Farewell to an American Hero

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Driver, constructor, innovator, winner… and he even played cricket. A man of rare versatility and charm, Dan Gurney passed away recently at the age of 86

The Ferrari flashed its lights and the Ford slowed, then slowed some more before parking on the verge at Arnage. The Ferrari stopped directly behind it. Mike Parkes, desperate to hassle the runaway leader into an intemperate dice, was gambling on Dan Gurney’s win-or-bust reputation. The latter had indeed bust a time or three during his career, but he’d won plenty, too, and was by now a maker as well as breaker of cars. (The following Sunday he would win the Belgian Grand Prix in one of his own.) Acutely aware, therefore, of how much had been invested in kicking Enzo where it would hurt most – Le Mans – Gurney watched his mirrors and waited. 

His victory at Spa-Francorchamps would be of a different order. At Le Mans he had been a warhead of a hi-tech campaign waged by an industrial superpower: “When a global company like Ford blows its horn, everyone gets to hear about it.” Now he was the figurehead – owner/engineer/driver – of a tight-knit unit attempting “three miracles a week”. Its Eagle was handsome, from raptor nose to titanium tailpipes, and Dan made it fly at the world’s fastest road circuit.

Speed was rarely a problem for the natural who caused even Jim Clark to pause – and buckle under pressure at the 1965 Brands Hatch Race of Champions. Having required fewer than 50 races to advance from a Triumph TR2 at Torrey Pines, an abandoned military base near San Diego, in 1955 to a works Ferrari Dino at Reims in 1959, Gurney finished second, third and fourth in his second, third and fourth GPs. If a cockpit fitted his 6ft 3in – a tailored chassis here, a roof ‘bump’ there, plus a knack for appearing comfortable even when cramped – usually he was head and shoulders above. Given room to flex those linebacker’s shoulders he could be untouchable, impossible to resist, as evinced by his five NASCAR Riverside victories for Ford in six seasons. He won in a ‘Birdcage’ Maserati – as co-driver to Stirling Moss at a foggy Nürburgring – Cobra and Cougar, in Lotus and Lola, and for BRM – once his car, stolen during the night by revellers, had been found – for Ferrari and for a McLaren team grieving its founder.

Fifty years after the fact, no American has matched his achievement of winning a GP in an American car. And only Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya have equalled his winning in Formula 1, Indycar, the world sports car championship and NASCAR. Gurney won in the British Saloon Car Championship, Can-Am and Trans-Am, too.

Yet luck didn’t always ride with him: his Porsche was beaten by a shark’s nose by Ferrari’s Giancarlo Baghetti – a three-hit wonder – at Reims in 1961; his Brabham drained its tanks too early at Spa in 1964; his Ford blew its engine on the last lap at Sebring in 1966; and his Eagle broke a driveshaft at the Nürburgring in 1967.

On the other hand he survived 312 starts – 51 wins (including category successes) and 42 pole positions – during motor racing’s most lethal era. Triggered by brake failure, an accident at Zandvoort in 1960 caused his only significant injury, a fractured forearm, and also tragically killed a teenager standing in a prohibited area. The low point of a disastrous season, it coalesced and clarified Gurney’s thoughts. Underwhelmed by BRM’s inability to master new trends – having been dismayed by Ferrari’s choosing stubbornly to ignore them – he was sure he could do better.

Two seasons with Porsche provided reassuring reliability, plus a maiden – for driver and manufacturer – world championship GP victory, at Rouen in 1962. Three more with Brabham included GP wins in France – the marque’s first, also secured at Rouen – and Mexico in 1964; they also showed him how a new team should go about its business. Had he stayed for a fourth, probably he would have become world champion.

Not that he expressed regret. Gurney’s style and method were distinctive.

