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What made Dan Gurney one of racing’s ultimate heroes

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What made Dan Gurney one of racing’s ultimate heroes
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Apr 13, 2020, 10:41 PM

Dan Gurney, one of the sport's greatest innovators and free-thinking spirits, as well as a world-class driver who survived and excelled in one of racing's most deadly eras, should have turned 89 today. David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute.

Dan Gurney’s engineering acumen, his quest for innovative solutions, his can-do attitude and his constant drive should never overshadow his magnificent ability behind the wheel. Gurney wasn’t just one of the greatest racers America has ever produced; he is one of the greatest drivers of all time. Jimmy Clark famously described Gurney as the only rival he feared, and that is an endorsement that transcends most trophies.

Gurney and Clark try to figure out which of them won the 1964 Belgian GP. Dan ran out of fuel and 'gave' the win to Jimmy; the 'favor' would be returned at the same venue three years later...

Gurney and Clark try to figure out which of them won the 1964 Belgian GP. Dan ran out of fuel and 'gave' the win to Jimmy; the 'favor' would be returned at the same venue three years later...

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Perhaps it was his time serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War that gave Gurney his bold attitude to danger, but it was his family’s move from New York state to California that increased his chance to self-educate in engineering, as he became swiftly imbued in the SoCal hotrod scene. While still a teenager he crossed the famous Bonneville Salt Flats at 138mph in a self-built hotrod, and became an amateur sportscar racer.

On being called up by Frank Arciero to race the Arciero Special, Gurney proved able to tame this brute of a machine to finish second in the Riverside Grand Prix. This performance attracted the attention of legendary Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti who teamed him with Bruce Kessler at Le Mans in 1958. And that, in turn, earned him attention from Enzo Ferrari, who was impressed enough with Gurney's testing of the Ferrari Dino 246 that he entered him in four F1 Grands Prix the following year.

At the Scuderia, Gurney found Tony Brooks, Britain’s perennially underappreciated genius of a driver who had modestly raced in the shadow of Stirling Moss but who, on his best days, could beat anyone and everyone. Swiftly Gurney and Brooks became pals, and their friendship would last almost 60 years.

1959, Brooks and Gurney familiarize themselves with their Ferrari 246 Dinos. Tony sent Dan this image and note as a Christmas card just a few years before Dan died in 2018.

1959, Brooks and Gurney familiarize themselves with their Ferrari 246 Dinos. Tony sent Dan this image and note as a Christmas card just a few years before Dan died in 2018.

Photo by: Uncredited

“The quality I remember most about Dan was what a lovely person he was,” Brooks told Motorsport.com. “That’s actually the most important aspect about him from my point of view – but he had all the other assets to be successful in motor racing. He was a very, very good driver, he was intelligent, he understood cars, and he was a very successful team owner and car builder. He gets full marks from me – excellent driver and a very pleasant man.”

Brooks said that as a teammate, he swiftly recognized that Gurney was a versatile driver who could be regarded in the top echelon of both Formula 1 and sportscar racing, despite the cars requiring very different driving styles even when F1 cars were still front-engined. The great Juan Manuel Fangio, for instance, when at the peak of his career, was quicker than the still-learning Moss when they were teamed in Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 cars, but already Stirling was faster than the master in a sportscar.

“A sportscar of that time was so much heavier and more cumbersome than a Formula 1 car,” Brooks recalled. “The Formula 1 car was much more responsive because it was lighter and you could be much more precise because you could see the wheels…

“There were some drivers of sportscars who weren’t quite top-rank in single-seaters, but it was definitely evident even in that first season that Dan was going to excel in both.”

Indeed so. Gurney qualified third and finished runner-up in only his second ever GP, and in the following race he was fastest of the Ferrari drivers, finishing third – and first among the drivers of front-engined cars. Then qualifying and finishing fourth at Monza, in front of the tifosi, should have cemented Gurney’s relationship with the Scuderia but at season’s end he chose to sidestep the politics and depart for BRM in 1960, where he encountered only unreliability, frustration and tragedy. A brake failure in the Dutch Grand Prix caused a crash that broke his arm and killed a spectator.

