Shock & Awe - 1990 Eagle 700

During the early 1980’s, top level sportscar racing had seen a dramatic increase in popularity. As the Western world slowly recovered from the economical malaise and oil shortages of the 1970’s, motor racing received an impulse of renewed interest. In Europe this period coincided with the introduction of the Group C formula in 1982. An echo of the fuel shortages remained in this category however, as Group C employed fuel limits to keep the speed of the cars in check.

On the other side of the pond however, things were done a bit differently. The United States of America were among the countries hit the hardest by the oil embargoes, and seemed to be the most eager to just forget all about it. In 1981 the International Motor Sport Association had already introduced the new Grand Touring Prototype category, featuring very similar designs to Europe’s Group C. One of the biggest differences however, was the lack of a fuel limit. This meant the cars could be built to their fullest performance potential, resulting in massively powerful machines.

Chevrolet's GTP program started with the Lola T600.

Chevrolet's GTP program started with the Lola T600.

The GTP category got off to a slow start, with only British specialists like Lola and March able to establish competitive designs. Later on bigger brands started joining the fray, including factory outfits from Toyota, Porsche and Ford with a peculiar front-engined model. As the series gained traction, America’s biggest manufacturer was scratching its head. Chevrolet had been watching the other companies enter GTP with wary eyes, and wanted a slice of that tasty IMSA cake.

Though the company had been at the forefront by supplying Lola and March with engines in the early years, they still lacked a true factory challenger. To this end they strengthened the bond with Lola, and introduced the mid-engined Corvette GTP in 1985. Featuring a Lola-developed T710 chassis, the car had very little in common with the street version of the C4 Corvette. Nevertheless the machine was given a distinctive Corvette-styled nose. These Corvette styling cues made it much more interesting from a marketing perspective compared to a pure Lola design.

The Corvette GTP included styling cues from the road going models to elevate the brand.

The Corvette GTP included styling cues from the road going models to elevate the brand.

The car was initially powered by a 3.4L turbocharged V6, which had been tested in a modified T600 chassis during the 1983 Daytona 24 Hours. Providing as much as 900 horsepower, the little unit punched far above its weight. But as with any American motorsport program, a V8 was never far away. Eventually 5.7L and 6L developments of the aluminum V8 found in the road going Corvette also made its way to the GTP chassis in independent hands.

With its massive power the Corvette proved to be a very potent and competitive package, only held back by persistent reliability issues. The T710 chassis had been developed with late 1970’s power figures (around 600) in mind, so it constantly needed strengthening to cope with the 800+ horsepower savagery it was being subjected to. Another major flaw laid in the car’s cooling system, which too often failed to keep up with the fury under the hood. These factors lead to the GTP becoming a great single lap combatant which sadly scored only two wins over its four year career.

Peerless Racing Corvette GTP battling a Jaguar XJR-9, 1988.

Peerless Racing Corvette GTP battling a Jaguar XJR-9, 1988.

Chevrolet decided to call it quits at the end of the 1988 season, and sold the last ever Corvette GTP chassis to privateers Peerless Racing. The team entered the V8-powered car into the final two rounds of the 1988 season, and scored an impressive debut at the Columbus 300 Kilometers. In the experienced hands of David Hobbs (GB) and Jack Baldwin (USA), the car managed to finish 4th overall.

Throughout 1989 however, the GTP succumbed to its well known weaknesses. A string of retirements greatly diminished Peerless’ confidence in the car. Despite evocative names as Jacques Villeneuve (Sr.) and Scott Goodyear at the helm, results remained incredibly poor. Tired of the Corvette’s woes, Peerless Racing sold the car to Eagle Performance Racing Team.

Eagle Performance was a tiny racing outfit hailing from Santa Barbara, California, founded by Paul Canary, Jay Drake and Jim Brucker. The three amigo’s had some grand plans with the old Corvette GTP chassis for 1990. Paul Canary’s ultimate goal was to race at the most prestigious endurance race of them all: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Immediately, there was a rather large problem. Canary had big dreams, but little money.

His dedication for the project became apparent when he sold off his collection of classic racecars, including rare Can Am machines and Johnny Rutherford’s 1975 Indycar, which had finished second at the Indianapolis 500. In the end the sales amounted to a total of roughly $500,000, a portion of which had already been used to purchase the Corvette. Not content on being prudent and leaving the rest of the money for the massive expense of getting a crew, car and parts halfway across the world to the French countryside, Canary upped the ante to an almost incomprehensible degree.

The titanic Eagle/Schubeck 621 V8

The titanic Eagle/Schubeck 621 V8

The Corvette had come in ready to race, fitted with a 6L aluminum V8. Paul Canary and his associates took a good long look at the very capable engine, and promptly threw it in the trash with the rest of the puny lawnmowers. If Eagle Performance was to run at Le Mans, they were going to do it as brashly in your face and aggressively American as possible.

With this in mind Canary contracted former dragracer turned engine guru Joe Schubeck, requesting an engine so stupidly large it just had to be good. Coming from a discipline where bigger always meant better, Schubeck knew exactly what Canary wanted. He presented Canary a spine-chilling 10.2L (621 ci), dual overhead cam, 32 valve monster of a V8, which he had based very loosely on Chevrolet big-block architecture. The gargantuan slab of Detroit iron belched out 900 horsepower at an exceptionally lazy 5500 rpm.

What we’ve got here is a dedicated, flag-waving, gutsy patriotic effort that says ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ Unfortunately that doesn’t win races, So the object is to keep the car alive...and if we get close to the end, maybe then we’ll be able to kick but and do a little dragging down the straighaways.
— Joe Schubeck
One of the largest engines ever to grace Le Mans.

