Farewell to the da Vinci of Motorsports, Dan Gurney

In the pantheon of overused-to-the-point-of-becoming-meaningless words, “legend” is at or near the top of the pile. But applying the term to all-American boy and global racing icon Daniel Sexton Gurney absolutely would absolutely, under no circumstances, qualify as a misapplication of the term. Dan Gurney, who died yesterday from complications of pneumonia at the age of 86, was basically everything you’d want your child to grow up to be: Smart, articulate, free-thinking, self-motivated, funny, multi-talented, good looking, gracious, approachable…the list just went on and on. That he isn’t widely revered outside the motoring world should be taken as a scathing indictment of what Western Civilization does and doesn’t look for in its heroes nowadays.

Born and raised on Long Island, Gurney’s father Jack (who was a baritone singer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City) moved the family west to the sleepy hamlet of Riverside, California shortly after Dan graduated high school in 1948. It didn’t take long for Dan to make new friends, and they all immersed themselves in Southern California’s exploding postwar hot rod boom. Another war – this time in Korea – would lead Gurney to briefly trade his t-shirts and jeans for army fatigues, but when he came back he decided to shift his attention to the other automotive craze that was sweeping this corner of the country: sports cars.

Quickly progressing his way through faster and more exotic machinery, Gurney’s big break came in 1957 when a new purpose-built road course opened right on the outskirts of Riverside. Local businessman and race team owner Frank Arciero knew of the tall, dashingly handsome 26-year-old’s ability, and hired him to drive his unruly Maserati-powered special in the track’s inaugural sports car grand prix that November. Gurney finished second behind Carroll Shelby but ahead of other established stars like Phil Hill and Masten Gregory, a feat that caught the eye of Ferrari’s U.S. distributor Luigi Chinetti, who managed to get him a factory Ferrari ride at Le Mans and other international sports car events the following year. His performances in those events subsequently convinced Enzo Ferrari himself to run Gurney part time in Formula 1 in 1959. To give you an idea of how meteoric Dan’s rise was, his F1 world championship debut, the ‘59 French Grand Prix at Reims, was just his 23rd race of any kind since that stirring performance at Riverside!

But despite finishing on the podium in half of the four grands prix he ran that year (and having  compatriot, friend and confidant Hill as a teammate), Gurney headed for the exit after growing weary of the dog-eat-dog work environment Old Man Ferrari shaped, signing with the English BRM team for 1960. A frustrating season there (which also saw the worst crash of his career at Zandvoort, Holland when brake failure sent his car careening off track, breaking Dan’s arm and killing a young spectator) led to another change of scenery for ‘61, moving to Porsche and its new F1 program. There he would get his first win (in the 1962 French Grand Prix at Rouen, which was also Porsche’s first – and to this day, only – points-paying victory as an F1 constructor) and meet his future wife, Evi Butz. Porsche’s exit at the end of ‘62 meant still another move, to then two-time world champion Jack Brabham’s new outfit. Two more wins followed there in 1964 (at Rouen, another first world championship race win for a team, and Mexico City), but by 1965 America’s racing golden boy, who by then had a class win at Le Mans in a Shelby Cobra Daytona, the third of what would be four consecutive (and five total) wins at Riverside in what’s now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and even an-only-kinda-joking movement to get him to run for President of the United States (led by Car and Driver magazine) to his name, was growing restless. He knew that American ingenuity and craftsmanship was capable of building a car that could win in Formula 1 and, after partnering with Shelby and Goodyear Tire and Rubber, launched All American Racers (AAR) in 1966, building both Indy cars and F1 cars proudly bearing the name Eagle in a shop still occupied by the company in Santa Ana, California. The former would go on to win three Indianapolis 500s (none with Gurney himself behind the wheel, unfortunately; his best result was second in 1968 and ‘69), while the latter would, in 1967 with Englishman Harry Weslake’s potent-but-temperamental 3.0L V12, win the non-points Race of Champions at Brands Hatch and, on June 18th, the Belgian Grand Prix at the fast, fearsome Spa-Francorchamps (seen below), the latter coming just one week after Gurney shared the winning Ford GT40 Mk. IV with race rookie A.J. Foyt at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to this day the only overall Le Mans win by an American team, car and driver lineup.

Continued struggles in F1 saw that side of the Eagle program axed in late 1968, while Gurney retired from driving altogether (with a few exceptions, such as the early Toyota Pro-Celebrity Races in Long Beach and the 1980 NASCAR season opener at Riverside where he was teammates with that year’s eventual champion, a scruffy young charger by the name of Dale Earnhardt) following the 1970 season. Did he slow down then? Not on your life! Eagles built for American open-wheel series and packed with innovations like the Gurney flap (a thin vertical lip installed on the trailing edge of a rear wing devised by the man himself during a test session) came to dominate the first half of the ‘70s, while the close of the decade saw Gurney, dissatisfied with the stagnation of the sport under USAC, draft the infamous “white paper” that led to the formation of CART. The 1980s saw thundering “stock block” V8 cars like the radical ‘81 Pepsi Challenger designed around the BLAT (Boundary Layer Adhesion Technology) principle take the fight to the turbocharged Cosworth horde.

Even so, success in Indy car began to wane…thankfully, AAR’s success in IMSA sports cars (where it served as the Toyota works team) was on the rise, culminating with the all-conquering Eagle Mark III GTP (pictured below) of 1992 and ‘93. Sadly, the partnership’s success didn’t translate to late-’90s CART, where Toyota struggled to develop its engine and Goodyear struggled to keep pace with Firestone, stifling AAR’s ability to develop what would prove to be the last Eagle chassis into race- and championship-winners. In the 21st century, nearly all of AAR’s business is in defense and aerospace contracts (including the landing legs for SpaceX’s rockets), with the manufacture of the star-crossed Nissan Deltawing and GT-R LM Nismo being the only notable racing-related exceptions.

So, besides a successful business, an impressive driving career (one that could have been magnitudes of order more incredible, had it not been marred by bad luck, bad timing or both) and loving family that includes the aforementioned Evi and four sons (Justin, Jimmy, Dan Jr. and Alex), what does Dan Gurney leave behind? Well, for one thing, he’s one of only three drivers to ever win at the top echelons of stock cars, sports cars, Indy cars and Formula 1 (Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya being the other two). For another, he was also the only fellow driver Jim Clark, widely considered the best of all time, feared having to battle. And he was the originator of things like the aforementioned Gurney flap, the full-faced helmet, and the celebratory practice of spraying of champagne (or whatever bubbly beverage happens to be handy), something that has spread way, way beyond the borders of the motorsports world since his spontaneous gesture on the podium following the ‘67 24 Hours of Le Mans, not to mention being the one to convince Lotus founder Colin Chapman to tackle the Indy 500 with a mid-engine car, and his other, more recent passion projects like the Alligator motorcycle and a new type of internal combustion engine. But most of all, he leaves behind a legacy of class, humility, curiosity, and doing things his own way, challenging himself and those around him to think outside the box, even if that meant a greatly diminished probability of success. A maverick of Dan Gurney’s caliber would never be happy in today’s tightly-regulated, creativity-is-a-four-letter-word motorsports landscape (land speed racing being the likely exception), but we’re eternally grateful that he was able to do what he did when he did, and that we were able to meet the man (as seen below, albeit all-too-briefly) in 2009. Godspeed, Big Eagle…