SCD: Compared to other cars you have driven, is the Eagle unforgiving, sharp, heavy, fast, slow? How would you describe his car?
SD: Well, I have driven an M10B McLaren in a session at Portland, one day, and then Formula Mazdas and so forth, and I would say the way the car handles now, this is one of the better handling cars. This is as good as the McLaren I drove. It has a short wheelbase, so it tends to move around a lot. And, before I got the handling sorted out, which we talked about before, this was a car that you actually had to stay on top of on the straightway, it was that nervous everywhere. You have to stay ahead of these cars, they have so much weight in the back end, and this car is a pretty heavy car, the rules allow 1350 pounds and this is almost 1600 pounds. But the distribution on the front end is only about 600 pounds. So, all that weight is behind you. Once it starts to go around on you, it’s pretty unstoppable. You have to stay ahead of it. You have to turn the wheel before the slide begins. In that way, I would say it’s unforgiving. It just requires what you should be doing in any racecar all the time anyway.
SCD: For those of us who have never driven an Eagle 5000, describe the driving, how far is it between each shift?
SD: Well, the gearbox is an LG600, and the gearset weighs I guess, 75 pounds. So you’re moving a lot of stuff. And the shift is rather long for a racecar. It is about four inches to go from second to third, and it has a heavy feel to it. You have to wait. It’s different than a Formula Mazda where we didn’t use the clutch because it had a very light gearset. You lift a little bit, pull the lever, and get the gear. This LG600, it’s a slow shift, because you’re moving so many things and they’re so heavy and there’s lots of momentum going on. I think people who come from other cars and are driving something like this with an LG in it, they have to get used to being a little more patient with the gearbox, because you can beat them up pretty bad if you don’t. Steering effort, there is a lot of effort in the steering wheel. That is one of the things on this car when I first bought it that was very difficult for me, especially in Portland. That place has a right-hander with what seems like about five apexes. About the fifth lap I was worn out trying to turn the car. It’s running with about five degrees of caster in the front. This was going onto the back section. The G-forces in the car, and then trying to turn the wheel and hold that through the apexes, was really a lot of effort.
The car is not too nervous on the straightaway now, but at a really high-speed section you can’t see the gauges. At Atlanta, we were right around 200mph. I couldn’t read the gauges from the buffeting and the vibration. I don’t know if I’d describe the car as nervous, but it blows around and so you just try to leave as much room as you can for everything.
The braking effort, it takes some finesse on this, because of the Hurst Airheart brakes. What happens is the pedal goes just a little soft no matter what you do, and if you have been in a normal race car, what you have to do is be 100 percent throttle and 100 percent brake, you can’t do that here, because what you have to do is squeeze the brake once in order to get the pucks out against the rotor, and then you can let off and hit them again for the 100 percent. If you don’t do that, one of the four wheels—and it will randomly choose which one—is going to lock up first. Then, because of all the weight in the back of the car, you find yourself looking at what was behind you. So we’re working on that and we have made it a lot better and I have some more ideas to try and fix it for this year. As far as the effort of pushing on the pedals, it’s fairly significant, more than you might think, especially at Road Atlanta. Certainly more than I thought. After 200mph down the back straight the braking area is downhill. I crested the hill, and stood on the brakes. Without locking the brakes, and at threshold braking, I barely got the car down to where I could turn in to the corner at the bottom of the hill. So that was a bit of a surprise, how much effort it takes to brake there. I had never been over 190 or 180 before and then tried to brake downhill, so it was quite the effort. Even more so to convince myself to do it again, on purpose.
SCD: Do you work out?
SD: Yes I do. I go to the gym pretty much five times a week. The one advantage I have over my competitors is even though my car is a couple of hundred pounds heavy, I am 100lbs. lighter than some of them. So that helps. I have always tried to stay in shape. In racing you really need to, especially as you get older. When I was 35 it didn’t seem to bother me, even though that is older in a racecar. When I was younger I would go to a pub and do whatever I wanted to do and I could still go out and be quick enough. Not anymore. Now, I need to get some sleep and rest, and sometimes that isn’t even enough.
SCD: Can you compare the Eagle to the McLaren M10B.
SD: The McLaren is a newer car even though they are both ’69s. The Eagle was developed in ’67, and then built in ’68 and ’69. The McLaren was a new car in ’69. So, they were quite a bit different in engineering and weight. I have driven Bruce’s car and I really like the way it handles. He has had it for a number of years, and with a great crew, so he has had time to get it sorted. At the time I thought it was like driving a Cadillac compared to my car, you step on the brakes and it actually stops when it is supposed to, you can turn the wheel without grunting. I think the Eagle, for the time it was built, is an amazing piece of technology. The other thing I like is that it’s American, and there are very few of those. It’s a work of art, it’s one of the prettiest cars ever built for the F5000 series or anywhere. The McLaren, engineering-wise, it has the DG gearbox is lighter and the shifting is much quicker, the car is lower and the brakes are better. The car overall is lighter itself. I don’t know, I guess if I didn’t have an Eagle, the McLaren is the car that I would want.
SCD: What was your most memorable race in 2010?
SD: I guess there are probably a couple of them that stand out for different reasons, we sat out ’09 because we rebuilt the car again and he had some issues with getting the halfshafts done so we raced in ’08, and we didn’t race in ’09. I was looking at the lap times from the vintage cars that ran in ’09, and I was thinking, even though we are in Class A for pre-1972 cars, I thought we could be competitive with the newer Class B cars. The first race of the year was Atlanta, and we actually led one of the races overall for a few laps. I thought my car was overheating so I backed off a little, and we finished 3rd overall, but our lap time was right there with the leaders.