His family’s 1948 relocation to California from Long Island – father John had been an opera singer at the Met – created within Gurney a blend of East Coast manners and West Coast smarts. Though he’d gunned a hot rod through orange groves and run 138mph at Bonneville, local dirt ovals held little appeal; whereas he was fascinated by the shapes carved by ’dozers in the sand that would become Riverside International Raceway. Like his mentor Phil Hill, Gurney, an unabashed romantic, was in thrall to stories of continental racing. (When in 1965 backer Goodyear suggested All American Racers as the name for his new team, Gurney, fretting about perceived jingoism, called its F1 arm Anglo American Racers.)

Europe in turn would thrill to Gurney’s astronaut’s crew cut – latterly groovily grown out – and screen-idol smile. Those closer to him, however, could be driven to distraction by his obsessive tinkering. The wiser among them recognised those infinitesimal set-up suggestions for what they were: a stoking of the competitive fire. Those unwise enough to issue rebuttals would be met by “Donchawannawin?” mystification. Politely implacable, confident without being cocky, Gurney was never along purely for the ride. His need ran deeper than speed and his (inevitable) founding of a team amplified this.

Even before the first Eagle had turned a wheel in anger, been topped with fluids even, Gurney suggested a spring change. Designer Len Terry, not the easiest to work with by his own admission, was seriously annoyed and would not stay long. Yet Gurney’s spicing of an unquenchable thirst for innovation with a joyful flamboyance – midfield mediocrity or, worse, anonymity were anathemas – created a like-minded and deeply loyal workforce. Ace fabricator Phil Remington was an everyday fixture at AAR for more than 40 years and only ‘retired’ at 91.

Rubbing against the grain and proving doubters wrong – perhaps Gurney’s biggest thrill – and caring how as well as how often his team won were strengths and weaknesses. The ambitious V12 that he commissioned for F1 from Aubrey Woods, via Weslake Engineering, was hampered by shortcomings beyond budgetary rectification. But, my God, it looked magnificent and sounded fantastic. Important factors for the enquiring mind that would (along with son Justin) reimagine the motorcycle, build the radical needle-nosed DeltaWing and supply the legs for Elon Musk’s rocket. Although commercial pressure – defeating Firestone at Indianapolis was Goodyear’s priority – kept Gurney Stateside after 1968, it’s difficult to imagine him a willing foot soldier in F1’s ‘kit car’ ranks.

AAR might have won Indy at the first time of asking but for an oil leak for ‘Hard Luck Lloyd’ Ruby in 1966.

Two years later a customer car driven by Bobby Unser did win – the first turbo to do so – as Eagles came within two laps and a puncture for Denny Hulme of a 1-2-3 finish. Gurney the driver had yet to win it – he finished second twice and third once from 1968-70 – when, still fresh-faced at 39, he hung up his Bell full-face and bought out team partner Carroll Shelby. He had, however, already helped turn America’s greatest race front-to-back.

Having driven and rejected its first turbine – John Zink’s Trackburner – he switched to drag star Mickey Thompson’s Buick V8-powered car, America’s first rear-engine contender of note. Between qualifying it eighth and being classified 20th in 1962, he witnessed the Dutch GP debut of the ‘bathtub’ Lotus 25, put two and two together – and made 500. It was Gurney who persuaded designer Colin Chapman to visit Indy, sat him at Ford’s top table and smoothed transatlantic waters.

During the early 1970s – a period of spiralling oval speeds due to a spike in power and the sprouting of wings – customers flocked to AAR’s Santa Ana HQ. Roman Slobodynskyj’s low-profile design of 1972 was uncluttered and sturdy, and Gurney, always more interested in the front row than the bottom line, was selling them cheaply.

Eagles packed the grids and, steadied by that most effective of aero addenda, the Gurney Flap, raised the bar to 200mph, winning Indy twice more: the rain-hit 500s of 1973 (Gordon Johncock for Pat Patrick) and 1975 (Unser for Gurney).