Dan, driving the Porsche 804, suffered a disappointing British GP in 1962, especially coming right after his victories in the French GP and the non-championship Solitude GP. However, at the following race around the Nurburgring, he wheeled the car to pole and finished third.

Dan, driving the Porsche 804, suffered a disappointing British GP in 1962, especially coming right after his victories in the French GP and the non-championship Solitude GP. However, at the following race around the Nurburgring, he wheeled the car to pole and finished third.

Photo by: David Phipps

Given two more years at the team and he’d have likely won the championship for BRM, as Graham Hill did. Instead Gurney spent ’61 and ’62 in Porsche’s nascent Formula 1 team yielding fourth and fifth in the championship respectively, four podium finishes, his first pole (shining at the Nurburgring again) and a first victory at another scarily fast and demanding course, Rouen-les-Essarts in France. Backing this up, he then won the non-championship race at Solitude.

When Porsche pulled out of F1 at the end of ’62, Jack Brabham – who saw in Gurney an increasingly great driver with an engineer’s brain like his own – hired him for his own fledgling squad, and it was a wise decision, as between them the pair took Brabham to third in the ’63 Constructors’ Championship. The following year, Dan was the man who broke through to score the marque’s first championship triumph, at Rouen once more. In fact, the first win for the Anglo-Australian team should have occurred in the race before, because Gurney was dominating the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa from pole position when his car ran out of fuel on the final lap, handing the win to Clark.

Gurney in a Brabham was a fearsome combination, and in 1964 he scored two wins and two poles.

Gurney in a Brabham was a fearsome combination, and in 1964 he scored two wins and two poles.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The reverse happened in Mexico City, the season finale in ’64, where Gurney profited from Clark’s misfortune, having been the only driver who could get within one second of the defending champion in qualifying. When the Scot’s Lotus broke on race day, the American’s Brabham ran out the winner, over a minute ahead of Ferrari’s newly crowned World Champion John Surtees.

Brabham switched from the BT7 to the BT11 in 1965, and while it was not as fleet as Clark’s Lotus 33, it was reliable, and the second half of Gurney's season saw him rack up three third places and two seconds to cement fourth in the championship.

By then Dan had also seen his advice to Lotus founder Colin Chapman pay off in a big way, albeit not for his own benefit. It was at Gurney’s urging that Chapman had taken the Indy car rear-engined revolution – initiated by Brabham and Cooper in ’61 – to the next level. Clark had finished runner-up in the 1963 Indy 500 in the Lotus, shone but retired in ’64, then dominated in ’65. Gurney had been struck by bad luck but had nevertheless proven his mettle at IMS, qualifying on the front row next to Clark in ’65.

Gurney with Brabham in 1970, the last year either of them would start a Grand Prix. Dan had all-but retired from driving, but subbed at McLaren for three races in the immediate aftermath of Bruce McLaren's death.

Gurney with Brabham in 1970, the last year either of them would start a Grand Prix. Dan had all-but retired from driving, but subbed at McLaren for three races in the immediate aftermath of Bruce McLaren's death.

Photo by: David Phipps

Had Gurney stayed in Brabham’s Formula 1 team, there’s little doubt he would have won the World Championship in ’66 and ’67. He was already quicker than the proprietor himself, who in turn was faster than the man he brought in to replace Gurney, Denny Hulme – and it was Jack and Denny who won the titles in those two years. There is, then, an easy conclusion to draw. But Dan, having seen both Brabham and – thanks to Indy car racing – Lotus, from the inside, decided to strike out on his own as a constructor, with All American Racers (also called Anglo American Racers when the cars were powered by the British engines from Climax and Weslake).

Such a decision was an almost inevitable result of Gurney’s pioneering spirit, an intelligent man’s desire to keep all parts of his huge and inquisitive mind occupied. But it has always frustrated this writer that Dan’s huge talent as a driver is inadequately reflected by basic stats, something that would undoubtedly have been addressed had he remained at Brabham for a little longer.

