RIP, Dan Gurney

 

Someone said, I don’t remember who, that all you need to know about Dan Gurney is in this photo of him, taken near Riverside, California in 1956. What 1,000 words does it inspire? Fearless is certainly one of them, and that’s good enough to start this conversation.

It’s fine if you don’t know who Dan Gurney is; I both did and didn’t, and I’m a race fan. For starters, there’s the matter of the Gurney Flap. Dan was testing a car at Phoenix with Bobby Unser and it needed more stability. He fabricated a solution in the matter of an hour. His solution changed both racing and aircraft, particularly helicopters. The principle of his solution is why race cars go as fast as they do today and remain stable and helps keep helicopters from spinning on their tails.

Dan was already accomplished prior to the spring of 1967. He had a remarkable month starting in May that year. He qualified second for the Indy 500, then flew to France with the race winner, A. J. Foyt, and teamed with him to win the 24 Hours of LeMans in the legendary Ford GT40 Mark IV. On the victory stand, he shook the large magnum of champagne and sprayed everyone around him. “Oh, yeah,” you think, “I’ve seen that before.” Well, Gurney invented that in 1967 on the podium in LeMans.

Gurney’s 1967 Eagle Weslake. Note the hint of beak (click on the photo) above the intake on the nose of the car, hence, “Eagle.”

If you think that makes for a fine month, you’re right, but this story isn’t over. Seven days later he won the Belgian Gran Prix at Spa, and did it in a car he built. He is the only American to have done such a thing, and will likely remain so.

That’s just a little of the magic this man captured in his lifetime. Define the American Dream, apply it to auto racing, and it’s Dan Gurney’s story. He could drive anything and drive it fast. He won in F1, he won in IndyCar. He won at LeMans, he won in NASCAR, and many other shapes and forms of auto racing.

Don’t take my word for it: “Here’s the difference between Dan Gurney and the rest of us,” says Mario Andretti. “To many, the rest of us might be fortunate enough to be one of your racing heroes. But to all of us, Dan Gurney, he’s our racing hero.” (source: ESPN)

The 1966 film Grand Prix starred James Garner. “If there was ever a discussion about how do I look or act or, hell, just stand there and look the part, the solution was simple,” Garner recalled in 1999. “We’d look at Dan Gurney and say, OK, there’s the answer, and that’s what I’d do.” (ibid)

Dan Gurney was 86 years old. As is true with everyone, there will never be another.

There are 21 comments.

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  1. livingthenonStarWarslife Inactive
    livingthenonStarWarslife
    @livingthehighlife

    Dan Gurney was a special racer in a time of unique personalities.  Guys like him just aren’t found at the top levels of motorsports any more.

    • #1
  2. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    livingthenonStarWarslife (View Comment):
    Dan Gurney was a special racer in a time of unique personalities. Guys like him just aren’t found at the top levels of motorsports any more.

    Unfortunately for Dan, there wasn’t as much money in it at the time. Unfortunately for us, there’s too much in it now. There’s no opportunity to race across multiple circuits as they did then. I smile at the thought of bringing back the USAC Championship as it once was, with sanctioned events across multiple disciplines. There are some amazing drivers today, but the era is completely different.

    • #2
  3. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Outstanding post.

    • #3
  4. Locke On Member
    Locke On
    @LockeOn

    I was a kid growing up in Indiana when Gurney was running at the Speedway.  RIP.

    • #4
  5. livingthenonStarWarslife Inactive
    livingthenonStarWarslife
    @livingthehighlife

    There are some throw-back characters in lower levels and more obscure types of racing.  I knew one, John Robinson, who is an incredible guy willing do try just about anything to make a diesel dragster go fast.  Back in 2007 the company I worked for sponsored his team when he was running one of the first rail diesel dragsters.  He was determined to build the fastest 12 valve Cummins using off the shelf parts.  I worked a race in Indianapolis where we had to tear down and rebuild the engine overnight after he blew a turbo and sucked parts into the engine.

    Since then he’s gone on to much more.  After his very fast diesel funny car he’s now back running a 2500hp diesel rail.

    • #5
  6. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    There should probably be a word for a master of intra-disciplines and related disciplines, but lacking that, Renaissance man will have to do for Gurney.

    • #6
  7. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    livingthenonStarWarslife (View Comment):
    There are some throw-back characters in lower levels and more obscure types of racing. I knew one, John Robinson, who is an incredible guy willing do try just about anything to make a diesel dragster go fast. Back in 2007 the company I worked for sponsored his team when he was running one of the first rail diesel dragsters. He was determined to build the fastest 12 valve Cummins using off the shelf parts. I worked a race in Indianapolis where we had to tear down and rebuild the engine overnight after he blew a turbo and sucked parts into the engine.

    Since then he’s gone on to much more. After his very fast diesel funny car he’s now back running a 2500hp diesel rail.

