The Way It Is/ Appreciating Jerry Grantby Gordon Kirby
He was a big, balding man, an unlikely-looking race car driver, but Jerry Grant could race with the best of them. From the Pacific northwest, Grant made his name in the early '60s in big-bore Can-Am-type sports/racers and went on to become Dan Gurney's favorite co-driver and teammate. An amiable man with a keen sense of humor Grant, 77, passed away last week after a period of declining health.
Grant co-drove a Shelby Cobra with Gurney in 1964 at the Targa Florio and Le Mans and the pair came within a few hundred yards of winning Sebring in 1966 aboard a Ford mk II. Grant also raced Gurney's AAR Lola T70-Ford Can-Am car in the '66 USRRC, taking four poles and winning at Bridgehampton.
He also raced Indy cars on a semi-regular basis from 1965-'78, often for AAR, and famously lost the 1972 Indy 500 when he came into the pits for an unscheduled stop with a dozen laps to go, handing victory to Mark Donohue. Later that year in qualifying for the California 500 at the Ontario Motor Speedway Grant became the first man to officially lap a closed course at 200 mph.
© All American Racers Collection
A few years ago I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Grant talking about his career. He began to make his mark by winning some SCCA races in the Pacific northwest and also venturing across the border to Canada driving first a Ferrari sports/racer, then a Chevy-powered Lotus 19. Aboard the Lotus in 1963 he challenged and beat the best in the business at the Kent road circuit outside Seattle and also at Laguna Seca.
"I won a lot of races with a Chevy-powered Lotus 19, probably the first guy to have one of those with an American engine," Grant recalled. "I had a horsepower advantage in that Lotus 19, but it was great. I beat Dan and Parnelli and Jimmy Clark, and all those guys at Laguna Seca. I ran away from them until the engine broke, or the tires fell off."
Gurney and Grant hit it off and Dan invited him to drive for the fledgling Dan Gurney Racing. Grant agreed, and they became lifelong friends.
"I got a call from Dan and he asked me if I wanted to join him driving for Ford Motor Company in the United States and Europe," Grant remarked. "That was like Christmas a thousand times over."
Grant moved to Southern California to be closer to Gurney's shop in Costa Mesa and became Dan's co-driver and teammate at All American Racers and in Carroll Shelby's Cobra and Ford GT40 teams.
"I co-drove with Dan in most everything and Shelby was involved in the sponsorship of the USRRC car that I drove for Dan," Grant added. "It was probably three or four years of the most exciting racing I had in my life."
Grant became Gurney's favorite teammate.
"Jerry had a lot of spirit and confidence in his own driving," Dan observed. "He was not an engineer kind of driver but he had great seat-of-the-pants car control and the spirit to say, 'Let's try it.'
"Jerry didn't mind sharing a car with me. He liked it because we usually ran well and he could hold up his end in a way that was a plus to have him as a teammate. He left the setting up of the car to me because he could feel the same kind of things I was trying to cure, and when we did cure it, he was totally happy. It was a good combination."
At the time Gurney had just opened his own shop in Southern California, Dan Gurney Racing, a precursor of All American Racers. The first car turned out by Gurney's little operation was a modified Lotus 19 fitted with a Ford V8 and at Sebring in March of '64 Gurney and Grant's Lotus 19J was the only car to seriously challenge Jim Hall's Chaparral-Chevy. Dan chased Hall through the first hour and led briefly before the rough airport circuit proved too much for the Lotus's suspension. Hall and co-driver Hap Sharp went on to win the race by four laps from the leading Ford GT40 driven by Bruce McLaren/Ken Miles.
At the Targa Florio in April Grant made his European debut co-driving one of three Shelby Cobras with Gurney. Dan finished the first lap of the 45-mile Madonie circuit in third place overall behind a pair of Porsche 904s and first in the GT class. For a long time he and Grant led the GT category but on the last lap the car's rear suspension collapsed and the chassis broke from all the pounding on the rough Sicilian roads. Gurney crawled home eighth overall and second in the GT class. Grant recalls how difficult the Cobra was to drive on the ancient, twisting Sicilian roads.
