American racing legend Dan Gurney (LEFT) played a key role in changing the face of the Indianapolis 500 in the '60s when he convinced Colin Chapman to bring the rear-engined Lotus to Indy. Nearly 50 years later, Gurney is part of the consortium aiming to encourage major change in the automotive world with the scheduled debut of the DeltaWing car at next year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. Gurney's All American Racers will build the DeltaWing prototype designed by Ben Bowlby.
Gurney, Bowlby and the man charged with running the unique machine in France, Highcroft Racing's Duncan Dayton, all met at AAR's California headquarters last week to finalize design aspects and begin construction of the new machine. The DeltaWing car is unlike anything previously seen on the international motor racing stage. The car features an extremely narrow front track and thin nose providing outstanding straight-line aerodynamic performance from its small 1.6-liter turbocharged engine.
Featuring half the weight, half the horsepower, half the aerodynamic drag, and half the fuel and tire consumption of a traditional Le Mans prototype sports car, the DeltaWing car will occupy the additional 56th garage at Le Mans – an entry reserved for a car featuring new technical innovation.
The Project 56 group features DeltaWing Racing Cars handling the design, Highcroft Racing managing the project and running the race team, All American Racers building the prototype and American Le Mans Series founder Don Panoz's Elan Motorsport Technologies handling ongoing car production. The group not only aims for the DeltaWing to inspire change in the motorsport world, but for the car to be a catalyst for the adoption of lightweight, extremely efficient road cars which minimize the use of natural resources.
Innovation might actually be Gurney's middle name – not only did he mastermind the Lotus/Ford rear engine assault at Indy, he became the only American driver to take his own chassis to Formula 1 victory with the Eagle Mk1 in Belgium in 1967 and created the “gurney flap” – a small lip on the back of racing car wings that provide extra downforce with minimal cost of extra drag. He also was the first man to spray champagne on the podium after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans with A.J. Foyt in 1967 (ABOVE) – a tradition now adopted by winning drivers around the world.
Q: How did your involvement with rear-engined cars at Indy in the '60s come about?
“I was racing in Europe quite a lot in the late '50s and early '60s and had seen the end of the front-engine Formula 1 era and the transition to the rear-engined car. It was certainly a more efficient package and John Cooper really led the transition with Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren as his drivers.
“It was obvious to me that once that transition had taken place in Europe, it was going to happen at the Indy 500. If it was going to happen no matter what, I thought I had better be part of it.
“The most innovative guy from a design perspective back then was Colin Chapman. I offered to pay his way to come to Indy in 1962 for my first Indy 500 where I drove Mickey Thompson's rear-engined car. He agreed to come over and we then had an introduction to Ford, and that is how the Lotus-Ford assault began in 1963 with myself as a teammate to Jim Clark.”
Q: Not everyone welcomed that dramatic change – do you see some similarities to that in some of the negative reaction to the DeltaWing concept?
“When you have established favorites like the front-engined roadsters and all of a sudden a major change happens, it is human nature to probably be a little unhappy about it. People don't always welcome change, especially when you have a home team attitude and here comes a group from somewhere else who had the capability to beat your guys.
“That had all the ingredients of a pretty bitter rivalry and, of course, the track owners loved it because the fans went crazy over it. If our initial predictions for the performance of the DeltaWing are correct, there is a possibility we may do something pretty similar.”
Q: You have influenced a number of changes to auto racing over the years. Do you see a similar opportunity with the DeltaWing?
“If there is something that can be a turning point in something like motor racing, then obviously it is very nice to be a part of that. I'm sure Ben (Bowlby) and Duncan (Dayton) feel the same way as well. We'd all like to be mentioned in the history books in a positive way. I suppose I played a part in the transition that happened in Indy in the '60s and it is great to have this opportunity to be involved with something so different like the DeltaWing.”
Q: How significant do you think this car could be?
“The ACO (Le Mans organizers Automobile Club de l'Ouest) having the foresight and wisdom and come up with the concept of the 56th garage is certainly the key to us having this opportunity. They should certainly be applauded and congratulated for that and we are certainly very appreciative for being selected.
“Rules that take away your freedom to innovate and compete are almost like a parasite on a tree. If it goes too far, the parasite dies along with the tree.
“I'm certainly an advocate of freedom in the rules. In many cases, series organizers like coming up with new rules and restrictions to slow things down and it ends up hurting things. There is a huge effort toward things like electric cars, which are very attractive to our political leaders and obviously attract a lot of financial support and subsidies. Efficiencies, however, are not only available through electric-powered vehicles. Having grown up with the internal combustion engine running on gasoline or diesel, it was really like having a magic carpet and you could go anywhere you wanted.
“In the case of the DeltaWing, the shape of the car, the weight, the efficiencies, the technology – you have a car which remains an extremely viable option. That part I like a lot and I am very proud to be a part of this project, as I believe the principles of the DeltaWing can also inspire the type of cars we drive on the road in the future.”
Q: What's been the reaction at All American Racers to getting involved in this program?
“My son Justin is now CEO of All American Racers and the staff erupted into a spontaneous cheer when he told them about the project. They think it is a fantastic opportunity and all of our people are 100 percent behind it.”
Q: You haven't been back to the Le Mans 24 Hours since you won with A.J. Foyt in 1967. What would it mean to you to return with the DeltaWIng?
“I have great memories from the race in 1967 and I still have the champagne bottle that I sprayed everybody with on the podium after the race. It was a huge achievement to win that race with A.J. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was a very big race in those days, and it continues to be so today.
“If we are able to demonstrate similar performance and efficiency with the DeltaWing that we did with the Ford MK-IV, it would certainly be a great achievement.
“I had no idea at the time, when I first sprayed the champagne, that that it would become a tradition in the sport all these years later.
Q: Next year's 24 Hours is less than a year away – how is work progressing on the DeltaWing prototype?
“We've had a very productive time last week with Ben and Duncan here with us at AAR and we were able to make some great progress with the car's design details. The entire Project 56 program has hit the ground running. There are a lot of people involved in the project but we all have a tremendous passion for making this happen.
“It really has become a very cohesive group. We have a large group of very talented people involved but everyone is working very well together.”