America's best. But in retrospect, perhaps an all-new Eagle should have been expected since the owner, director and guiding light of All American Racers is Dan Gurney, at one time the most popular and versatile driver in America if not the world. Gurney's passion has always been to build race cars here that could beat the best that the world has to offer and his Indianapolis and Formula One cars of several decades ago were his own Eagles.
In his hey-day as a driver, Gurney was unbelievably popular. Tall and blond with a boyish grin that was infectious, he was everybody's idea of the all-American kid who was proving that behind the wheel, he could stay with and beat the best drivers in any league.
Gurney started racing in the late '50s in Southern California driving in amateur sports car events in a stock Triumph TR2 at the Riverside (California) circuit. Gurney considered it his "home" track. He was so good that within four years, he had been tapped to drive for the Ferrari factory professional sports car team. At the time, Ferrari sports-racers were omnipotent and Gurney's position there was the envy of thousands of professional drivers worldwide.
From there, Gurney went on to drive sports and Formula One cars for Porsche, BRM, Brabham and a host of others. He drove in NASCAR road races in the '60s and won the Riverside Grand Prix for stock cars in four of his five appearances there at the wheel of a factory Ford.
His dream of building his own single seaters came to fruition in the '60s when he formed All American Racers to challenge both the USAC (the forerunner of CART) Championship Trail and the international Grand Prix circuit. Driving his own Eagles, he won both the USAC Rex Mays race at Riverside and the Belgian Grand Prix.
When the opportunity came to switch over to prototype sports car endurance racing, Gurney teamed up with Toyota for several years to produce a IMSA-winning GTP car. The association transferred over to the Toyota CART effort a few years ago but this time the decision was made to go with two Reynard cars since they were proven winners albeit not with Toyota engines.
The Gurney/Toyota CART record has been dismal, the best finishes being at the bottom of the top ten, and this using a top quality chassis. But Gurney's quest for a new generation of Eagles has prevailed and the first outing for the new Toyota/Eagle was at the Mid-Ohio race in Lexington, Ohio. While its debut was anything but spectacular (Barron finished 16th running far off the pace), Gurnery is confident he and his All American Racers crew can develop the car into a winner.
Having been exposed to the Gurney charisma for nearly 40 years, I'm sure that the "All American Kid from Riverside" can do it if anyone can.