"The Ferraris and Porsches ate that track up but with the Cobra it was hard work," Grant admitted. "The track was really rough and I was happier when I'd get into the turns because on the straightaway you'd use the whole street, bouncing from bump to bump. You couldn't back out of it. You had to keep it on the floor and hope the car would lurch the right way to make a pass."
Grant broke into a grin before adding: "But some of the racing that was the most exciting was getting to and from the race track!"
He then proceeded to describe a rental car race featuring Shelby's fleet of American Targa Florio Cobra drivers. Grant was a passenger in Gurney's rentacar.
© All American Racers Collection
At the Daytona Continental in 1965, run over 2,000 kilometers, Gurney's Ford-powered Lotus 19J proved to be seriously unstable at high speed. Gurney and Grant struggled with the car in practice but in the closing minutes Dan tried adding a spoiler to the tail, solving the problem.
"At Daytona with the Lotus 19," Grant said, "I never got any practice in the car and Dan kept complaining that it wouldn't go down the straightaway. I think I got one lap in it."
Gurney quickly stormed through the field to take the lead, blowing-off the NART-entered factory Ferraris driven by John Surtees, Pedro Rodriguez and Walt Hansgen, as well as two new Ford GT40s and a trio of Cobra Daytona coupes run by Shelby. After five hours Gurney and Grant had built up a whopping five-lap lead only to have the engine fail, enabling Shelby's team to sweep the top four places.
At Le Mans in June, Gurney and Grant shared one of Shelby's Cobra Daytona coupe. Shelby fielded five Ford GT40s and a pair of Cobra coupes at Le Mans in '65. After losing time early in the race because of a faulty oil pressure gauge Gurney and Grant fought their way back into contention, re-taking the GT lead and threatening for overall honors with Grant setting a new GT class lap record.
"Dan taught me a lot about how to run an endurance race, mostly in braking, how to save the brakes," Grant said. "That was crucial with the Cobra GTs. We would take care of our brakes by going down the back straightaway and instead of diving on the brakes we'd let it bleed off maybe forty mph. Those cars would go about 210 mph and we'd let them bleed down to 170 or whatever, and then we would brake. We ended up being so far ahead of everybody because they had to make an extra brake change, and they were changing the whole units.
"I got a lesson there because I broke down a lot. It also taught me that in the same car I was as quick, or quicker, than anybody on the race course and was smart enough to get a draft from the Ferraris that were running twenty mph faster down the straightaway, and I'd have fast time. Whoever was the last guy in the car between Dan and me would have fast time."
But as dawn arrived their engine gave out.
"We would have won the race but Shelby slowed Dan down because Edsel Ford wanted the Fords to be in a row," Grant said. "But Dan wouldn't slow down. Finally he got pissed off and slowed-down, but he slowed-down so much that the damn thing blew a head gasket. That was too bad because we had the race won."
In 1966 Grant co-drove one of Shelby's new and more powerful 7.0 liter Ford mk IIs with Gurney in the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours. The Mk II Fords dominated the Daytona season-opener, sweeping the first three places with another Mk II finishing fifth behind the leading Ferrari. The race was won by Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby with Gurney and Grant finishing second ahead of Walt Hansgen/Mark Donohue.
At Sebring the following month Gurney and Grant were the dominant force, running away from Miles/Ruby only to encounter a bitter, last-minute engine failure, grinding to a stop on the last lap barely a quarter-mile from the checkered flag. Dan pushed the big car to the finish but was disqualified because a new rule required cars to cross the line under their own power.
"At Sebring we had the race won and the oil pump drive went out and Dan had to push it," Grant recalled. "I was walking out to victory circle and then they disqualified him for pushing the car."
Grant also raced an AAR Lola T70-Weslake/Ford in 1966 in the United States Road Racing Championship, taking four poles and winning at Bridgehampton in May. Gurney took over the T70 for the inaugural Can-Am series and won the second round of the exciting new series at Bridgehampton, leading all the way from pole. It was the first and would turn out to be the only win for Ford in the original, unlimited Can-Am.
