Dan Gurney: All American Racer, Hero and Legend
When the team at The Speed Journal was invited to the world-famous Peterson Automotive Museum in January to celebrate a new exhibit about racing driver, inventor, and team owner Dan Gurney, we were thrilled to celebrate such an extraordinary life. At the end of the evening, Dan Gurney gave a moving and memorable speech, reading in part from his dedication at the front of the book Dan Gurney’s Eagle Racing Cars by John Zimmerman.
“In racing, the glory of winning usually goes to the driver and rarely to the constructor of his car,” said Gurney. “His success thrills his fans on a particular day and the echo of the moment lives on for a while in their hearts. Then, as the years go by, those great Sunday afternoons with the cheering crowds fade into memory, and what’s left of the driver’s legacy are statistics on a piece of paper. Beautifully built winning race cars, on the other hand, start to gain glory and value, they get polished and cherished and exhibited and – if they have truly been significant in the scope of things – end up in collections and museums to be admired by many not yet born. It’s a romantic notion, and a particularly nice one, for me to imagine that some future little Gurney will touch the shiny skin of an Eagle racing car somewhere sometime and be proud of his ancestry.”
We felt it an appropriate time to celebrate Dan Gurney’s legacy here at The Speed Journal and look back at some of his extraordinary accomplishments.
Born for Speed
Dan Gurney was born April 13, 1931 on Long Island, New York to Roma Sexton and John Gurney, a Metropolitan Opera star. His lineage certainly would have helped develop his engineer’s mind—three of his uncles were engineers at MIT, and his grandfather invented the Gurney Ball Bearing.
After Dan graduated from high school in Long Island, his family moved to Riverside, California, where young Dan got caught up in the burgeoning California car culture, where he built and raced a car that hit 138 miles per hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats at the tender age of 19.
After serving two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War as an artillery mechanic, Dan started exploring racing, first with a Triumph TR2 starting in 1955. His first break into the industry came in 1957, when he was invited to test Frank Arciero’s Arciero Special, a specialty racer based on the Microplas Mistral body. Soon after, he finished second in the inaugural Riverside Grand Prix, behind Carroll Shelby. That success got the attention of Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti, who arranged a test run in a Ferrari at Le Mans, leading to Gurney joining the company’s racing team in 1959.
After joining the factory Porsche team, Gurney came very close to taking his debut Grand Prix victory at Reins, France, but the driver’s reluctance to block Ferrari driver Giancarlo Baghetti cost him the win. He broke through the following year at the French Grand Prix at Rouen-Les-Essarts, winning his first World Championship victory before repeating the feat just a week later in a non-championship F1 race at Stuttgart.
Porsche folded its team soon after, and Gurney joined Jack Brabham in the Brabham Racing Organization. In his second year, he won the team’s first win in a championship race in the 1964 race at Rouen. With his championship victory in the Eagle-Weslake at the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix, Gurney became the only driver in history to win three maiden Grand Prix victories for three different manufacturers, the third being his own All-American Racers.
As if he wasn’t busy enough, it’s worth noting that at the same time he was competing in Formula One, Gurney was also racing in many other series, including competing every year in the Indianapolis 500 from 1961 to 1970.
Gurney’s soaring popularity in those years caused Car and Driver Magazine to promote the idea of him running for President in 1964. Gurney was 33 years old at the time. Researchers recently turned up another popular gem from this period, “Dan Gurney and His World of Racing,” a 1965 vinyl record that captures 38 minutes of storytelling, commentary and racing sounds from the cars Gurney drove. It’s a delightful time capsule from Gurney’s incredible career.
Despite his calm demeanor, Gurney could get aggressive at times. Many believe it was this urge to win that drove what might be the racer’s finest performance. Halfway through the Rex Mays 300 IndyCar Race at Riverside, California in 1967, Gurney punctured a tire, putting him nearly two laps down. Doubling down, Gurney not only managed to make up the deficit but won the race with a dramatic last-lap pass of competitor Bobby Unser.
