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Dan Gurney, an appreciation

Grand Prix great Dan Gurney died January 14, 2018. He was age 86.

Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart described him as, “The ultimate racer, the best American driver ever.” A.J. Foyt said, “I never use the word legend, but in the case of Dan, he was a true legend of our sport.” Racing great Stirling Moss once said of him, “A very nice man. He looks exactly what he is, one of the few human beings I know who does.”

Gurney was America’s unofficial goodwill ambassador to Europe. For 10 years, from 1959 to 1968, he competed in Grand Prix events across the continent with class and distinction. He was admired as much for his flawless driving as for his modesty and infectious grin.

His rise to the top was meteoric. Within three years he went from Californian club racer to international driver under contract to Ferrari. In only his second F1 race, he finished second.

His greatest victory was winning Le Mans in 1967. His greatest distinction, however, was his versatility. In an 18-month span, he won races at the highest level of his sport in six different categories: Can-Am, Trans Am, Grand Prix, Sports Car Prototype, Indycar, and NASCAR. It’s a record unlikely to be rivaled, never mind surpassed.

As a driver, Gurney was remarkably gentle with cars. Penske driver Mark Donahue while part of the Ford GT40 racing team made note of this. “Gurney never used up as many brake pads or rotors as anyone else, and nobody could understand how he did it. . . . He never complained—he just got in the car and drove it. . . . Dan was always clearly superior to everyone else.”

As good as he was as a driver, he was even better at making business deals. He brought together Colin Chapman of Lotus Cars and the Ford Motor Company in a joint effort that resulted in the Lotus-Ford that revolutionized Indy racing. His association with Goodyear led the Akron tire maker to bankroll the start-up of his racing team, All-American Racers. AAR fielded the first America F1 car in 40 years to win a Grand Prix.

Cars built in Gurney’s shop dominated Indycar racing for six out of ten years— won at the Speedway three times, and finished second four times. In the 1990s, Gurney’s association with Toyota led to the creation of the Toyota Eagle that so dominated the IMSA series that it folded due to a lack of competition. AAR expanded and became a parts supplier to the aerospace industry. The company is stronger than ever, now under the management of two of his sons.

Gurney retired from driving at the end of 1970, having failed to achieve his two biggest goals—winning the F1 world championship and the Indianapolis 500. With the slightest bit of luck he would have won both at least once. Gurney’s run of bad luck was legendary, so much so that the term “Gurney Luck” is still heard in the racing world to this day— whenever a driver suffers a mechanical breakdown within sight of victory.

I had the privilege of interviewing Gurney for Vintage Racecar Journal in 2003. It was for a story about Gurney’s first F1 victory. The race was Down Under, in Australia, at an obscure airport circle named Ballarat. Such was reporting at the time that little was known about the race other than the fact that Gurney had won. In the interview, Gurney told me his car had been stolen by America G.I.s stationed nearby the night before the race.

When Gurney arrived the following morning, his car was missing. At first Gurney thought it was a prank being played on him by his teammate Graham Hill. When Hill professed innocence, a search was undertaken and Gurney’s car was found on the far side of circuit where the G.I.s had left it—crashed into a row of hay bales. Gurney luck? The car was towed back to the pits where it was hastily repaired. That afternoon, Gurney led from start to finish and won his first F1 race. While his win was overlooked at the time, it meant a great deal to him. “You don’t get that many wins. So if you do get one, why, it’s significant.”

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