News & Stories

Dan Gurney: How an Opera Singer’s Son Changed the Face of Auto Racing

January 17, 2018 In the News

By Leo Levine

When Dan Gurney was growing up on the north shore of Long Island in the 1940’s, he became inflicted with what he would later call “the automotive virus” at an early age. As a consequence Gurney and his friends were regulars at Freeport Stadium’s quarter-mile oval.

All manner of automotive fauna performed there, but the headliners were the midgets, miniature versions of Indianapolis “roadsters.” And if you weren’t sideways through what was essentially one big left-hand turn, you were not competitive with Ted Tappet, Freeport’s unquestioned star.

Tappet was the racing name of Phil Walters, whom young Gurney idolized. Walters was a local car dealer whose talents were worthy of a  bigger arena, which he found as the fastest driver on wealthy sportsman Briggs Cunningham’s 1950’s effort to have an American automobile win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Walters stopped driving after the 1955 race. Little more than a decade later, the kid who hung out at Freeport, now one of the world’s leading drivers in any type of car, teamed with four-time Indianapolis “500” winner A.J. Foyt to set a number of records in their 1967 triumph at Le Mans.

It was a long way from Freeport.

Teammates A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney celebrate after winning the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40 Mk.IV.

Gurney passed away Sunday at the age of 86, taking with him a record as a driver that put him among the world’s best. But his principal contribution to the sport was much more important than any races he won. Before this opera singer’s son (really!) arrived on the scene, the three basic varieties of American racing – road racing in sports cars, stock car racing and single-seat, open-wheel oval-track racing – were almost totally divorced from each other.

Gurney was the first driver to be successful in single-seaters on oval tracks, in stock cars on both road courses and ovals, and in European-type grand prix and sports car events. The example he set encouraged others to try the same thing, bringing the sport closer to the long-awaited “one world” concept.

Recently recruited Ferrari team driver Dan Gurney behind the wheel of the the works Ferrari Dino 246 at the 1959 Portuguese Grand Prix.

Gurney was responsible for the Ford Motor Company’s hiring of British racing car designer Colin Chapman to develop a Ford-powered mid-engine vehicle that would win the Indianapolis “500,” which it did in 1965 with Scottish World champion Jimmy Clark as the driver. Gurney’s method of enlisting Chapman was simple: he paid Chapman’s way to see the event in 1962, then put him in touch with Ford.

Gurney not only convinced Chapman and Ford. He brought about a renaissance in American oval-track racing, which had suffered from a lack of engineering development. Within the space of three years, the 33-car field at what was then America’s biggest race went from viewing mid-engine cars as a curiosity to one that included nothing else.

Dan Gurney on his way to victory behind the wheel of his All American Racers (AAR) Gurney Eagle F1 car at the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix.

Gurney’s rise from amateur sports car driver in Southern California to international prominence was a rapid one, going from a Triumph TR2 to a Porsche to Corvette to a Ferrari and a ticket to Europe in the summer of 1958. I remember seeing Dan on his first visit to the classic Italian road circuit at Monza, outside Milan. He was new to Europe and Europe was new to him, but by the 1959 season he was performing on a world-class level.

Before he retired as an active driver after the 1970 season, he had participated in 312 events on every continent, winning 51, including four world drivers championship races. He won the French Grand prix twice, once with a Porsche and once in a Brabham and he won the 1967 Grand Prix of Belgium in an Eagle designed and built by his own company, All American Racers.

Dan Gurney and his 1967 AAR Gurney Eagle F1 car racing in the Belgian Grand Prix at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The same car now resides at The Revs Institute.

Gurney’s win in the Belgian event, coming the week after his Le Mans success, is the only world championship event ever won by an American car and an American driver. That car, as well as one of Gurney’s Eagles of Indianapolis design, now resides in the Collier Collection at The Revs Institute in Naples, Fl.

They are two of 158 purpose-built machines constructed by Gurney’s All American Racers, located in Santa Ana, a few miles south of Los Angeles. AAR, as it is known, was founded with the help of Goodyear and Carroll Shelby’s organization, but has operated independently since the start in 1965. Justin Gurney, the Gurneys’ oldest son, is the CEO of the organization, which is involved in classified work for the U.S. Government in addition to its racing activities.

A joyful Dan Gurney is interviewed after his win at Spa in 1967.

