Interview and photos by Dennis Gray
Steve Davis of Carmel, California spends many weekends at the helm of a Eagle Mk 5 participating in the competitive Formula 5000 Revival Race Series. Davis is a repeat F5000 Revival Series Champion, having won the championship in the inaugural 2008 season, in addition to being the 2010 champion.
Steve sat down to discuss his Eagle Mk.5, his Formula-5000 2010 Championship season, and himself. Besides all the history, Steve also shares with Sports Car Digest a lap of Laguna Seca in his Eagle, gear by gear, bump by bump, turn by turn. Great stuff.
Sports Car Digest: Could you give us a quick history of Steve Davis?
Steve Davis: I grew up in Ohio and I just always had a fascination with cars. In 1969 my cousin had a ’62 Corvette. One morning about 4 a.m. we headed out for Indianapolis for Pole Day. He knew Bobby Johns, who was running that year. Unfortunately it rained all day. We got to walk around Gasoline Alley and meet some of the people. I remember the Corvette Club got to go out onto the track, four wide all the way around the track. I was hooked. We got to meet Bobby Johns, got to walk around, look at the cars. I remember Hurtubise had that huge wedge-shaped, front-engine Mallard there that year. It was great fun, and it just kind of spurred me on with cars. I remember at the end of the month laying on the apartment floor listening to the Indy 500. Growing up in Southern Ohio, you could pick any radio station and you could hear it live. A couple of years later a buddy of mine had a big field and he would buy old Corvairs and we would blast around in the field and see who had the best time.
We weren’t the best mechanics, we did the main bearings on a Corvair once, we didn’t have a torque wrench so we asked the farmer down the road if we could borrow his. He said, “You boys don’t need a torque wrench, just tighten them as tight as you can get them, and then give them one more turn.” So we put about an eight-foot pipe on the breaker bar on that Corvair. When we were done we pulled that car down the highway at 50mph, let the clutch out and it didn’t turn an inch. So there’s my introduction to the importance of actually measuring and doing things correctly.
The first car I actually had ownership in was a Fiat 500 Cinquecento that a buddy of mine and I split when I was 14. We bought it for $50 from a country preacher. That preacher must have been truly blessed because the car looked and ran great when we bought it, but within two weeks it was shedding parts all over Cincinnati. When the exhaust broke off the engine we ended up spot-welding lawn mower mufflers to the head and selling it for $25. At 15 I bought a Triumph motorcycle in a box. A ’52 all in parts, a ’52 frame, ’56 engine, ’54 transmission, and built it in the basement over the winter so it was ready for my 16th birthday. It was a fun bike and I got to experiment a little bit with making it run, making it stop and doing all those good things. I even used a torque wrench! In the meantime, I got hold of a Healey 100-6, and that’s actually the car I got to take my driver’s test in. It was pouring down rain and the side curtains leaked and the poor guy who got to go with me just couldn’t figure out what I was doing in that car. You couldn’t see out of the windows, no defroster or anything else. Finally, after about five minutes into the drive, he said, “Just take me back, you passed.” Buying, fixing, and selling cars went on for a while. Just to cut it a little bit short, by the time I was 18 I had had about 20 vehicles. All of them in the $50 to $300 range. At 16 I drove from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico by myself in a Spitfire. So I really, really enjoyed cars. At 18 I ended up in the Navy to let them fund my education. I had figured out I would never be able to afford school on $1.50 an hour at the Lincoln-Mercury dealer, so I took a few years, joined the Navy, saw the world, and I actually found a career in software.
While I was in the Navy, I also met my wife. She was my first boss when I went to Guam. So we hit it off and I still loved cars, but things got set aside while we did our thing in the Navy. We had interesting cars, TR3s, Fiats, Mercedes, Jaguars. Anything that could be fixed and be fun. Once out of the Navy we were able to leverage what we learned and start our careers in software. We worked mainly with wineries and distilleries. We had a great time traveling around to all the wineries, wine auctions and events. We had a bunch of cars through that time, nothing too special. A few BMWs, things that were reliable that could get me to and from the work.
