Steve Davis – Driver Profile

SCD: Tell me about your first race – what really hooked you?

SD: In the Formula Mazda, as soon as we started we were in the top three all the time with many poles running at Russell. We couldn’t seem to win and I had a ton of second places, and everybody was kind of wondering when I was going to do this, because I would be on pole all the time. I just seemed to have a knack for trying to make each corner work and trying to find some space during qualifying and on that last lap or two just trying to do what it takes to get the pole. Then during the race, for whatever reason, I would drive a little more conservatively, a little more safely, and lose. One day I was driving and Case Montgomery was standing above Turn 2, and I was driving the wheels off giving 110 percent, but still running second. Something had happened to the leader and he was penalized and I didn’t know it. Case flagged me from Turn 2 and told me I was leading because I did not carry a radio. I dialed it back a bit and won the race. From that time on I started to figure out how to win a race. It was always fun, but then it became a mental challenge. I understood what was involved there. I would say it was always fun, but from then on the goal truly was winning the race and not just finishing.

SCD: When were you first exposed to Formula 5000?

SD: About 2001. I never saw the F5000s run during their heyday, though I had seen the cars now and then but I just never paid much attention to them. My friend who is also from Carmel, Bruce Leeson, has a McLaren M10B. So we started going to the races and looking at his car and it just kind of got me hooked to go out and give him some competition.

SCD: Do you remember the first time you saw an Eagle on the track?

SD: For F5000, it’s the one I bought. This is the first one I saw for this model Eagle. When I took it to Laguna Seca for the first time there had not been one on track for almost 18 years. The guy who sold it to me delivered it here to my house, and I went through the car for safety. A friend of mine, Frank D’Acquano helped me inspect the gearbox and rebuild the brakes. I put it on an open U-Haul trailer and took it to Laguna Seca, and before I got out of the Jeep the trailer was surrounded by people. Nobody had seen anything like it in years. That was the first time I drove it. When I bought it, the engine was oversize, it had a 350 engine and it had huge torque and no wings on it. And from Turn 6 all the way to Turn 8 at The Corkscrew it would spin the tires. So you would have to feather the throttle coming out of Turn 6 or it would spin the tires all the way to the top of The Corkscrew. Think Formula Ford on steroids.

SCD: Can you give us a little history of 512?

SD: It was originally bought by John Crean and James Garner’s AIR team. They bought three cars 511, 12 and 13. Davey Jordan was their driver. They had talked to a few other people about driving, I think Hobbs was originally going to be one of them in a Surtees, but that fell through. They were going to campaign these cars in the U.S., but I think James Garner’s interest kind of waned. I think he started looking at racing Baja or something like that. So the money went away. This car did not race in ’69. It was made in February. And in 1970 it was leased to Bill Simpson. Bill took it down to the Tasman Series in New Zealand. His best finish was 4th, but he ended up crashing the car and shipped it back to Crean, where Davey Jordan was still taking care of the cars. Davey got the parts and the tub. It really wasn’t that bad of an accident, it took a corner off, but it took the last of Bill’s money so it came back. Oddly enough, my understanding is a Kiwi in L.A. fixed the tub and you can see there are little hammer marks on it. I got to be pretty good friends with Davey Jordan, a really nice guy, and so he told me more about the car. He had it repaired and Davey took it around the U.S. and Canada in 1970 and raced it. I am not really sure what his highest race finish was with it. The car was designed in ’67-’68, so it was getting a little bit old for competition, and Davey was doing it on a shoestring. I think he finished 2nd at Riverside and might have had a 5th at a few other places so that’s a pretty darn good result for doing everything yourself with an older car. He just didn’t get a proper shot at it.

1969 Gurney Eagle Mk.5

Steve Davis in his 1969 Gurney Eagle Mk.5 at HMSA Laguna, June 2010

1969 Gurney Eagle Mk. 5 nose

1969 Gurney Eagle Mk. 5 nose

Gurney Mk 5 engine, 302 ci Chevrolet small block

302 ci Chevrolet small block. Note the small diameter headers on Steve's engine.

SCD: One of the many websites on the Gurney cars shows this chassis to have been originally built for a 302 AMC Trans-Am engine.

SD: Yes, that’s true. It’s my understanding it had an AMC engine in it when it was new because Garner did commercials for AMC. Actually I have the build sheet on that engine. It was an AMC block, but everything else inside was Corvette or aftermarket, Corvette pistons, rods and crank, everything.

SCD: Who built the Chevy engine in period?

SD: Ryan Falconer, back then. I have that build sheet too, and he wouldn’t honor that same price for me today. I think the whole rebuild in ’71 was about $1,600. Now Bob Slade does the engine for me. He’s just a great, great friend and a brilliant engine builder. He does vintage Formula 1 stuff, Cosworth, Ferrari, Alfa. He had worked on these Chevy engines back when they were running actively. He worked for Kraco in Indycar, for Michael Andretti. He also had worked with Ryan Falconer, so I got to meet Ryan through Bob and they still do some work together.

SCD: What shape was 512 in when you purchased it?

SD: It was pretty much as you see it right now. The difference is that it did not have wings on it. When we first got it we did some crack testing on the uprights and the suspension pieces, and we ran about three events. The engine was 5.7 liters.

SCD: What year did you buy it?

SD: April ’06. We ran it at several events in ’06 with no wings and really soft springs in it trying to figure out the setup. After the end of that year we pulled the engine out and had a crankshaft made, Bob Slade did all the work and brought it back to a legal 5-liter engine. He also helped me go through the entire car; every single piece that wasn’t riveted was disassembled and checked.