Grant first qualified at Indianapolis in 1965 and raced in ten Indy 500s through 1976, often in AAR Eagles. AAR seriously hit its stride with Roman Slobodynskyj's '72 Eagle-Offy which dominated Indy car racing over the next three or four years. Bobby Unser was AAR's number one driver from 1971-'75 and in '72 Unser broke the track record at Indianapolis by an astonishing eighteen mph--the largest increase in the Speedway's history. But Unser made no secret of his dislike of teammates, particularly team owner Gurney's good buddy Grant. Unser argued vigorously against Grant driving AAR's second Eagle at Indianapolis but Grant hung out persistently in front of AAR's garages in Gasoline Alley before finally being given the ride in the team's second car.
"When I got the ride in '72 it was a movie in itself," Grant grinned. "They decided to run the second car and Bobby didn't want me in the car. He wanted a sprint car driver and Dan wanted me. I sat outside the garage every night on a wheel horse and they made the deal with Bobby on the Friday night that if Grant was out there when we left then he got the ride. And I was there of course, and got the ride.
"Through my Indy career with Dan he always favored me personally over Bobby Unser. But I continually got the second grade stuff. Bobby had the choice of engine and Bobby did all the testing so I had to come in stone cold, but I became quite a rival."
The situation created a deep schism in the team.
"We had a very straight-up setup and Jerry drove the wheels off it," Gurney said. "He was a thorn in Bobby's side. Jerry was a very good natural driver and I helped him in the setup of the car versus the way Bobby liked to operate."
Grant was a serious threat to Unser on the high speed tracks.
© All American Racers Collection
Unser qualified comfortably on the pole beating Peter Revson's factory McLaren by three mph and Mark Donohue's Penske McLaren by four mph. Most of the field was ten or more mph off Bobby's pace. Grant qualified fifteenth, six mph slower than Unser.
Bobby took control of the race in the opening laps only to drop out after just thirty-one laps because of a burned piston. With Unser out, Gary Bettenhausen took over in Penske's second McLaren pursued by Grant in the second AAR 'Mystery' Eagle and Donohue in Penske's number one entry. Bettenhausen was looking a likely winner but with only eighteen laps to go he lost his best chance to win the Indy 500 when his ignition system quit, handing the lead to Grant.
"That car handled so well," Grant warmly recalled. "We ran on race horsepower. Penske and Donohue and Bettenhausen had adjustable boost. So every time that I would close on Gary, if everything would have worked right I could never have beat him because he could squirt away from me. But he broke and I lapped Donohue before the last pitstop."
Grant made his final stop for fuel after 166 laps but twenty-two laps later, with the race apparently in the bag, he surprised everyone by coming in again. A front wheel had gone out of balance and the vibration started to bother Grant who was driving without a neck strap which most drivers used to keep their heads upright in the later stages of the race.
"My neck muscles had gone away so I'd lean down on the straightaway and then come upright for the turns," Grant explained. "That wasn't a problem. The problem was they had slowed me down so much. Bobby came out in the middle of the pitlane with a wheel hammer and a cigarette, slowing me down because I had such a lead.
"I only had fifteen laps to go so a I slowed down and my tire picked up a bunch of crap. I thought the tire was going away because it started pushing on me. The radio had broken down. I pointed in one time to tell them and they didn't catch it. The next time, I came in.
"Bobby was out of the race, so unexpectedly they pulled me into Bobby's pit. I was motioning to the right front tire and it turned out to be the left front tire that needed changing. At the same time John Miller plugged in the fuel from Bobby's tank. They yanked it out right away but we were hooked up for 1.2 seconds or something. That was the violation they got us for."
Gurney told the tale from his perspective.
"Jerry came close to winning the race had his neck not given out," Dan commented. "Our radios failed on the second or third lap of the race, so there was no radio communication. I couldn't imagine why Jerry was coming in because he had made his last scheduled pitstop and I was trying to figure out what it could be, unless he was running out of fuel. I thought, we don't have any more fuel in his tank so let's refuel from Bobby's, which was damn near full. As he came into the pits, Jerry pointed to the right front tire. Then I realized he didn't need gas and I asked him to pull out, but he had been hooked up for a few seconds. Jerry went back out and actually passed Mark who was a lap down in second."