That same year featured one of Gurney’s more memorable stunts. After winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans along with A.J. Foyt in 1967, Gurney famously sprayed the podium with champagne, a tradition that lives on today. In fact, that very same champagne bottle went on display in The Peterson Museum’s “The Eagles Have Landed” exhibit that opened in 2017.
That exhibition, scheduled to run through January of 2018, is an excellent reflection of Dan’s incredible 15-year career as one of racing’s most celebrated drivers. By the time he stopped racing professionally in 1970, Gurney had raced in over 312 events in 20 countries, winning 51 races and mounting 47 podiums. His legacy lives on as the first driver to post victories in motorsport’s most popular categories: Grand Prix, Indy Car, NASCAR and Sports Cars.
The Inventor Emerges
Gurney inherited the engineering brain that tends to run in his family. Dan’s technical know-how is reflected in the exhibition at the Peterson, which showcases his 1970 Plymouth Barracuda AAR Trans-Am and the famous Gurney Alligator motorcycle, which he developed over two decades. The bike, finally shown to the public in 2002, featured an extremely low seat, and while Gurney never did manage to license the design, the initial production run of 36 Alligator motorcycles sold out and are now collector’s items.
Because he was quite a bit taller than the average race car driver, Gurney’s height often forced him to invent things in order to race the way he wanted. Being too large for many vehicles, he started having the designers build in custom-designed accommodations. This culminated most famously in a bump in the roof of his 1967 Ford GT40, which won LeMans twice. That complex piece of fabrication even has its own name now: it’s a “Gurney bubble.”
Another invention was the Gurney Flap, an aerodynamic improvement still used in racing and aviation today. Finally, Gurney was the first racer to introduce a full-face helmet to Indy Car racing as well as Grand Prix racing.
“Do you realize I never used a seat belt when I was driving in Formula One?” Gurney recently told the Orange County Register. “You shudder to think of that now.”
Of course, Gurney’s racing legacy is very nearly matched by his reputation as the manufacturer of the American Grand Prix “Eagle.” This dream began in 1962 when Gurney and Carroll Shelby began discussing building an American race car that would compete with the best Europe had to offer. Gurney continued working on the design of the Eagle while he was still actively driving, but his second and third career as a race car manufacturer and team owner went into full gear upon his retirement in 1970.
Eagles bought by Gurney’s customers raced in the Indy and Formula circuits, winning the Indy 500 in 1968 and 1973. During the past 30 years, Eagles have won 8 Championships, captured 78 victories and 83 pole positions, including the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona. In total, American Racers built 157 Eagles, many still viewed in private collections and museums around the globe.
Gurney became famous outside of racing circles, too. He joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1965, appearing in many racing films including Winning, A Man and a Woman, and Grand Prix. His non-professional racing also inspired a Hollywood blockbuster in Cannonball Run. The 1981 comedy starring Burt Reynolds is based on the running of the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an actual cross-country outlaw road race that was held five times in the early 1970s. Dan Gurney won this insane race the second time it was held in a Ferrari Daytona, traveling 2,863 miles in 35 hours and 54 minutes. At the time, Gurney said, “At no time did we exceed 175 miles per hour.”
Gurney’s legacy continues today—just a few years ago, Gurney was honored at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, marking 55 years since his first race. He’s been in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame since 1990, and is also a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, the Sebring International Raceway Hall of Fame, and the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame. Forbes Magazine recently called for Dan Gurney to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
All-American Racers continues to thrive as well, employing 90 engineers, mechanics and craftsmen to work on cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and helicopters. Gurney and his wife Evi reside in Southern California, where they enjoy visits from children and grandchildren.
“I’ve had a great life … a blessed life.” Gurney told the Orange County Register.
It’s been a ride for sure. The Speed Journal salutes this great American racer, who represents everything that we love about the sport.