I broached the subject with the man himself just once, and he thanked me for my reasoning and complimentary verdict, even murmuring with a twinkle in his eye and a little grin, “I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that.” But this modest colossus was not going to be drawn into any debate over relative driving talent: he liked and respected Hulme and had always held former boss Brabham in very high regard. Instead Gurney said that the prospect of constructing his own car was “too interesting and exciting to be ignored, and Jack had shown the way to make it a success,” – and also pointed out that with Formula 1 bringing in new 3-liter engine regulations for 1966, the timing was right for a new team and chassis constructor to make its mark. Besides, he added, at the time his AAR plans started to firm up, there was no way of knowing that Brabham’s Oldsmobile-based Repco V8s would be so successful.

Gurney's beautiful Eagle-Weslake heads for that famous victory at Spa in 1967.

Gurney's beautiful Eagle-Weslake heads for that famous victory at Spa in 1967.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The four-cylinder Climax gave the AAR Eagle little chance of success in ’66, although a couple of top-five finishes were earned. Instead, it was the V12 Weslake that put the ’67 car in the same ballpark as the Cosworth DFV V8 powered Lotus 49 – when reliable. After winning the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, Gurney scored just two points-paying finishes that year, but one was the famous Spa victory and the other was a podium finish at Mosport.

That season also saw Gurney truly step up to all-American hero status. He had transcended motorsport’s narrow boundaries three years earlier when Car & Driver magazine started a tongue-in-cheekDan Gurney for President’ campaign, but now in the Spring and Summer of Love, it seemed his name was everywhere. In one stunning three-week period, Gurney had qualified second for the Indianapolis 500, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with AJ Foyt in a Ford GT40 MkIV, and conquered Spa in a Formula 1 car of his own construction.

The Gurney/A.J. Foyt Ford leads the Ferrari of Ludovico Scarfiotti and Mike Parkes on the way to 1967 Le Mans 24hr glory.

The Gurney/A.J. Foyt Ford leads the Ferrari of Ludovico Scarfiotti and Mike Parkes on the way to 1967 Le Mans 24hr glory.

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

It would have been appropriate for Gurney to eventually score an F1 win at the Nurburgring, a track on which he had always excelled, and where he and Moss (surely one of the greatest sportscar partnerships in history) had shared victory in the 1000km race driving a Maserati T61 ‘Birdcage’ back in 1960. But the nearest he came to replicating that glory at the ’Ring in an F1 car was in ’67; his beautiful eagle-beaked Eagle was more than 40sec ahead of the field with three laps to go when a halfshaft failed.

Post-Belgian GP in 1967, and Gurney is flanked by future three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart of BRM and arguably the unluckiest F1 ace in history, Chris Amon (Ferrari).

Post-Belgian GP in 1967, and Gurney is flanked by future three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart of BRM and arguably the unluckiest F1 ace in history, Chris Amon (Ferrari).

Photo by: Motorsport Images

As AAR’s Formula 1 campaign dwindled toward the end of the 1960s, so its Indy car business started booming and requiring  ever more of its owner’s attention. Gurney ran out his open-wheel driving career with three straight top three finishes in the Indy 500, and would retire from driving with seven Indy car wins to his credit. Again, the stats don’t do him justice, and while some suggested he was hard on his cars, others believed he simply tended to ‘fiddle’ to find engineering improvements. Brooks, by contrast, suggests his friend’s artificially low ranking in number-crunching stat books was caused by a much more basic issue.

“I was never conscious of Dan being hard on the machinery,” he said, “and we all know he was quick. So that would tend to mean his choices of team, timing-wise, was not the best – and I can relate to that! You know, you work things out in theory, and then you find in practice that the theory was no more than that!”

He insisted: “There was nothing wrong with Dan’s driving, so you’ve got to conclude he was just in the wrong cars too much of the time.”

Brooks, who retired from racing at the age of only 29 in order to set up a car dealership in his native England, was also an admirer of Gurney’s decision to plunge into the world of chassis construction and team ownership.

“I felt I had taken a dive in at the deep end by going into the [road] car business,” he said, “but Dan… Well, I’d say he was very, very brave to set up his own race team – something I’d never do! But he ended up making a very good job of it, considering all the problems you inevitably have to overcome when you start something from scratch. He won a Grand Prix at Spa and then AAR Eagle became one of the best teams in American racing for a long, long time.

“You’d have to look at his financial records to see how well team ownership worked for him on a personal basis – I can imagine it was often a real struggle, and you have to admire him for that, because it was such a terribly hard road to take. That’s why I regard him as so brave to make that step.”