One of the largest engines ever to grace Le Mans.

Unsurprisingly, the Eagle/Schubeck 621 had originally been intended to power dragsters, and even small boats. Never before had it been mounted to a vehicle intended to perform at the highest level for 24 hours straight. These little niggles did little to deter Eagle from using the engine though, so work started on modifying the chassis to accept the eight-cylinder leviathan.

Eventually the tiny team of dedicated mechanics successfully mated the iron giant to the chassis after extensive modification. The engine’s massive torque was really only measurable with a seismograph, but somehow the team managed to contain it and channel it through a Hewland VGC 5-speed manual gearbox. On the outside the car was refined as best Eagle could with their shoe-string budget, and fitted with high-intensity headlights to light the way through the French darkness.

In the process the team felt the car had lost its Chevrolet link, so any and all reference to its origins were removed and the car was renamed Eagle 700. The finished car, complete with wrecking ball engine, still weighed slightly less than 1000 kg (2204 lbs).

The aggressively patriotic effort attracted the attention of a large soft drinks company, which offered to sponsor Eagle for $20,000, provided the car be painted entirely in their corporate colors. Although his budget was tighter than Daisy Duke’s shorts, team manager Jay Drake proudly turned down the offer as he felt it was beneath him and the team.

We turned down sponsorship form a soft drink company. They wanted to paste their name all over the car for $20,000. We decided we didn’t want to sell our soul for that.
— Jay Drake
The 700's cockpit was a decidedly spartan affair.

The 700's cockpit was a decidedly spartan affair.

Eagle’s driving team consisted of Dennis Kazmerowski (USA) and Daver Vegher (USA), partnered by Paul Canary himself. Of the three, Canary was the only one to have raced at Le Mans before, having done a short stint in qualifying at the wheel of a McLaren M12 GT in 1981, before his teammate Michel Elkoubi (FRA) crashed the car out of contention. It was clear then that Eagle had their work cut out for them big time.

When word of the American insanity reached the French press, one reporter described the Eagle 700 with the words Le Monstre Retours (The Monster Returns), referring to the NASCAR’s 1976 visit. Upon arrival at Le Mans the curmudgeonly French officials immediately started causing problems for Eagle. Technical infringements on the car were found left right and center. The exhaust was mounted too low, the rear spoiler sat too high. It was a few millimeters too long there, and a few millimeter too short over here. Even the US-spec fire retardant overalls were below French standards.

Exasperated by the constant nagging, Eagle’s crew fixed every single tiny flaw the French had gleefully pointed out, and got ready for qualifying. The idea of the Eagle 700 with its immeasurable engine sounded very impressive to the French press and fans alike, but the bargain basement car was up against the creme de la creme of the endurance racing world.

It faced competition from cars like the V12 Jaguar XJR-12 LM, the 4-rotor Mazda 787 and 1000+ horsepower turbocharged assassins like the Toyota 90C-V, Lancia LC2, Nissan R89C/R90CP(CK)and a metric ton of Porsche 962’s. Eagle had no hope of competing directly with these titans, so the team focused on at least making the grid.

The Eagle 700 modified to French tastes, Le Mans 1990.

The Eagle 700 modified to French tastes, Le Mans 1990.

With Paul Canary at the wheel the 700 set out on its first real laps on the glorious Circuit de La Sarthe. Dennis Kazmerowski had been carefully realistic, stating he expected the car to be 20 miles off the pace on the long Mulsanne straight. Sadly he was right, as the Eagle’s times were far from competitive.

More worryingly, the colossal V8 was spewing out more and more smoke as the session went on. Additionally the car suffered from an all to familiar gremlin. It was overheating again. A vapor lock in the radiator hose was to blame, and the team worked feverishly to get rid of it.

Most of the 700's humble potential went up in smoke

Most of the 700's humble potential went up in smoke

Without having set a time even remotely good enough for a grid position, the car was brought in to prepare for night qualifying. By this time considerably damage had been done to the overheating engine, so first order of business was to give the giant a quick rebuild. As Dennis Kazmerowski and Daver Vegher were both completely new to the race, they were required to run a certain amount of time at night to qualify for a starting position.

Sadly, just 10 laps into the night session the car gave up the ghost. The alternator had not been putting out enough electricity to keep the battery charged, which left the mighty 700 stranded by the side of the road. Paul Canary could do nothing to save it. The mechanical failure meant Kazmerowski and Vegher were not able to complete their required night driving stint, resulting in them being denied the chance to start. Little was lost however, as the alternator problem could not be sorted before the start of the race.

The car is currently back in the States, retrofitted with the original 6L Chevrolet V8 for use in historic racing.

The car is currently back in the States, retrofitted with the original 6L Chevrolet V8 for use in historic racing.

The Eagle 700 was the ultimate display of America’s fanatically aggressive patriotism at Le Mans. Eagle Performance was a mad band of completely careless maniacs, who threw all caution to the wind in favor of competing at the greatest endurance event on the planet. Operating on a minuscule budget and using a totally unproven and ludicrously large boat/drag engine, they threw up two big screaming middle fingers to the established order with a massive grin on their faces.

Their gung-ho attitude was such an inspirational display in the paddock, it lead to numerous informal invitations from bewildered race officials asking Eagle to come back in 1991. Unfortunately that year marked the transition to a new 3.5L naturally aspirated F1-engine formula, excluding the maximum displacement Eagle by a very wide margin.