Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport

| 18 Jan 2018
Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport

The death, on 14 January, of racer, engineer and team boss Dan Gurney at 86 has significantly dwindled what remains of The Few – those pioneering free-thinkers and out-smarters from another time.

He was fast, clever, hungry and charming – in and out of the multitude of cars he took to scores of victories in numerous disciplines. Born on 13 April 1931, Daniel Sexton Gurney grew up in Long Island on America’s East Coast but moved to California in his late-teens.

He was soon quenching a new-found thirst for stripping, improving and torturing machinery, mostly Ford Coupés, and he duly fell under competition’s spell in 1955 with a Triumph TR2. It was an appropriate, if somewhat humble, machine for a man who was excited by the breadth of possibilities offered in far-away Europe.

And it didn’t take this 6’4” tall, charismatic grafter with an eye for opportunity and detail to get on that European radar, thanks to a 1959 Ferrari contract for Formula 1 and sports car racing.

Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Gurney and Stirling Moss celebrate taking their Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage to victory at the Nürburgring in May 1960

His first major endurance-racing scalp that season came in the Sebring 12 Hours aboard a 250 Testa Rossa, and he would soon add victory in the 1960 Nürburgring 1000kms alongside Stirling Moss (above) in a ‘Birdcage’ Maserati to his long-distance CV.

Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Gurney takes his Porsche to first place in the 1962 French Grand Prix; it was Porsche's first F1 victory
Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Victory for Brabham followed in 1964, also at Rouen in the French Grand Prix

His Formula 1 career could so easily have produced much more than his four victories and quartet of fourth-placed championship finishes.

As it was, he took maiden victories for Porsche, at Rouen in 1962, and Brabham, also at Rouen, in ’64. A third win came in the BT7 in Mexico later that year. What if he’d still been at Ferrari for ’61? Or at Brabham beyond 1965?

Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
In 1967, Gurney took his own Eagle-Weslake to victory in the Belgian Grand Prix
Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Gurney was only the second driver ever to taste victory in a car of his own construction

It was that pioneering spirit and self-belief that convinced Gurney to build his own car to take on the F1 and US Indycar establishment; he craved engineering not politicking.

Thus his Anglo-American Racers squad and its Eagle car flew in for 1966. In F1, the underpowered and unreliable four-cylinder Climax motivation in the pretty T1G made way for British-built Weslake V12 grunt for ’67 and a famous win came Gurney’s way in Spa’s Belgian GP.

Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Gurney celebrates winning the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans by spraying the crowd with champagne - the first time that had been done
Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Gurney and fellow American AJ Foyt won at Le Mans in a Ford GT40

What made the Spa success even more incredible was that it came just a week after he and fellow US all-rounder AJ Foyt triumphed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in a Ford GT40.

And, as if the victory itself wasn't enough, it also had a lasting influence on the whole of motorsport: Gurney’s decision that day in France to spray the crowd with his podium champagne rather than drink it kick-started a tradition still prevalent across the sport 40 years on.

Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Indy 500 success came regularly for Gurney's All American Racers team and Eagle cars

The Anglo-American Racers team’s financial wings were clipped in ’68 but Gurney's US version, All American Racers, continued its winning ways in Indycar until the mid-1970s. Its final win tally stands at a record 49 (seven of which were Dan’s), including three Indianapolis 500 victories.

Gurney himself raced at the Brickyard nine times, his best finish a pair of seconds in 1968 and ’69, both in Eagles.

Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Gurney's last F1 race was the 1970 British Grand Prix, where he drove a McLaren-Ford

Gurney would see out his F1 driving career with McLaren in 1970. He tackled three GPs with the British team following founder Bruce’s death at Goodwood in June of that year, taking sixth place at the French Grand Prix before calling it a day after the British GP.

Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Gurney's last competitive race was in the Winston Western 500, part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, on 19th January 1980

The breadth of Gurney’s ability in the cockpit was unparalleled. On top of the F1, Indycar and World Sportscar victories, he won in NASCAR’s stockcar premiership, Trans-Am and the British Saloon Car Championship – all in thumping V8s.

Off the track, his AAR team took Toyota-powered Eagle prototypes to IMSA sportscar glory during the late-1980s and early-’90s, including at Sebring, where Dan’s international-driving ambitions had begun.

Dan Gurney: A life in motorsport
Dan Gurney, April 13, 1931 – January 14, 2018

Innovation and trend-setting were never far from Gurney’s thoughts, even well into his eighties.

From his simple-yet-startling rear-wing modification that improved downforce without compromising drag, universally known to this day as the ‘Gurney flap’, to his pioneering of the de rigueur full-face crash helmet, or from finding himself the subject of a serious 1964 campaign by Road & Track magazine to have him installed in the White House as US president, to assisting Elon Musk with space-travel engineering, he was always one step ahead.

Dan Gurney was a leader on the racetrack, in the workshop and in the boardroom, yet his manners, charm, modesty and wit, coupled with a steely determination and nothing’s-impossible attitude meant the majority were very happy simply to follow in awe.

Words: Henry Hope-Frost  |  Pictures: LAT Images