Let joy be unrestrained, you image-conscious Americans. Let there be drinks all around and freestyle dancing in the streets. On one stunning afternoon this week the leanest, handsomest, least-ugly American of them all climbed into the car he calls the American Eagle and wrapped a famous European auto race in red, white and blue. As the Belgian Grand Prix growled to a finish in the slanting sunset over Spa, the only thing Dan Gurney had not done recently in Europe was leap tall buildings with a single bound.
Altogether it had been a remarkable three weeks in auto racing for America, Gurney and A. J. Foyt. First Foyt won the Indianapolis 500 (for big 4.2-liter single-seaters and visiting turbines) to reverse the trend to foreign champions. Then Foyt and Gurney seized the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a huge seven-liter Mark IV Ford, a so-called sports car prototype with fenders, lights, windshield wipers and all that.
But for the tall, blond Californian, last Sunday was the best of all. It was in a three-liter single-seater of his own creation that Gurney won in Belgium—at a record-breaking average speed of 145.988—and it was the first time in 46 years that an American car and driver had taken a Formula I race of such importance. No longer must Americans mumble, "Jimmy Murphy, French Grand Prix, Duesenberg, 1921," as an example of U.S. Grand Prix genius.
In the Belgian Grand Prix the object is to drive an 8.76-mile network of tree-lined country roads as fast as you dare for 245 miles, through 170-mph curves and along 200-mph straightaways; all this in fragile little racers that look as if they will never make it. Winning gets a man nine points toward the world driving championship and a whole lot older all at once.
June 25, 1967
This was the fastest Grand Prix anywhere, ever, in history. At the finish behind Gurney came Scotland's Jackie Stewart in a BRM. He had driven his last 10 laps with a balky gearbox, steering at top speed with one hand and holding the car in gear with the other. Behind him ran New Zealander Chris Amon in a Ferrari that, in spite of everything he could do, could not live up to its brilliant red paint job.
Only seven other cars finished, while eight more were broken and out of it and Ferrari Driver Mike Parkes lay in a nearby hospital with a broken leg.
The drivers obviously meant business right from the start of practice. The former world champion, Jimmy Clark, rifled around at 151.572 mph in a snarling new Lotus to win the pole, breaking John Surtees' old qualifying record of 144.68—and giving himself a scare. On the back straightaway, winging uphill at a clocked 193 mph, he had hit a low-flying bird so hard that it dented his rear-vision mirror "about this far from my face." Then Gurney did 149.347 mph, and Hill 148.154 in a sister car to Clark's, and thus the American Eagle started the race sandwiched between a pair of Lotuses.
Both Lotuses were mean-looking, half-chassis affairs with new Ford of England V-8 engines. Designer-Builder Colin Chapman had produced a mini-monocoque chassis that ended behind the driver's seat. Engines and rear suspension setups were bolted aft. In action the cars flashed past in green and yellow streaks, undulating like surfboards. This novel design had bounced Clark to victory a fortnight earlier in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort.
Then there was Jack Brabham's new car, lighter and sleeker than anything around, glittering with chrome fittings and deep green paint and now boasting a new Repco V-8 from Australia, no hint remaining of last year's Oldsmobile engine block. There were BRMs, Ferraris and Cooper-Maseratis, too, but it was the dark blue Eagle that caught the fancy of the Ardennes. Gurney's car was a 1,020-pound GP version of his Indy Eagles, considerably lightened for tricky road work. The new Gurney-Weslake V-12 engine—so new, in fact, that there are only five in various stages of readiness—cranks out something over 400 hp, all of it ringing through titanium tail pipes that clink like fine champagne glasses when struck. Crankcase and cylinder heads are aluminum, many of the innards are magnesium and the ribs and suspension parts are titanium. "This space-age metal actually shortens the life of a car," Gurney said, "but nobody wants a car to live forever. What we want it to do is win races."
The three Ferrari entries sounded shrill and deadly, as Ferraris always do, but Franco Lini, who manages the Ferrari works team—perhaps because his middle name is Enzo—stood by the track and expressed a certain lack of confidence.
"At Spa," said Lini, "the engine it must take a great speeding. It is a great sufferance to engines."
"This whole thing," said Stewart, "is an awful lot scarier than Indy. You should go down to some of those turns and see the cars wiggle. It is much faster than other circuits and you have to be a cowboy to ride it, but then I have always been a bit of a cowboy anyway."
Still, Stewart was conscious enough of the course's hazards—he had crashed and was seriously injured in a surprise rainstorm on the first lap last year—to show up in a uniform with a special bit of tape pasted across his chest. On it he had written, "Blood group O-Rh+."
The Spa circuit cuts through lush green countryside that obviously was subdivided by Hans Christian Andersen. It starts downhill, and at the beginning drivers stand on their brakes, revving their engines to high screams. Then the road rolls up around crowd-lined corners and down snaking turns into dark valleys in the shadow of Old World castles.
In the days before the race Gurney conducted a private, high-speed tour of the course, careening along in a Hertz Dodge Dart. "The real thrill," he said, "comes in these downhill curves, where the G-forces put your whole stomach over against your rib cage. This is it; this is the Olympics compared to an ordinary track meet."
Back in his black racing helmet inside the Eagle, his face creased by enormous dimples, Gurney summed it up: "The secret of Spa," he said, "is to make no violent moves. No sudden braking, no sudden sharp turns that can get you into trouble. Actually, it is a controlled violence that does it."
At the start on Sunday, Gurney slightly overdid the violence part; he sat spinning his wheels, stirring up a small tornado of black smoke, before getting under way in sixth position. When the cars reappeared, Clark was in the lead as expected. Stewart was hot after him, with Chris Amon and Jochen Rindt behind and then Gurney in No. 5 spot. Graham Hill seemed to go directly from the starting line into the pits, where he disgustedly spent the rest of the day. In the early sparring Brabham, who had started in seventh spot, moved to fifth, Gurney to third.
Clark opened a long lead over both Stewart and Gurney, but then came a decisive moment of high drama. Clark whizzed into the pits and was immediately engulfed by a crew of men changing sparkplugs. Stewart, running second, flashed by, glanced over at the scene and promptly speeded up. Then Gurney wheeled in for what had to be the fastest pit stop in Formula I history. He leaned over to his crew, said something and pulled away while they were still poised where the car had been. Later Gurney revealed, "I simply said two words, 'Fuel pressure,' and pulled away. I did it so quickly my crew chief didn't know whether I meant it was good or bad." A few moments later Clark reentered the race in 11th place and began working up through the field, ultimately finishing sixth.
Gurney began to turn it on, fuel pressure be damned. On his 19th lap Dan set a new racing record of 148.217 mph, and on the next lap another: 148.848. It was on lap 22, with six laps to go, that he passed Stewart on the straight in front of the pits to take the lead for good. Afterward Gurney consoled his pit crew for the scary stop. "The fuel pressure was so low," he said, "that the car was starving to death on the straightaways. I couldn't believe it would straighten itself out, but as if by magic it cleared and the car began running smoothly. I could have run a little faster if I hadn't been so worried about it."
At the victory ceremony Gurney stood soldier-straight as the Belgians played a scratchy old recording of The Star-Spangled Banner, and then to the crowd's surprised delight he plucked the blossoms from a big bouquet of roses and tossed them toward young ladies in the throng. Ah! that Gurney. Ah! that Eagle. Ah! America.