In 1989 my wife bought me a three-day course at Jim Russell at Laguna Seca. We lived across the street and we could see Turn 6 from our deck. There were probably 25 people in the class. For whatever reason, maybe all of that driving beaters in the snow in Ohio, I was about second-quick in the class. I thought that was about it. I was in my 30s and I thought there was no point in going on. Then I went out and watched one of their pro races and took a stopwatch, and I thought, “Hey, I could do that.” As it turned out I ended up running with Russell Racing for eight or nine years, which was a great experience. I ran some of their pro races and their school races. I got to meet a lot of people, Clint and Casey Mears, Mario Dominguez, of course they were just kids then, but it was great to meet them and run with them. These were all Formula Mazdas. We decided to try SCCA with Formula Mazda, and we ran several years and had several cars there. I still did not know quite what I was doing mechanically for setup on the cars. We could win a race here or there and then be slow somewhere else.
By probably 2001, when I was going to sell the car, I started to realize what was going on. So, we sold those cars and bought a Jaguar XK120. I thought I was pretty much done with racing, and I thought we would do touring, maybe do the Colorado Grand, that sort of thing. And then one day I was sitting at my house across from Laguna Seca and I heard cars running at the track. I was heading into town anyway so I took the XK, drove over, and pulled up in front of the bathrooms. When I came out there were guys with a clipboard looking over my car. I asked what they were doing and he said teching the car. I asked did it pass, and he said yes. It turned out it was a HMSA event weekend. So I went over, signed in, and paid my money. It was a couple of hours before the start so I ran home and bolted in the roll bar. I got my gear and drove back to the track and found myself vintage racing for the first time. Had a great time, but the Jaguar was a really, really fast car and you only got one stop for each session, after that you had to go back and let it sit and cool for about an hour for the brakes to work again. So that first lap I could get most of the cars, and then I would just wave them by for the rest of the race. I started looking at the Jaguar and I thought, you know, we were doing 120 mph or so down into Turn 2, and I was sitting on a wooden floor and I’ve got an aluminum door that’s just a little thicker than a Budweiser can and it’s probably safer to go 150 mph in a proper race car, so I decided to look around.
About the same time, a friend of mine, Bruce Leeson, had been vintage racing a Lotus 69 Formula B car, but he also had a Formula 5000 car. I really didn’t know that much about the F5000 cars. I went out to watch him run a couple of times, and there weren’t very many 5000s running. He’d run with Can-Am or he’d run with Atlantics or Indycars, and he really didn’t have a lot of direct competition. I thought maybe I could do this. It’s a Chevrolet so it’s not so exotic money-wise. Bruce had started a group to organize Formula 5000 on the West Coast. He sent me an e-mail one day and said if you’re still looking for a car there is a guy down in Southern California who said he wanted to be put on the list but he doesn’t race his car anymore. It turned out to be this Eagle, #512. I was already going down to Simi Valley to look at a 332 that week, so we added a trip to Santa Ana to see the Eagle. The Eagle was just a couple of blocks from Gurney’s shop, and it had been sitting for 17 years. The owner was involved in some satellite-related business, so his warehouse was humidity- and temperature-controlled. The car was obviously something that he loved. It had sat for all those years and it looked brand new. It looked like a jewel in a museum. He had it restored in the mid-1980s by John Collins, who had worked with Gurney on the Le Mans effort when Gurney and Foyt won. John and his son Graham restored the car in the middle ’80s, and it’s as you see it today. They did a great job. The owner at the time, and rightly so, had a concern about who he was going to sell it to; whether they were going to drive the car, or if they were even qualified to, and to keep it original. We came to an agreement and that’s how I came to own the Eagle.
SCD: Did you have any hero drivers growing up?
SD: Well, A.J. Foyt certainly, and Mario Andretti certainly, and I liked Bobby Unser. Most of the guys, back then were allowed to say what they thought, and I enjoyed that. I think a lot of the brilliance of A.J. Foyt kind of went away when he became a team owner. And I was a little sad to see that when his father died, things kind of unraveled for him. But I think at the time, through the ’60s, on any given day there was no one better in the car. So, those were really my heroes. I have to say that I was not really involved in racing. I loved it, but it’s funny, growing up in Ohio all you had to do was go join the SCCA and get started. It’s really silly, but I did not know that until later in life. I would watch the races if I could, and I got hot rod magazines and all those things you get when you’re a kid. And Dan Gurney was certainly a hero, I never had a hero worship thing going on, but had a real respect because those guys, they could sit in anything and win. And did! I look at old magazines in the antique stores while my wife is looking at other stuff, and if you ever get a chance and you find someone who has a couple of hundred magazines from the late ’60s you can pick up any single one of them and Dan Gurney has won something. I was looking at magazines at Cannery Row and I picked up one and he was winning at Spa and then I picked up another and he had won at Riverside in a stock car. It’s pretty much like anything they sat in they won, they just had a feel.