SCD: Tony Adamowicz in 510 runs a high rear wing off the rear suspension uprights. Did this car ever run that setup?

SD: This one never had a wing like that. I’m not sure if those wings were a part of an Eagle parts set. I think that the car was sold and designed without the wings. The only photos I have of this car are with the wings that are on it today. Davey did come up with a bi-plane front wing for a few races but I don’t think it worked. I asked Davey once about the design of the rear wing he had on the car and who made it. He said he’d bent it over a 2×4 in his garage and the design parameter was that it had to fit the words “Highland Toyota” on it.

Steve Davis, Tony Adamowicz, Gurney Eagle Mk 5

High wing Eagle of Tony Adamowicz (#7) following Steve Davis and others

SCD: Who builds the engines and transmissions for you and how close are they to what ran in period?

SD: The engine is done by Bob Slade. It’s a 5-liter, and I would say that it’s pretty much as close as you can get. I do not use MSD electronics, it has magneto points and condenser. It does not have a rev limiter, it has mechanical fuel injection. It has the original oiling system with the tank in the front, if you look at other cars they have moved them to the back. So the oil tank plumbing alone probably weighs 60 lbs. Braided steel hoses. The engine is really reliable, so the only thing we have done differently than then is we put alloy heads on it, but they are the correct 23-degree heads. We had iron heads on it that were a true work of art that John Collins or somebody through him had done. But they had cracked, or developed cracks in them, so we had to replace them. Alloy heads will last longer so that’s the only reason we did that.

The transmission we had done at Robin Automotive by Tony Nichols’ guys. He’s at Sears Point and he’s also a Kiwi. The gearbox had a little trouble shifting. When we tore the car down I took the transmission up to him and he went through it. He found a few cracked pieces, inspected everything, and re-aligned it all. That was the end of ’06, first of ’07. Since then I have just taken it apart and redone it myself each year and it’s been fine

SCD: How many rebuilds per season?

SD: The engine, what we have been doing is getting two seasons, they’re very reliable. So we run two seasons and take it down.

Gurney Eagle Mk 5 in pits for the HMSA event at Laguna Seca, June 2010

Gurney Eagle Mk 5 in pits for the HMSA event at Laguna Seca, June 2010

SCD: What is your redline? I hope I’m not asking a secret?

SD: No it’s OK, it’s all legal. It can go to 8800rpm. I try to shift at 8500rpm because sometimes I need the buffer. No rev-limiter and no electronics to save me.

SCD: What about the halfshafts and U-joints?

SD: The halfshafts and the U-joints, we look at those every year, and the suspension pieces, and the uprights we try to look at every year to make sure there are no cracks. On the halfshafts, the first two times we looked at them they were fine, and the last time we looked at them they lit up like a Christmas tree. I had no offs in the car or dumping the clutch to strain it. It was just 40 years and everything started to go. So I had shafts made and now we’re using CV joints. Some people did run CV joints back then, so they are period correct, and they’re much safer than the small BRDs we were running.

SCD: What about brake pads and tires?

SD: We try to get a set of tires for every race. They are Goodyear Eagles. A brand new set is probably worth a second or two a lap, and I just think that if I have towed the car to Atlanta, why race on old tires. I’ll quit eating out for a month if I have to. It’s really silly to tow it to the East Coast then run it on old tires. It takes a lot of the fun out of it.

They are also the original Hurst Airheart brakes. If you look at the other 5000s, some of them have gone to AP brakes or some other modern brake. Back when these cars ran originally a lot of people gave up on Hurst Airheart brakes because they couldn’t get them to work. We got them to work fairly well. You still have to give them a couple of strokes before you stop. I can get another second or two out of the car if I can get that final, final little bit out of the brakes. I just wanted to keep the car as original as possible. The pads, running on the West Coast it’s not that big a deal because the tracks are short, but when I ran the first time at Road America I realized that place probably takes a second pair of pads for the weekend. It really did. We probably use three sets of pads in a year depending on where we run.

Comments

  1. Will Silk says

    Hi Dennis,

    Thanks so much for bringing Steve’s words to the pages of SCD. Always great to read about these classic stock block racers and the people that make them go.

    Cheers!

    Will Silk

  2. says

    Fantastic article. I learned a lot more about Steve and his car than I knew before. Steve is a great driver and an excellent story teller. Thank you Dennis for allowing Steve to tell his story, showcase the Eagle and give us all more insight on a hot lap at Laguna Seca. Seb

  3. Cove Britton says

    Great story Dennis. I always try to say hello to Steve at the races, he is definitely one of the good guys (with a great car) and it is very interesting to hear more about his back ground!

  4. Paul Smith says

    Dennis, this is terrific! I was glued to the text and learned a great deal. The “lap at Laguna Secca” really captivated me, I thought I was even feeling the G forces and worried about where the back end was going. Thanks to you and Steve for a fantastic read.

  5. Dennis Losher says

    Dennis & Steve,

    Thanks for a great article. Neat to discover the background of fellow drivers.

    Dennis

  6. Larry Goldsmith says

    Dennis,

    Thanks for the great article. I know Steve Davis and have seen him race. I have never driven race machines much less the kind such as Steve and the other vintage F5000 are driving, but I find the events exciting and fun to watch. When reading Steve’s detailed account of preparation and the amazing turn by turn recall of racing Laguna Seca I was more impressed than ever about the man and his machine…

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