Dan Gurney: A Motorsport Maverick

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Dan Gurney (1931-2018)

On Sunday, January 18, 2018, the auto racing world lost one of its pioneers as Dan Gurney passed away at the age of 86.

Gurney, the son of a metropolitan opera singer and nephew of three MIT engineers, became involved with cars soon after moving to California from his native New York as a teenager.

His first taste of racing came at just age 19 as he built a car for competition at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, later becoming an amateur sports car driver and drag racer. Gurney would also dip into motorcycle engineering, initiating the “Alligator” motorcycle design.

Shortly after serving in the United States Army during the Korean Way, Gurney began to make his way into Formula One.

Dan would spend the bulk of his next 12 years in Formula One, winning four races (the most among American-born drivers) and finishing a best of fourth in the World Drivers’ Championship in 1961 and 1965. Gurney also won five NASCAR races, and six times in IndyCar competition.

Also included in his impressive resume are wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1959, a win in the inaugural running of what is now the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona (1962) and a historic win at Le Mans in 1967 with A.J. Foyt, where the two Ford drivers scored a surprise victory and celebrated with what has become a famous spraying of champagne.

Dan Gurney and Jim Clark.

Dan Gurney and Jim Clark share a chat before a Formula One World Championship event.

Two weeks later, the New Yorker won the Belgian Grand Prix at the famed Spa-Francorchamps circuit in his Eagle chassis, the first and only grand prix win by an American driver in an American-made car in Formula One.

Gurney’s legacy will be as a motorsports renaissance man, but some of his lasting impacts in auto racing were through IndyCar. Gurney’s first appearance at the Indianapolis 500 came in 1962 where he started eighth, but transmission seal issues relegated his Mickey Thompson-Buick to 20th.

The next year, Gurney and fellow Formula One driver Jim Clark made history as the last two drivers to run carburetors in the Indianapolis 500. Gurney would start 12th and finish seventh in 1963, but would finish no better than 17th the next four years.

In the 1967 Indianapolis 500, Gurney qualify second in what many claim was the best Indianapolis 500 field ever. He would also win his first career race at Riverside that year in an Eagle Ford.

Despite driving in a limited role on the USAC IndyCar schedule, Gurney powered his way to six wins from 1968 to 1970 and runner-up finishes in the 1968 and 1969 Indianapolis 500. Gurney would step away from driving the following year in 1971 to focus on his role as an owner.

Gurney’s last race as a driver would come at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series race in Riverside, finishing 28th on January 13, 1980.

In an ownership capacity, Gurney achieved success that equaled – and in many ways surpassed – his driving career. Drivers from his All-American Racers group won 78 races, which included the 1975 Indianapolis 500 with Bobby Unser, as well as eight championships across multiple disciplines of motorsport.

Graham Hill and Dan Gurney

A part of racing royalty in his own right, Gurney speaks with legend Graham Hill at the 1966 Indianapolis 500.

As a team owner, one of Gurney’s most famous contributions to the sport was his famous 1978 open memo to his fellow owners in USAC, which became known as “The White Papers”. Gurney called for a series with more control by the owners, and in 1979, Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) was formed.

His teams spent eight years in CART, winning the 1981 Gould-Rex Mays 150 at Milwaukee along the way. In a sensational drive by Mike Mosely, the veteran piloted his Eagle-Chevrolet from last place to the win.

It was the last win for a normally-aspirated Indy car and the final IndyCar win by All-American Racers.

The team withdrew from CART five years later to focus on sports cars. After a run of success that included two championships by Juan Manuel Fangio II, Gurney returned to CART with Toyota in 1996.

The team struggled during their return to the series, recording a best finish of eighth with Fangio at Detroit in 1996. After scaling back to just one car in 1999, All-American Racers split from Toyota and left CART after tire manufacturer Goodyear left the series.

For the 2000 season the team would move to Toyota Atlantic competition, with Dan’s son Alex behind the wheel. The younger Gurney would go on to become a two-time Grand Am Champion.

In 2012, the company would build the famed Delta Wing run by Highcroft Racing in sports cars.

Revered by the racing community, Dan Gurney’s impact can be felt throughout the IndyCar community as well as several other racing disciplines. His contributions to motorsport cannot be measured, and if they could, it is likely he has done more to revolutionize the way race cars are built than anyone else.

Open-Wheels would like to thank Gurney for his numerous contributions to auto racing and offer our condolences to his family and friends.

Images courtesy of IndyCar and All-American Racers.

Spencer Neff

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