I was too young to see Dan Gurney compete as a racing driver, as his last race was when I was just a toddler. But I knew the name Gurney as well as any other racing name in our household. He was right up there with Andretti and Foyt, but his stature as a driver was only part of his story. Mario Andretti once said that Gurney was every driver’s hero. He could do it all. He was the “total package.”
Gurney, who passed away last week due to complications from pneumonia, was an American Icon, a true racing innovator and the best of what post-WWII America produced. He was a Korean War veteran who served his country, and when he got home he went racing, which was not far from his residence in Riverside, California. He lived through an era in motorsport where many of his peers didn’t make it out alive. The late Jim Clark, a 2-time F1 World Champion said of Gurney that he was the driver he feared most. Clark was killed in 1968 in an F2 race in Germany.
Gurney raced from 1955-1970, and after his driving career he continued to contribute and be involved in the sport he loved for the rest of his life. While his driving record is impressive (and it would’ve been even more so if he continued to drive as long as Andretti, Petty or Foyt), he had talents far beyond sitting in the cockpit of a racecar.
The following are just a few of the things Gurney achieved or innovated in his time on Earth:
- Full Face Helmets – He was the first major racing figure to wear a full-face helmet, which he wore at Indy in 1970. Today, almost all racers wear a full-face helmet for better protection from the elements.
- Spraying Champagne after Races – He said it was a spur of the moment reaction to winning the 24 Hours of LeMans in a Ford GT40 in 1967 where he was handed a bottle of French Champagne and decided to shake it up and spray it on the crowd below. This caught on with other racers and quickly became a tradition that continues today.
- The Gurney Flap – After having handling problems in testing with Bobby Unser in one of Gurney’s Eagles, he and his team fabricated a little metal strip that ran across the trailing edge of the rear wing and it made a dramatic difference in downforce. All of a sudden the wing worked and responded to angle changes. This discovery led the strip being named the Gurney Flap in honor of the inventor, and it’s used today on nearly every “winged” racing machine.
- Delta Wing – Gurney’s company All-American Racers built the first Delta Wing that was an engineering exercise by Ben Blowby. AAR brought it to life and built most of the parts in-house in order to meet the weight criteria of 1,000 lbs. The car went on to compete at LeMans as an experimental entry and then raced in IMSA under the Panoz banner with some success until it was retired in 2016.
- Alligator Motorcycle – While Gurney was mostly known for his accomplishments on four wheels, he was also an avid motorcycle enthusiast throughout his life. He turned his attention to a new project that started in the backroom of AAR and later turned into a limited production run of the unique Alligator that put the rider down low in the chassis for better weight distribution and a more comfortable riding position. Just 36 were produced to match his F1 car number.
- Comebacks – Before comebacks from retirement was even “cool,” Gurney found himself in a one-race return to NASCAR Cup competition in 1980 – nine years and change after his last race in 1970. He made it all the way up to second place but broke the transmission on lap 80. At the time, Gurney was widely believed to be the greatest American race car driver and his popularity overcame the field at Riverside in 1980. But he said it was a one time deal and that maybe he should come out of retirement every 10 years.
- Cannonball Run – Most people today remember the movie “Cannonball Run” starring Burt Reynolds but his character was based on Gurney in the real version of the race. In 1971, Gurney joined automotive journalist Brock Yates ran a secret race from coast-to-coast that covered more than 2,800 miles. The duo made it in a Ferrari Daytona in 36 hours. Probably a feat that will never again be challenged because of how illegal it was. And the team only got one speeding ticket along the way!
- Gurney for President – In 1964 a magazine decided it would be better to have Dan Gurney for president than any of the other candidates on the ballot, so they started a petition to run (half joking, half probably not joking). The magazine handed out thousands of bumper stickers that nominated him for the top position in the country. His platform promised to designate one-day a year to ride around without a muffler.
- Sportscar-F1 Hat Trick – In the same year, Gurney not only competed in F1 with his own car, he won the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix. To this day, he remains the only American to ever win with a car that he built. And in almost at the same time (June, ’67), he competed in the 24 hours of LeMans and won in the factory Ford GT40 run by Carrol Shelby and co-driven with A.J. Foyt. They beat the Ferraris in an epic battle of the giants.
- Gurney Eagle – The cars Gurney built out of his AAR shop were a cut above, having won numerous races in several forms of racing, but the Gurney Eagle that probably stands out above the rest is the 1967 Eagle F1. In 2017, Gurney and AAR celebrated the 50th anniversary of his win in Belgium and the car continues to shine as one of the most important in F1 history. Gurney is the only U.S. constructor to ever design and build a winning car in F1, Indycar and Sportscar racing. That is a record that will likely stand forever.
An honorable mention should be given to Gurney and his famous “White Paper” that he released during the height of USAC’s reign on Indycar racing. He stated that the teams, not the sanctioning body, had the power and should branch off to form their own series, which they did. The new series was called Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). This series turned Indycar racing and its teams into household names that rivaled even NASCAR until they split up in 1996. There will never be another one like Dan Gurney. He almost single-handeldly influenced the direction and popularity of racing around the globe.