Dan Gurney at home

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The news of Dan Gurney’s retirement may have been a disappointment to his followers in Europe and America, but it can scarcely have been a surprise, for the ever-youthful Californian had become increasingly disillusioned as a driver in Europe and his attitude was understandably affected by the death earlier this year of Bruce McLaren. We were lucky in the timing of our visit to California because the author arrived at Gurney’s All-American Racers’ establishment in Santa Ana just a week after Gurney had announced his retirement. Usually when these sort of trips are vaguely planned (e.g., we will see you some time in October) all the men you want to see are out, but again fortune was on our side, for all the key personnel were in. They included Gurney’s little known, in Europe, protégé, David “Swede” Savage. The latter personality is relevant to our account of Gurney because he has, since 1968, been employed by A-AR (All-American Racers) and raced some of their cars with such promising results that many American enthusiasts and journalists are convinced he will follow in, and possibly exceed, even his mentor’s successful career.

At 39 years old Gurney looks little different from the lanky smiling figure portrayed within the pages of European magazines when he was at the height of his sports car and Formula One activities. His impetuous personality, coupled to an irreverent sense of humour, dominates the presidential suite from which he oversees the strip-lit and sanitary activities of A-AR. However, the boss carefully avoids a presidential look in his denim attire and often commutes to Santa Ana from nearby Costa Mesa using a CB750 Honda motorcycle.

As is traditional on such visits, we had taken the latest issue of Motor Sport along with us, and the early stages of our talk were somewhat naturally preoccupied with the past. For the record, Gurney’s first race was in 1955, driving a TR2 at the now defunct track of Torrey Pines in southern California. He had moved to the west coast from Long Island, New York, after his bass opera-singing father had decided to grow fruit instead of entertaining the clientèle of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Before that first sports car race, Gurney’s younger years were taken up with his enthusiasm for midget and drag racing, the now hallowed hot-rod movement being well under way when he arrived in California. He also served for two years as an enlisted man in the Army, 18 months of that time being in active service on the Korean frontline.

In civilian life he had also attended an engineering course at Riverside College, but he left without a degree and worked for the local firm of Hunter Engineering, spending some time developing a continuous casting machine for sheet aluminium. The decision to become a professional racing driver came in 1958 when he was offered Phil Hill’s Ferrari to drive in the Los Angeles GP at Riverside. He finished second on what was to become his home track in many minds, though in our talk he said “give me anything with the turns and gradients of the Nürburgring and I’m generally pretty happy”.

The period when he was driving regularly in Europe is well covered by other sources, but briefly Gurney drove for Ferrari in both sports cars and F1, BRM, Porsche, Brabham and, of course, his own A-AR cars. He scored seven F1 victories, including four World Championship Grand Prix events. Three of these wins were exceptional for different reasons: in 1962 he scored Porsche’s only GP win, at the same circuit in 1964 he took the first win for the Brabham marque and in 1967 his own Eagle Weslake won at Spa, being notable as its only Championship points scoring win and the fastest road race in Europe.

A Le Mans victory in 1967 with a 7-litre Ford Mk. IV (he was partnered by A. J. Foyt) ties in with his ability to be at home in any sort of wheeled vehicle, for Gurney has also raced and won speedway bowl races in the States with either big 7-litre stock cars or USAC-style bowl racers (his best Indianapolis results were second places in 1968 and 1969 with an Eagle), as well as wins in the SCCA Trans-Am saloon car series. Incidentally, the 1968 Indianapolis was something of a high spot for the Eagle USAC single-seaters manufactured at Santa Ana, the cars finishing first (Bobby Unser), second (Gurney) and fourth (Denis Hulme), each using a different type of power plant.

When we called Gurney was in the middle of the proverbial lull before the storm. His plans that night were confined just to a family outing at Disneyland, but the following night he would set off for about a fortnight to watch over Savage’s testing of the 1971 specification Eagles, to continue negotiations over Savage’s team-mate for A-AR’s assault on the USAC Championship, and make personal appearances in the right places (including a TV slot car race with Moss, Stewart and Hill for a first prize of $35,000!). In fact, we watched a “Dan Gurney-distributed” film of the 1962 Rouen GP whilst he, A-AR vice-president Max Muhleman and Savage discussed yet another venture called Checkpoint America, which is presently being reconstituted under A-AR’s control and consists of electronic engine checking devices together with special “Gurney goodies” on sale to the American public. It is possible that these Checkpoints will have go-faster equipment and appropriate personnel for speeding up road cars eventually, but at present they are just concentrating on setting up the centres.