As Donohue won for Penske, Grant wasn't credited with any of his final twelve laps after the illegal refuelling. He was classified twelfth, a serious disappointment to say the least and through his final days Grant remained unhappy with USAC's chief steward Harlan Fengler's ruling.
"It had been a $500 fine in the past and Penske was the one who got that," Grant says. "Harlan Fengler was the one who made the decision on the spot that the last thirteen laps that I ran didn't count. When I won a race I always went an extra lap to get my composure to figure out who I was going to thank and so on.
"So I pulled in and victory circle was full because Penske had pulled Donohue in. We went to court on it but it was a waste of time even 'though twenty-three of the thirty-three scorers agreed I'd won the race."
A few months later in qualifying for the California 500 at the Ontario Motor Speedway Grant and Unser became the first men to break the 200 mph barrier on a closed course. Both Grant and Unser lapped in practice at over 200 mph and Unser was not at all happy when Grant became the first man to officially achieve the benchmark in a qualifying run.
"Dan wanted to go 200 mph," Grant recalled. "They were selling cars like hotcakes but there was a lot of competition from McLaren in particular and Bobby was going to go for it. We had big blowers and I think Parnelli and Penske had big blowers too. They ran the engine with as much boost as the blower would put out and Bobby blew up three engines. Finally, I was in line and Dan came up and said, 'Do you want to try to run 200?' I'd been running 196 with race horsepower and I said, 'Sure.'
"John Miller, the engine man, came up and said, 'I gave it some more horsepower. Can you handle it?' I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Do you think you can handle more horsepower?' Well, that's like asking a drunk if he wants another drink. So I said, 'Sure!' And then just before we fired up the engine Miller said, 'You want all she's got?' And of course, I said, 'Sure!'
"When I went out I knew I had a lot of horsepower but I didn't know how much. I short-shifted so I didn't light the tires and get them too hot, but it still lit the tires in second and third gears. I wanted to go right away because at that time going on cold tires was an advantage and when I got up to speed I thought I had a top fuel dragster behind me! I thought I was going to go 220."
Grant was sideways in all the corners on three of his four qualifying laps.
"It was the first time I'd had that much horsepower so my entry speed was faster. People said it looked like a smooth ride from outside but I was sideways and catching it every lap. Those cars you could drive sideways and you could catch them. Nowadays it's like feathering a light switch but back in those days you could actually dirt track the car. On the last lap, when I knew I'd gone 200, I backed out of it and just brought it around."
Grant's first three laps were all over 200 mph and he took the pole just shy of the magic mark, averaging 199.600 mph over four laps. The next day Unser turned the first official four-lap qualifying run over 200 mph. He was a 'second day' qualifier however, starting twenty-third at 201.374 mph. But Grant didn't take the green flag because his engine blew on the pace lap and Unser came through to lead for a few laps before trailing into the pits, his engine blown as well. At extremely high boost, they were asking too much from the venerable Offy.
Grant qualified for four more Indy 500s and ran his last Indy car race in 1978. He went on to represent Champion Spark Plugs for many years and was always a popular man at the racetracks with his easy manner and sharp, quiet wit. Through the end of his life Grant remained fast friends with Gurney.
"Dan always treated me well and kept me abreast of what was happening on all ends, the politics as well. I brought in Bardahl. They were my sponsor for a long time. When I had the Eagle I got a lot of miles in it and I was more comfortable in that car. Dan's six-two, and so am I, but I'm much broader so I didn't need the upholstery.
"Those are the two things people remember about me, that I was the first to run 200 and that I won Indy but didn't. And I have Dan to thank for all of that. We became real good friends and Dan helped me with other cars when I wasn't driving for him. I'd go to him for help. We spent a lot of time together off the racetrack and he's still my hero."
Grant added a few words about legendary master fabricator Phil Remington who worked for Shelby's Cobra and Ford GT40 teams before joining AAR in 1967. Now in his 90s Remington continues to work most days at AAR.
"Phil Remington, without a doubt in my mind, was the best of everything," Grant said eight years ago. "Now he's my hero because he's in his eighties and he works twelve hours a day and he leads by example."
Jerry Grant was a true gentleman and a fierce competitor. Our condolences go out to Jerry's wife Sandy, their family and his many friends at AAR and beyond.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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