Bobby Unser in his 1968 Indy 500-winning Eagle.

Bobby Unser in his 1968 Indy 500-winning Eagle.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Gurney, constructor, would have the satisfaction of seeing his Eagles win in the hands of others in Indy car racing, most notably the brilliant Bobby Unser who drove the brand to victory at Indy in 1968 and ’75, and who also won the USAC Indy car titles in ’68 and ’74. (In between, Gordon Johncock would drive a Pat Patrick-entered Eagle to glory at IMS in ’73.)

And Gurney, who introduced the full-face crash-helmet to open-wheel racing by wearing one in the 1968 German Grand Prix, never stopped trying to move racing technology forward – not just in steps, but in leaps. It was his engineering smarts that saw the invention of what is now known as the Gurney flap, a small lip to add to wings which multiplied the downforce they provided for minimal additional drag.

This same innovative thinking would lead to the 1980 ‘BLAT’ – Boundary Layer Adhesion Technology – Eagle-Chevy. While other Indy car constructors were busy trying to emulate the Lotus 78/79 F1 cars, applying ground effect technology via underbody venturi tunnels (highly successfully in the cases of Chaparral and Penske), Gurney and engineers Trevor Harris and John Ward came up with a shape that directed vortices to the rear bodywork which pinned the car to the ground.

As most Indy car designers went the Lotus-route to discover aero grip, Eagle went in another...

As most Indy car designers went the Lotus-route to discover aero grip, Eagle went in another...

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Suddenly the normally-aspirated engined car was on a par with its turbo rivals, allowing Mike Mosley to qualify the Pepsi-sponsored machine on the front row for the 1981 Indy 500 (above). He became the event’s first retirement due to an oil leak, and unreliability would also thwart his qualifying effort at Milwaukee. But after starting last at the Mile, Mosley drove to the front and won by more than a lap. Later that year he led in Michigan until missing a gearchange and blowing his engine. At season’s end, Geoff Brabham put the ‘Pepsi Challenger’ on pole around Riverside roadcourse, before a pitstop fracas ended his chances of victory.

When CART – an organization which Gurney had instigated to wrest control of U.S. open-wheel racing away from USAC – banned the BLAT-mobile, Dan started turning to IMSA sportscar racing for his engineering kicks, having gained little satisfaction from running other constructors’ equipment. That eventually led to Eagle creating the Toyota-powered MkIII GTP car, which brought to an abrupt halt the run of IMSA Prototype glory by the Electramotive Nissan. The MkIII, as driven by two sons-of-legends PJ Jones and Juan Fangio II, racked up 17 wins and the 1992 and ’93 manufacturers’ and drivers’ championships.

Ex-Formula 1 driver Timo Glock demonstrates the dominant IMSA car of the early ’90s, the Toyota Eagle GTP MkIII, at Laguna Seca in 2011.

Ex-Formula 1 driver Timo Glock demonstrates the dominant IMSA car of the early ’90s, the Toyota Eagle GTP MkIII, at Laguna Seca in 2011.

Photo by: Steven Heathcote

It’s always difficult to run through all of Gurney’s achievements in consecutive order because he was so busy. Even in an era strewn with drivers of genius versatility – Clark, Parnelli Jones, AJ Foyt, Surtees – Gurney was up there with the best. He scored five NASCAR wins at Riverside, four of them in a Wood Brothers-run Ford. He was fast in the Plymouth Barracuda Trans-Am cars. And he scored wins in Can-Am – one in his AAR-run Lola T70, and two in a McLaren M8D in 1970, as he bolstered a shell-shocked team that had just lost its founder – another top driver/engineer, Bruce McLaren.

It was my honor to spend quite a few hours in the presence of Daniel Sexton Gurney, almost all at his very understated AAR works in Santa Ana, California. And I must admit that a slight increase in familiarity each time did nothing to calm my nerves. Dan couldn’t have been warmer and kinder, traits he shared with his devoted and strong wife Evi, his wonderful family and his longtime PA, Kathy Weida. But still there was that apprehension about meeting someone who wasn’t just a hero of mine but a hero to millions of motorsport fans, and it was a privilege about which one could never be blasé.