    Where do I begin? Wow. Okay, first for those of you not that acquainted with racing, take a look at that huge rear wing in the freeze frame. You might notice a sort of lip that comes down and spans the width of it. That, folks, is the Gurney Flap. It’s set on the underside of the wing here, but on most race cars you’ll find it topside. Why? Because on this dragster it’s generating the force to hold those tiny wheels down in the front. It’s creating lift on the rear to stabilize the front. On most race cars, it points up to stabilize the rear of the car and allow for better handling.

    I bet it was a long night putting that engine back together.

    • #7
  8. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Back in the early 70’s, I read an article in Playboy about the first “Sea to Shining Sea” car race.  I think it was either about Gurney, or he wrote it.

    • #8
  9. James Madison Member
    James Madison
    @JamesMadison

    My favorite photo is a Porsche getting air.  I have one and have taken it to a track where I got some air.  Truth, it is kind a hard on the car.  But the photo says it all.

    Gurney – the best.  Under appreciated.  Missed.

    • #9
  10. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    Back in the early 70’s, I read an article in Playboy about the first “Sea to Shining Sea” car race. I think it was either about Gurney, or he wrote it.

    Yep.  (Funny. I was going to correct you and say that I remember it being Brock Yates.  Looks like we are both right.)

    https://www.caranddriver.com/features/the-cannonball-baker-sea-to-shining-sea-memorial-trophy-dash-archived-feature-some-kind-of-milestone-in-modern-automotive-annals-page-3

    • #10
  11. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Nice job Chris. I don’t follow auto racing all that closely; but, would I be correct in stating that he had a very successful post-racing career as an owner and a business entrepreneur?

    • #11
  12. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    the 1972 AAR eagle is still the car that all race cars want to be when they grow up.

    • #12
  13. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    Locke On (View Comment):
    I was a kid growing up in Indiana when Gurney was running at the Speedway. RIP.

    I imagine Donald Davidson will spend a lot of time talking about Dan during the leadup to the 500 this year.

    • #13
  14. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    tigerlily (View Comment):
    Nice job Chris. I don’t follow auto racing all that closely; but, would I be correct in stating that he had a very successful post-racing career as an owner and a business entrepreneur?

    Thanks. Well, his company AAR (All American Racers) didn’t go under. His chassis were all the rage in the early days of transitioning from the old roadsters to the modern rear-engine configuration. I’m talking around 1970 here.

    His Eagles won three Indy 500’s and his comment was something like, “Yeah, we used to sell those for $40,000, which meant we only lost $20,000 on each of them!” I think AAR did/does fine (his sons run it now), but his wealth was more in the richness of his experience.

    • #14
  15. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    Guruforhire (View Comment):
    the 1972 AAR eagle is still the car that all race cars want to be when they grow up.

    Check this out, Guru, the driving history of each of the 72’s: http://www.oldracingcars.com/eagle/72/

    Including Gordy’s ‘500 winner…here at Goodwood.

    • #15
  16. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    Back in the early 70’s, I read an article in Playboy about the first “Sea to Shining Sea” car race. I think it was either about Gurney, or he wrote it.

    Yep. (Funny. I was going to correct you and say that I remember it being Brock Yates. Looks like we are both right.)

    https://www.caranddriver.com/features/the-cannonball-baker-sea-to-shining-sea-memorial-trophy-dash-archived-feature-some-kind-of-milestone-in-modern-automotive-annals-page-3

    I love this disclaimer at the end:

    Editors Note: Because Car and Driver, nor any other formal organization for that matter, has no sanction or direct involvement with the Cannonball Baker, this staff, individually or collectively, will not recognize, support or publicize any attempts to break any of the records reported in the foregoing story.

    Yeah, right.

    • #16
  17. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    livingthenonStarWarslife (View Comment):
    Back in 2007 the company I worked for sponsored his team when he was running one of the first rail diesel dragsters. He was determined to build the fastest 12 valve Cummins using off the shelf parts.

    Ford built the GT40 engine the same way. Theoretically, anyone could go to their Ford dealership, order the parts and assemble an identical engine.

    • #17
  18. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    livingthenonStarWarslife (View Comment):
    After his very fast diesel funny car he’s now back running a 2500hp diesel rail.

    Finally watched the video. That guy got a heck of a jump on him at the start…and he ends up winning by better than a half second. Thanks for sharing.

     

    • #18
  19. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    There was, by the way, a Car and Driver Magazine led effort to get him to run for President. http://allamericanracers.com/gurney-for-president/

    Pretty entertaining stuff, and a bit interesting to see some rhetoric not dissimilar from what we’ve heard in recent years.

    • #19
  20. Pony Convertible Inactive
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    Back in the early 70’s, I read an article in Playboy…

    Yeah right. Sure you did.

    • #20
  21. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    Just read Motorsport’s tribute and I think it takes the prize.  https://www.motorsport.com/f1/news/dan-gurney-legend-passes-away-995822/

    • #21

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