Report by Tony Adamowicz and photos by Dennis Gray
The CSRG Charity Challenge 2010 was held the first weekend in October on the 12-turn, 2.52-mile Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, offering a spectacular venue for the grand finale of the F5000 Revival Series.
I piloted the very same Eagle that took me to the 1969 Formula 5000 championship title 41 years ago. As you’ll read below in my Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point) race recap, vintage racing is more than just a few old cars parading around a classic circuit, its hard work that can be incredibly frustrating at certain moments. My thanks to RIAM (Riverside International Auto Museum) for having the right people around the Eagle. Certainly it was gloriously rewarding, presenting some of the best memories that any driver could ever dream of having. In the end, vintage racing is still racing and everyone on the grid is still going for that top podium position.
The weekend started out with the RIAM crew, consisting of car owner Doug Magnon and chief mechanic Bill Losee, unloading our Gurney Eagle chassis number 510, built by Dan Gurney and his squad at All American Racers to compete in the 1969 Formula A-5000 North America Continental Championship. This is the same car I drove for Milestone Racing forty-one years ago to wins at Kent and Elkhart Lake, and ultimately winning the 1969 Continental Championship title.
Almost immediately after we arrived at Infineon we experienced mechanical issues with our freshly rebuilt engine, losing its harmonic damper before we could even practice. Apparently this explains why the car was not competitive at Portland, our unexplained lack of engine power on a newly rebuilt motor. Bill didn’t find the problem until he started the car up before morning practice on Friday. What ensued was a mad dash challenge for my mechanic Bill Losee and Doug Magnon to get the damaged unit off the front of the engine, without taking the engine out. Once out, they had to go into town to locate a replacement at a speed shop. Having done so, they came back to install it and another challenge to fit back up. To get all the drive belts back in place for the water pump and the dry sump pump back in a tight space was nothing short of miracle work.
We missed early practice and finally got the car together in time for the last afternoon practice. At my request, Bill had installed new, more aggressive brake pads for Infineon, which had to be hand fitted to each caliper by using the good old grinding wheel method. On the warm up lap, I was following Rick Parsons in the Boraxo Lola T332 and was slowly trying to bed in my new brake pads. While entering the braking area for turn 7, the car swapped ends, locking up the rear brakes and causing me to do a 180 degree backwards spin to the outside of the turn, nearly hitting the outside concrete wall in the process. The track funnels down a bit and there is no extra room to spare before you collect the concrete wall. Fortunately, I never touched it; however I was now stuck with another dilemma, of facing traffic from the outside of the turn. The engine had stalled and I was unable to restart it, apparently the battery had not fully charged while dealing with the damper issue. This was indeed a scary situation, as the cars reach top speeds coming up the straight from the carousel and are faced with some hard braking into turn 7, and there I was facing traffic on the outside of the turn!
My friend Eric Haga in his Lola T190 got his foot caught up between the gas and brake pedal in the braking area and was heading right for me. My hands where up in the air as far as I could get them (limited by my arm restraints), and I was frantically motioning him to steer to my right. I could see the look of fear in his eyes through his clear visor; they were as big as raccoon eyes. Fortunately Eric managed to get his foot loose and steered to the outside of me into the run off area. Wow, a close call, I dodged another bullet or two, but in the confusion other cars started to spin as well and practice was black flagged, eventually ending the session. The emergency crew reached me and bump started the engine by pushing the Eagle down towards turn 8. I brought the car back into the garage area, knowing the practice was cut short, all due to me….not a popular position to be in.
The rest of the afternoon Bill spent refitting additional clearance on the brake pads, as well as making sure the brake balance bar was free and not changed in anyway. Upon inspection, the brake balance bar was free and the brake pads were now carefully clearanced within the calipers.
Saturday morning practice came and I carefully went out to bed in the brake pads, familiarize myself with the track, and proceed to turn a decent lap time (7th overall) for the afternoon qualifying race. When 2:00 pm came, I was able to get my usual good start into turn 1 and was leading a freshly prepared 1973 Skip Barber/John Cannon March of Paul Wilson (Graham Collins Restorations did the pristine work at his Santa Ana, Ca. shop), however Paul was able to get a better hole shot exiting the carousel (turn 6) and out accelerated me up the straight towards turn 7. I settled into a good pace running 3rd in class, when I encountered another problem while exiting turn 10. While accelerating at great speed towards turn 11, I felt an engine vibration and sharp jab into my seat back rest. I looked down and saw the engine had lost oil pressure and shut down the engine, coasting around 11 and bringing the Eagle to rest in the center of the infield. I sat the rest of the race out, while in the car watching others drive by. I had plenty of time to think whether or not I shut off the engine in time.
Upon inspection, Bill found that the long Grade 8 bolt that held the drive gears for the water pump, dry sump pump, and the new harmonic damper to the engine, had worked its way loose and slammed into my seat back rest, causing a big dent in my Eagle’ s back rest aluminum structure. In the process of installing the new harmonic damper, he was unable to properly seat the damper and get the 80 lbs of torque needed to do so. There is little space to get good torque on the bolt head, so the decision was made to drill a hole in the backrest in order to get a socket extension into the area. Now the bolt was properly seated and torqued from inside the cockpit. All properly reinstalled with new belts in place, the engine fired up, appearing to be strong and unaffected by malady of events.
Sunday warm-up proved all was mechanically well in the engine bay area, with only a minor drive belt alignment adjustment by Bill and we were ready for the race.
My start was not my best, as I was blocked by traffic going into turn 1, and throughout the first 6 turns, eventually all spaced out into a race finishing order. We finished 8th OA, 3rd in class. The incredible lightweight 1973 McRae GM1 of Jay Ester was exceptionally fast with his titanium equipped machine. Winning, at 2 seconds a lap faster, over 2nd place finisher Bruce Leeson in his 1969 McLaren M10B and 3rd place finisher, and Season Series Champion, Steve Davis in his 1969 Gurney Eagle Mk 5. These two particular cars represent Historic F5000 racing at its absolute best, with only hundredths of seconds a lap separating 2nd and 3rd place. The fans loved the great F5000 racing!
Looking back over this final race weekend, had we not had mechanical issues and enjoyed more practice time, I know we would have been even more competitive. Bruce Leeson and Steve Davis are both very comfortable in their cars, having the advantage of lots of practice laps around Infineon Raceway.
We did well all things considered; finishing 3rd in class and 2nd in the season Class A category for cars built before 1971. Disappointing to me, as we lost 3rd OA place in the series by four points to Rick Parsons. Having run most of the season with a tired engine did not help our overall point’s position. Hopefully we can come back even stronger for the Historic Formula 5000 Revival Series in 2011. For me, it’s all been an amazing journey to have been reunited with same car I drove to a championship title in 1969, and to still be racing it 41 years later, now that’s an incredible achievement! After all racing is my life.