Bobby Unser and Gurney were often the pacesetters in Indy car racing in the first half of the 1970s.

Bobby Unser and Gurney were often the pacesetters in Indy car racing in the first half of the 1970s.

Photo by: Bill Murenbeeld / Motorsport Images

Gurney was more humble than such a high-achiever has any right to be when answering enquiries about his matchless career, as we tucked into his favorite afternoon fodder of In-N-Out burgers 'n' fries. He was a true gentleman who tried to avoid speaking ill of anyone, even though his thoroughly reasoned philosophies left listeners in no doubt about his opinions. And behind (or above) those professorial spectacles, his eyes would gleam with delight and enthusiasm when relating a funny story – often involving Bobby Unser, it seemed.

But like most people of well-controlled ego, Dan felt no need to be the center of attention and was as happy to listen as to talk – primarily about the current IndyCar, F1 or IMSA scene. Despite his company being so rich in heritage, and despite having an anecdote for every one of the hundreds of photos that line the corridors at AAR, you had to make a point of asking him about them, otherwise you’d be rushed through to his busy, noisy workshop. Well into his 80s, Gurney was still so enthusiastic about the present and future – very like his friend Roger Penske – and while there were plenty of AAR's significant cars out the back, this little corner of Santa Ana was no mausoleum. Next to the mid-restoration GT40 in which he won Le Mans, for example, Dan's employees would also be constructing the legs for the SpaceX rocket. AAR was staying relevant more than 50 years after its inception.

Legendary racing journalist Robin Miller long ago coined the term ‘Motorsport’s Mt. Rushmore,’ for U.S. racing icons Gurney, Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt and Parnelli Jones. This story has focused primarily on Dan’s often under-appreciated driving talent; what marks him out from the other three gentlemen on that fictional rock face was that his engineering skills and free thinking went beyond the mechanical knowledge and understanding that was part of any great driver’s make-up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Had Gurney not blessed racing with his presence, it’s easy to imagine him working alongside Clarence “Kelly” Johnson at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, or heading up a team to develop a world-beating yacht for the America’s Cup. Or both.

Hulme and Gurney in Can-Am McLaren M8D-Chevys in 1970. Dan got a late call up to the team following Bruce McLaren's death and he won two races, although here at Watkins Glen it would be Hulme who prevailed.

Hulme and Gurney in Can-Am McLaren M8D-Chevys in 1970. Dan got a late call up to the team following Bruce McLaren's death and he won two races, although here at Watkins Glen it would be Hulme who prevailed.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

In an article for the Indy 500 program two years ago, Unser told BorgWarner’s Steve Shunck: “Dan was a great, great driver who turned into a thoughtful and innovative designer and owner. Dan was a good driver in everything, I don’t care if it was a stock car or a Formula 1 car. If he’d tried to get in a midget, he would have been successful…”

And as a team owner?

“Dan and I pushed each other to win and run up front,” said Unser. “With Dan I always knew I had the best of the best, that’s for sure. We set a lot of records together and won a lot of races. Those were special times with a special man and a friend I’ll never, ever forget.” 

Not long after Gurney’s death, I was chatting with our mutual friend, Miller and returned to my regular bone of contention regarding Gurney’s F1 career – that I wished he’d delayed setting up AAR by a couple of years so he could win those “missing” ’66 and ’67 championships with Brabham.

“Davy, you’re right,” said Robin, “but then he wouldn’t have been Dan! He just wasn’t wired that way to follow the easy route. He wanted to use that great mind of his to do things his way, with his own team and even his own engine.

“I mean, sure, he made it hard for himself – but he loved it that way! That’s what made the Big Eagle so goddam special.”

Impossible to deny that one.

A friendship that lasted almost 60 years. Brooks about to take Gurney around Goodwood in a Ferrari Testa Rossa in 2012, the year Lord March chose to make the theme of the Revival a tribute to Dan.

A friendship that lasted almost 60 years. Brooks about to take Gurney around Goodwood in a Ferrari Testa Rossa in 2012, the year Lord March chose to make the theme of the Revival a tribute to Dan.

Photo by: Tom Boland / Motorsport Images

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