In case Gurney gets bored with these projects there are also plots involving the formation of Dan Gurney Racing (I think this subdivision is responsible for the USAC effort, but whatever it does the car preparation is staying at Santa Ana for the present), taking a year off to write “a comprehensive book on auto racing” and watching over the progress of USAC team drivers Bobby Unser and Swede Savage. Gurney takes a particular interest in Savage, having nurtured the talent of this 24-year-old ex-Go-Kart and motorcycle pilot since they met at a dirt track motorcycle speedway event. In fact, Savage scored his first professional win in sensational style at Phoenix, Arizona, recently.

Inevitably we discussed with Gurney the reasons for his retirement and we were surprised how frankly he was able to talk about what had obviously been a very disappointing return to F1 with the McLaren team earlier in 1970. The very reason for Gurney’s appearance in the M14A-Cosworth was the tragic death of McLaren and Gurney obviously felt his absence keenly. “You know, Bruce was part of the same generation as I was and, except for one or two drivers like Hill, I felt there were an awful lot of unfamiliar faces around—many of them going much faster than I had expected,” Gurney began, adding “I never really got enthused in the car, though I suppose my performance in the French GP against Pescarolo was OK.”

The Can-Am wins were dismissed in a burst of laughter as “anti-climactic” and Gurney soon switches the conversation to other subjects, saying that he is sure he will not regret his retirement. He does not like talking about circuit and driver safety, either, feeling that it arouses too many violent emotions for and against, with neither side being necessarily correct. He did make one very illuminating remark on the subject, though, which made the author at least feel rather inadequate at passing any judgment either way: “You know, when it happened to Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren, I soon became very much more aware of how dangerous a sport ours is.”

This is something which he and Savage have obviously discussed at length, but the sight of the guard rail less Rouen circuit sent Savage nearly into ecstasies of delight and Gurney grinning as he explained to Savage the speeds and gears that they were using on the pram-like wheels of that era in Grand Prix racing. In fact, when Savage took his leave of me he said: “Hope to see you in Europe some time…” Certainly the American Press is pretty convinced we will be seeing him, especially if the first place he scored in a recent USAC event is the portent of things to come, because the money from that series would almost buy Gold Leaf Team Lotus!

We were shown around the Santa Ana works, which resemble the automotive equivalent of a hospital in respect of lighting and clinically clean engine assembly rooms. Naturally there are plenty of engines being stored, taken apart or rebuilt, but one rare beast especially took our eye, this being the three-valve-per-cylinder Ford-based V8 with central exhausts and outlying fuel injection. Cubic capacity of this unit, which never raced, is 5.6-litres and its 600 b.h.p. was intended for use in the Group 7 Can-Am series. John Miller looks after all engine research and development and Muhleman proudly says that they have never had engine failure attributable to Miller’s workmanship, which is aimed along the primary lines of reliability and then peak horsepower.

Other key members of the staff include engineering chief Phil Remington (formerly with another legendary American driver/constructor, Carroll Shelby), chief mechanic Bill Fowler, who was Gurney’s first employee when he set up the Santa Ana works in 1964, and ex-Brabham mechanic Peter Wilkins, who has “the finest craftsmanship combined with speed that we know of”, according to Muhleman.

We left Gurney knowing that he will be seen again at most of the circuits at which Savage and his cars appear, also that he is very happy about the prospects of retirement, with a hint that they could construct a Formula One car again (naturally money is the barrier at present, the current American automotive climate being most unsuitable for ventures of this kind, even if your name is D. Gurney), and that energy will be dissipated on riding the flock of scrambles bikes which he and Savage keep in a little shed at the back of the works, if it hasn’t already been burned by the very thought of his diverse plans for the future!