Fifteen years before the first Indy car race at Portland International Raceway, Seattle hosted an event called The Dan Gurney 200.
This came about through the efforts of a man named William Doner, then newly hired General Manager of S.I.R. Doner became acquainted with Gurney years earlier while acting as Sports Editor for a newspaper published in Gurney’s hometown (Costa Mesa, CA). Doner was a huge fan and the pair became friends. Once given the opportunity to run a racetrack, Doner jumped at the chance to bring the USAC Championship Cars to the Pacific Northwest.
The year was 1969 and the profile of professional auto racing looked very different than it does today. Nationally, Indy car racing was more popular than NASCAR and USAC itself was much more diverse. The Indy car series consisted of twenty four events. There were races on ovals and road courses. There were races on dirt tracks in which upright, front engined cars competed. Even the Pikes Peak hill climb was included in the schedule and awarded points toward the championship. Doner had taken a chance booking his race in late October but in all fairness, he probably didn’t have a choice. The season began on March 30th in Arizona and concluded at Riverside (So. CA) on December 7th.
In all, twenty two cars arrived to do battle on the 2¼ mile road course. A.J. Foyt and Gordon Johncock had taken a pass but most of the big names were there. Of particular interest to spectators, many of the entries had a Northwest connection. Jerry Grant, who had cut his teeth racing sporty cars at S.I.R., was there on behalf of Webster Racing. Oregonian Art Pollard was there piloting a stock block Plymouth powered Gerhardt for Andy Granatelli. “Barefoot” Bob Gregg had procured a Portland built Vollstedt and dropped in a Chevrolet. Max Dudley hailing from nearby Auburn, WA wasn’t quick enough to make the show at Indy but was assured a starting berth here. Bardahl Manufacturing of Seattle had supported Indy car racing for twenty years. They finally had a race in their own backyard and 1968 Indy winner Bobby Unser was their chauffeur. If there was a dark horse in the field however, it had to be Rolla Vollstedt’s current entry with underrated John Cannon at the controls. Cannon was the current track record holder and in fact, had proven his prowess at foul weather racing the year prior at Laguna Seca. In a veritable downpour, amidst a field of international stars, Cannon had rocketed from mid-pack to a convincing win.
#6 A.J. Foyt salutes race winner Mario Andretti after his 1969 Indy victory. The pair qualified first and second fastest and battled for the win until Foyt pit to replace his turbocharger. (Jay Koch Collection)
The weatherman cooperated on Saturday during qualifications. First defending Indy champion and point leader, Mario Andretti shattered Cannon’s track record. Andretti, also racing for Granatelli, was driving the same Brawner Hawk he’d used to win four other races so far that season. Next Albuquerque’s Al Unser bested Andretti’s mark in a Lola Ford entered by Parnelli Jones. Finally in storybook fashion, the race’s namesake Gurney cut the quickest lap at 1:14.1 and garnered the pole position. Much to his credit, Gurney drove a car of his own design and manufacture- an Eagle/Westlake Ford. Bobby Unser qualified fifth in the Bardahl entry, Cannon was seventh, Grant was tenth, Pollard was fourteenth, Dudley was sixteenth and Gregg would tag the field after experiencing engine problems.
Sunday’s race was held in two 100 mile heats. Heat one started in the dry but it didn’t hold for long. Andretti blasted away from Gurney and led flag to flag over Al Unser. Gurney finished third one lap down ahead of a surprising Sam Posey in a third Granatelli entry. Interestingly Posey’s mount was a 4WD Lotus formerly powered by a turbine engine (now Plymouth). Cannon was fifth, Dudley tenth, Gregg rebounded for eleventh, Grant nine laps off the pace in thirteenth. Both Bobby Unser and Pollard crashed out. One writer report that everyone got off course at least once! I believe that everyone starting with Gurney, probably did.
For the second heat Andretti elected to stay on slick tires while Al Unser started on treads. After the flag dropped and the rain returned, Unser passed Andretti and won by a sixty six second margin. Unser was awarded with the overall win (for some unknown reason) and due to another stellar drive in round two, Posey was credited with third (he would comment years later that his performance in the Gurney 200 was perhaps the best drive of his career). Gurney himself wound up with fourth place money, after hasty repairs Bobby Unser was fifth.
At the press conference that followed the race, runner up Andretti was asked about their decision not to start the second heat on rain tires. “After you win a race you get over confident,” he shrugged. “You are afraid to make any changes.” In the big scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. Mathematically Andretti already had the ’69 Championship won- even with two events remaining.
After the races Doner announced that he was he was going to try to reschedule “The Gurney” for mid-summer in 1970…but it didn’t happen. Unfortunately sometimes all you get is one shot.