So the next race was Watkins Glen, and I had been there in ’08, and for whatever reason it absolutely suits this car. The esses and the back side of the track just seem to be designed for the Eagle. This car and my driving style fit that track. So we got there, and unloaded the car and we went out to the first practice and we were probably fifth or sixth. The temperatures were around 60 to 70 degrees. In the second session we might have improved a spot or two and maybe we were up to fourth place or so in practice. This was with Bobby Rahal’s HMP Group, a phenomenally lucky thing, because we had an entire hour of qualifying. I put new brake pads on the car and I put the new tires on the car. I have a routine for qualifying. I put new tires on and I go out and I only run three or four laps for qualifying and then I park the car. I do not run the eight or ten laps that everyone does looking for that lap. I go out and I just get enough heat in the tires to make them gooey and then I put one lap down and then I go in and cool the tires and wherever I end up, that’s it. So we put brake pads on and bed the brakes and do the tire scrubbing, but the temperature had changed from the day before when it was 60 or 70 degrees. Now it was 94 degrees. So I went around to bed the brakes in and scrub the tires in and I looked down and the car was starting to overheat. I went in and tried to sit in the pits to let it cool down. I went out for a lap and it began to overheat again, so I drove it back to the garage and got out. It was 95 degrees, I was in my full driving suit, I am my own crew, and the only way I could change this overheating was removing some radiator tape. To get to the radiator you have take the nose off. So you have to take the front wing off, slide the bar off, undo the Dzus to get the nose off. I removed some of the tape from the radiator, put the nose back on, put the wing back on got my gear back on, strapped inside the car, get the car started. I am just wringing with sweat and I hear the guy on the PA say there are five minutes left in this qualifying session, and no one has improved since yesterday. I drove out of the pits, and I drove around a reasonable lap to clean the tires off, and I go past start finish and I put in one hot lap and the car was absolutely hooked up in every single corner. As I drove back to the garage people were giving me the thumbs up. I just thought they were appreciating the car. When I was unbuckling I heard we’d gotten the pole. It was just really, really neat because earlier in the session we didn’t get a single hot lap, just four laps trying to get the brakes and the tires up to temperature. And in the last five minutes we did a scrub lap and a hot lap to put it on pole. So that was pretty neat. For Saturday’s heat race we won, overall, from pole. Unfortunately, Sunday’s race was called by weather, but the trophy was awarded based on Saturday’s race. We’d won from the pole and it was an overall win. It was the first overall win, for an old car, either here or in New Zealand or anywhere else in the world that I am aware of.
Another event that was special was the Kohler International Challenge at Road America. Again we were lucky enough to win the pole, and this time the weather held and we were able to get the overall win in the feature on Sunday. To make it really special, Tony Adamowicz gave us the PRDA (Polish Racing Drivers Association) Pole Award.
SCD: Has Dan Gurney ever stopped by your pits, or has he made contact with you about the car?
SD: No, not at all, and I’ve had a few opportunities, I probably could have elbowed my way into meeting with him a few times, but I think he probably enjoys his privacy. While I would love to meet him someday, I did have a chance to race against his son, Alex, at either Skip Barber or Russell years ago, and he was a great kid. Someday Dan and I, our paths will cross and I will get to meet him. I saw him at Laguna, when they were honoring him last year, and Doug Magnon was there with Tony ”A2Z” Adamowicz, and I’m sure I could have finagled an introduction, but I don’t really want to butt in.
SCD: What events are you planning for in 2011?
SD: I am a little bit undecided right now. We would like to run the whole series again, but it is a big commitment to go back East. On the West Coast we are going to run the Laguna Seca and the LSR events, in April and June I think, which are not part of the F5000 series. We are probably going to run the Coronado HMSA and the Infineon CSRG events that are part of the F5000 series. We’ll see. As we get closer to a race weekend the desire seems to build. I’m pretty flexible.
SCD: What about other events?
SD: We can’t run at Laguna because they’re sound limited events. The LSR, which is HMSA-sanctioned, I run because they’re open sound, but the regular HMSA events or the vintage SCCA events we can’t make sound, even with mufflers. In fact, the last time, I ran in a sound-controlled event was an SCCA vintage weekend, and we were chasing down the leading McRae and they black-flagged me for sound infraction. How they knew it was my noise rather than his noise, I do not know. Actually, after I thought about it, we had been rolling past the sound meter all day, once I got close enough to him I thought they could not tell who it was, but I guess they picked me. In April on a Tuesday they run an LSR event at Monterey, which is a practice run that we will do. In June they run a two-day LSR event and I think we will do that.
SCD: Anything you want to tell the readers?
SD: We can use more Formula 5000 cars and drivers out there. There are a lot of cars sitting and gathering dust, and we have a good group of people and they come from all backgrounds and racing, like Tony A2Z, he has done everything, he’s raced Le Mans, tried Indy, Daytona 24 Hours. He’s still driving the Formula 5000 he drove back then. We have people who have driven everything from Formula Fords to Sports 2000 to Corvettes. Then we have people who have never raced a car until they bought their F5000. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed in vintage racing is the people involved. It’s one of the few races where we are actively trying not to hit each other. In SCCA club racing, every weekend was a crash festival for one reason or another, and so it’s not that it never happens in vintage, but we really try to give everybody the room. There’s always someone to race with. Not just because of the drivers’ experience, but because the cars span a wide range from ’68 tubeframe cars all the way up to ’76. The capabilities of the cars are different and the speeds are vastly different, and we all run together, and we all have a great time. In the paddock, everyone lends a hand or parts or whatever expertise is needed. The F5000 group also puts on some of the best social events that you’ll ever find. We have had 70 of the original drivers and families come to a Mexican fiesta the group hosted. We have barbecues and wine tastings and it’s a really great place to be.
[Source: Dennis Gray]