Gurney drove Formula One – world championship – events for the British BRM and Brabham teams, and also for Ferrari, in addition to the stints with Porsche and his own Eagle. His only serious accident occurred in the 1960 Dutch Grand Prix, when his BRM ran off the road into the sand dunes and killed a young boy who had found his way into a “no spectator” area.

“This is a cruel sport,” he said afterwards. His words were picked up and became the title of Robert Daley’s 1963 landmark book on grand prix racing.

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A noted automotive historian, Leo Levine began his racing career while working as a newspaperman in Europe in the 1950s, driving for Porsche, BMW and NSU in Europe and South America before confining his efforts to the typewriter at the end of 1960. Mr. Levine was the syndicated auto writer for The New York Herald Tribune, wrote the Ford Motor Company racing history Ford: The Dust and the Glory, and he has been a contributing editor for a number of magazines. He was the general manager of public relations for Mercedes-Benz of North America from 1969 to 1988, the period of that marque’s greatest growth on this continent.

One Response

  1. Lon D. Getlin

    I am very proud of the small role I played in ensuring that this beautiful and historical Formula One car found its permanent home in the hands of Miles Collier, the only person in whom Dan Gurney had confidence that his beloved car would be preserved and properly displayed for future generations of racing fans.

    In 1989, Dan and his wonderful wife, Evi, asked me to search the world for potential buyers of this 1967 Spa-winning car, and it was quite an experience for me! As one might imagine, there was no shortage of interest, particularly from Japan where the nation’s booming economy at the time meant that Japanese car collectors had at lot of money in their bank accounts. Ultimately, it came down to Miles Collier and a Japanese collector. Although the fellow from Japan offered a great deal more for the car, Dan and Evi chose to sell it to Miles, because they knew the meticulous care the car would receive as a part of the Collier Collection. Over the years that followed the sale, Dan often mentioned to me how pleased he was with the decision to sell the car to Miles.

    Like everyone inside the racing community and the millions of fans who simply love the sport, the loss of Dan Gurney leaves a hole in our hearts. I had the great fortune of knowing Dan and Evi for the past 40 years, and before I even had my driver’s license in the 1960’s, I was among his legion of adoring fans.

    Fast forward to 1977 when I was a young fighter pilot, and my first job out of the Marine Corps was with AAR as the VP of Operations. While I’ll leave it to others to comment on Dan’s personal achievements and the contributions he made to his sport, I would like to briefly share my personal thoughts on why he was even more a great man than he was a great driver, owner, or innovator.

    Much of what I learned from Dan came from years of reflection after I left AAR. I consider him one of the three or four great mentors in my life. He was a deeply thoughtful man who took great care before making a business decision and even before he spoke. As intense as he always was on race day–and, boy, was he intense!–he would always take a minute to sign an autograph or chat with a fan. He had a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and a wickedly funny wit. I have laughed harder at some of Dan’s witty comments than I have from just about anyone else I have known. But at the same time, he was a very serious guy when it came to consequential matters like politics or social issues. He was a voracious reader and had personal interests that reached well beyond automobile racing; that was readily apparent when you engaged him on almost any topic. Dan was also one of the most fundamentally decent people I have ever know. In all the years I knew him, I cannot think of a single snide or hurtful comment he made toward another person. For sure, there were some folks he didn’t care for, but he just wasn’t the kind of guy who spoke ill of other people. He was also a genuinely humble man, in spite of being one of the true giants in his field.

    All of his accomplishments aside, to me Dan Gurney’s greatest contribution to mankind will be the adoration, joy, and loyalty he evoked in millions of fans over his long career. I mean, how excited were we when Gurney was on the front row of the grid or working his way through the field at Indy or on some track in Europe? (There was a reason why Gurney was the last guy Jimmy Clark wanted to see in his rearview mirrors!) Didn’t we all love the “Gurney for President” craze? How cool was it when Eagles dominated the Speedway and when an Eagle turned the first 200 MPH lap at the Speedway? How wonderful was it to see his beaming smile in interviews, hear him laugh, or to listen to his thoughtful reflections on his racing career? And should anyone be so ignorant to think that Dan was a relic of the past or that AAR has no relevancy in today’s world, know this: When the SpaceX reusable rocket boosters return to earth for a safe landing, they are landing on struts designed and built by All American Racers! Amazing!

    My bottom line on Dan Gurney is this: It wasn’t because Gurney was extraordinary in his career that made him a great man; it was because Gurney was a great man that made him extraordinary in his career. And through his long journey, Dan made all our lives a little better and a little more enjoyable. He also made us proud to be Americans. I miss him.

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