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Jerry Grant, Gordon Harrison united in death

Published August 13, 2012

When the news was emailed to the world Monday afternoon that 10-time Indianapolis 500 starter Jerry Grant had died, the first thing I thought about was Mosport in June, 1966, and a guy named Gordon Harrison.

At the time, Grant was a hard-charging sports car racer from the Pacific Northwest who’d made two starts at Indy but had yet to give NASCAR a try. He was a barnstorming racer who’d enter just about any sports car race anywhere and one of his stops that year was at Mosport for the Player’s 200.

He was driving the same Lola T70 he’d raced to victory two weeks previously in May in a U.S. Road Racing Championship event at the Bridgehampton circuit on Long Island, N.Y. The competition there had been stiff, but the Player’s race attracted more of an international entry list and he was up against drivers like Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and Jackie Stewart as well as Canadians Ludwig Heimrath, Eppie Wietzes, Nat Adams, John Cannon and John Cordts, among others.

Shortly after the start, coming down the hill from Turn 2 on the opening lap and heading toward Turn 3, a section of the course that’s known internationally as one of the hardest to navigate in all of global road racing (in fact, the famous German F1 and sports car driver Manfred Winkelhock met his end there), Grant lost control of the Lola and went flying off the circuit.

Unfortunately, Harrison – a non-professional racing driver who was acting as a track-side marshal that day – was standing right in the path of the car and was killed instantly. He was 37 years old.

Grant was taken to hospital suffering from shock, although it was reported that he was not aware at the time that Harrison was dead. A photo of the dazed-looking Grant, wrapped in a blanket and sitting on the ground beside his wrecked car, was sent by wire around the world.

It’s said that auto racing is a dangerous sport but it’s nowhere near as dangerous for any of the participants these days as it was back then. Look at the picture at the top of this column, taken during the pace lap of that Player’s 200 on June 4, 1966, and one of the two marshals beside the track at left is Gordon Harrison.

Guys (and women, too) like Harrison thought nothing of standing trackside to display the blue passing flag to racers who were holding up faster cars behind them.

In fact, Harrison and two other marshals at the time, Wayne Jeffery and Gord Salisbury, were called”Bull Fighters” for their skill and daring standing almost on the racing surface to use their flags to keep the contest fair.

As a result of the dreadful accident that day, the marshals were moved back from the track and nowadays at road courses like Mosport (now called Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), many of them do their flagging from platforms.

Grant, of course, went on to become the first driver to turn a lap in an Indy car at more than 200 miles an hour but, like contemporary Lloyd Ruby, he had horrible luck on the race track.

For instance, earlier in 1966, at the 12 Hours of Sebring, he and co-driver Dan Gurney were winning when their Ford GT conked out. The same thing happened to them that year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans when a mechanical issue sidelined the car when they were leading at the 21-hour mark.

In NASCAR, he went from 43rd to fifth in the 1967 Daytona 500 before dropping out . The year before, he finished fifth in the Dixie 400 at Atlanta.

Now, in all the online obituaries and tributes, much is being made of his disqualification from the 1972 Indy 500. The official version as to why this happened was sent out Monday afternoon by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media department:

“Driving the purple Mystery Eagle as teammate to Bobby Unser on Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers team, Grant led at the 188-lap mark when he had to pit to replace a tire which was losing air. Instead of pitting in his stall, he went to the adjoining one of Unser, who had retired much earlier in the day. Whether or not Grant actually took on any fuel from Unser’s refueling tank is up for discussion, but the hoses were momentarily hooked up, and it became known that the tank in his own pit was apparently empty, the maximum allotment of 275 gallons having been exhausted.

“While Grant did finish the 500 miles, taking the checkered flag in second place behind Mark Donohue, officials subsequently disallowed Grant’s final 12 laps, thus dropping him from second to 12th.”

Wikipedia reports that Grant “overshot his pit” and that’s what put him in Unser’s stall.

And I say baloney. I was right there in the room shortly after the race when Gurney was trying to convince U.S. Auto Club officials that, yes, Grant had taken on a bit of fuel from Unser’s tank but, honest officer, it had all been a big mistake because they really, really thought Grant had been connected to his own tank.

Grant, who knew the jig was up, sat on a sofa with a bemused look on his face, his balaclava perched on the top of his head (which looked very cool but covered up the fact that he had rapidly thinning hair and wasn’t wearing his usual hairpiece).

The fact of the matter is that Jerry Grant had to pit because he was out of fuel. He had used up all the fuel in his own pit tank. He had to get more to finish the race and the team directed him to stop in Unser’s pit because that was where the fuel was. Sure, they changed a tire but that was essentially to cover up the fact they were adding fuel. They were just hoping nobody would notice.

Gurney, one of the greatest racing drivers of his generation, was not above trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. At the 1967 F1 Grand Prix of Canada at Mosport, he convinced race officials to allow him extra practice time because, he said, there was a bad vibration in the front of his car and he needed the time to determine if it was a wheel problem or whether something was seriously the matter with the chassis. (You could do those sorts of things in those days.)

Of course, he ‘fessed up years later that, in fact, he was trying to determine whether to change the engine in his car and his “tire test” had been nothing more than a ruse to give him more time to make up his mind. . . .

Jerry Grant was 77 when he died on Sunday. Like so many from that era, he could drive and race just about anything, and race it well. There’s not many of them left.

Postscript:

I mentioned Jerry Grant in a column I wrote a month or so ago about bicycle helmets. I wrote that he’d influenced me because he was a pioneer in the wearing of a crash helmet while riding a motorcycle. I hadn’t thought of him in years.

Also, four days before that fateful day in 1966, Jackie Stewart and Jerry Grant had survived an opening lap pileup at Indianapolis that damaged half the cars in the 33-car starting field. They’d lobbied for a standing start in the Player’s 200 instead of the rolling start that had been planned, arguing that it would be safer. Organizers left it up to a vote of drivers and they lost, 16 to 11. Whether the bunched-up field as the result of the “flying start” had anything to do with Grant losing control on that first lap is something we’ll never know.

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