For a driver who’s raced in F1, has won Le Mans and has also finished third in the Indy 500, Vern Schuppan is surprisingly little known in this country. Part of the reason for that is the unconventional career path which the South Australian chose: he’d upped stumped and headed for Europe with dreams of world motor racing domination even before he’d actually contested his first car race.
Indeed, by the time he did make his first race start in Australia, he’d already made it to F1 and had finished second at Le Mans. By then he’d also done a lot of Formula 5000 races, both in Europe and the States.
In ’74 Schuppan was running British Formula 5000 for Irish entrant Sid Taylor. At the end of the year Taylor took the team to California with hopes of getting amongst the huge US prizepool.
The Australian qualified fourth at Laguna Seca (behind Mario Andretti and James Hunt) but did not start the final after blowing an engine in the heat race. The car had been running without an airbox, with just thin mesh covering the eight intake trumpets, and somehow a stray bolt went into one of the trumpets and was ingested by the engine – with disastrous results.
It was a cap-head bolt, unlike anything that was actually on the Sid Taylor Lola, so where it came from and how it managed to find its way past the mesh was something of a mystery.
At Riverside Schuppan qualified fifth, this time ahead of Hunt. As a result of the twin-heat system, Schuppan ended up starting behind Hunt in the final, which proved not the place to be as Hunt slid on some oil on the opening lap and spun his Eagle. With nowhere to go, Schuppan’s Lola t-boned the future world champion’s Eagle.
“Funnily enough I must have impressed Eagle team owner Dan Gurney as he came up after the race and asked me to drive for him,” Schuppan says. For the ’75 season at Eagle he would replace Bobby Unser, who Gurney felt wasn’t getting the job done on the road courses.
Even though the Eagle 755 was no match for the Lola T332, Schuppan did well, finishing second at the first Long Beach Grand Prix, with no brakes.
“Dan said, ‘Oh you slackened off a bit at the end.’ But when the mechanic got in the car to move it, he couldn’t stop it and crashed into something – it literally had no brakes!”
For 1976 Gurney persisted with the Eagle. It showed promise at Pocono, where Schuppan set fastest lap, while the wet at Watkins Glen probably masked its shortcomings.
“In qualifying the right rear tyre came off and I followed the Armco fence all the way down the straight – and didn’t hit anything! Before the heat Dan took the radiator cap off and didn’t put back on. I spun on my own water… I started from the back in the final and it’s raining hard. I’m up to third after the first lap. We did so much wet racing in Europe that we were generally ahead of the Americans.”
Schuppan was on for a result but ended up crashing after a clash with compatriot Warwick Brown. After the race Gurney relented and bought his charge a new Lola T332 for the rest of the season.
Schuppan has mixed feelings working for the legendary American.
“I didn’t have a lot of input with Dan. He had some strange ideas. He was difficult in many ways. Dan believed he could be quicker in the car. Testing at Riverside one day he asked whether I could take the esses flat? I said the car would fly off the road! Anyway Dan got in the Eagle to see for himself. He thought the car was pretty good, but then he was five seconds slower than my lap record pace…”
But by then it was over as US F5000 was reconfigured as the reborn single-seater Can-Am. As Schuppan related in AMC #96, he thought the new enclosed F5000 category was a disaster.
“We were shocked. The logic was that it would bring back the glory days. It was pie in the sky. They wrecked a fantastic series: 12-car trains – the Unsers, Andretti, Redman, Jackie Oliver, John Cannon, all in there bombing around.”
“Testing at Riverside one day Gurney asked whether I could take the esses flat? I said the car would fly off the road! Anyway Dan got in the Eagle to see for himself. He thought the car was pretty good, but then he was five seconds slower than my lap record pace…”