The arrival in 1975 of Cosworth’s turbocharged DFX, however, was not to Gurney’s taste. He’d been here before. Homogenisation beckoned. Seriously cheesed that the venerable Offy, its construction capable of withstanding high boost pressures, had been legislated against, he defied convention by continuing a stock-block theme he’d begun with a reworking – aluminium heads and improved breathing – of Ford’s pushrod V8. This Gurney-Weslake gave the Blue Oval its only Can-Am victory – Dan victorious aboard a Lola T70 at Bridgehampton in 1966 – and back-to-back Le Mans wins from 1968 in Gulf GT40s. It also took Gurney to seven Indycar wins from 1967-70, all on road courses. The first of them, the Rex Mays 300 at his beloved Riverside, was arguably his greatest drive, recovering from a puncture to take the lead from Unser’s Eagle on the last lap.

But when CART – the Indycar breakaway based on Gurney’s ‘White Paper’ blueprint – banned the remarkable Boundary Layer Adhesion Theory Eagle of 1981 – another handsome machine with just one memorable victory – Gurney muttered “too many bureaucrats” and looked elsewhere for his gizmo mojo. It took him 10 years to find it.

When Toyota gave the green light for an IMSA prototype – reward for AAR’s successes with increasingly wild GTU and GTO iterations of its Celica – Nissan, Jaguar and Porsche were battling for supremacy. The first GTP Eagle won races but had a narrow operating window. Its replacement, designed by John Ward on his third tour of duty with the team, and shaped by loyal aerodynamicist Hiro Fujimori, kicked the door down. Balanced by an integral front diffuser, MkIII won 21 times – twice at Sebring, once at Daytona and 17 consecutively – from its late-1991 debut. Gurney was in the thick throughout: boardroom and workshop, garage and pit wall. His suggested ‘flip-flopping’ of coolers, tidying and shortening pipe runs to improve throttle response, was a watershed. By the time Toyota and Juan Fangio II had scored their consecutive titles, in 1993, the opposition had gone to earth.

Sadly this could not be repeated on AAR’s return to Indycars in 1996, even though Gurney swallowed his pride and ran Reynards instead of Eagles.

After four troubled seasons, to which its engine’s shortcomings had ‘contributed’, Toyota ended the 17-year relationship. A heavy blow that caused a team that had won 78 times – from F1 to Formula Ford via Formula 5000 – to be dissolved at the end of 2000. Chatter in late 2002 of a Formula 1 comeback was just that.

Yet Gurney never lost his sense of excitement and wonder. Happy to reminisce about how his Impala had scattered the Jaguar ‘establishment’ at Silverstone in 1961, or how “we never exceeded 175mph” while winning the 1971 coast-to-coast Cannonball Run in a Ferrari Daytona, conversation would usually swing towards the current racing scene, or AAR’s projects – those he was allowed to speak of at least – or warbirds, or, at a push, cricket, for which he’d acquired a taste at Goodwood. And if you wrote something that caused him to bridle – that baritone could turn stentorian – he would let you know. There hangs in my wardrobe a tie patterned with Indy Eagles, gifted as a reminder of a published glibness on my part. Luckily, though he would not forget, firm but fair Dan was inclined to forgive.

In a glittering era that bestowed upon us AJ, ‘Feel Heel’, Mario, Parnelli and ‘The King’ Richard, the selection by Car and Driver magazine in May 1964 of ‘Dan the Man’ as its presidential candidate chimes still. ‘Big Eagle’ for Maison Blanche?

“We sat for about 15 seconds. Finally he [Parkes] gave up and pulled back onto the track. About four laps later I caught him and drove on by.”

Drove on by. Farewell, Daniel Sexton.

The last words go to the man himself in a letter from 2000.

Sir,

Our copy of Motor Sport in February arrived a few days ago and it was with great pleasure and pride that I saw the Eagle on the cover next to the Lotus 49. I certainly enjoyed the article and the nice compliments on the car and my performance. Some of my recollections differed a little bit from yours in some instances, but of course the events you described happened a very long time ago.

I have fond memories of that time in England and on the Continent and of the people who were involved in the project. Looking back now from the vantage point of ‘almost’ old age, I marvel about what young, ambitious and passionate men can accomplish. The Eagle, while campaigned by Anglo American Racers on the Grand Prix circuit, was actually built here in the States by All American Racers in Santa Ana. I feel that Michael Daniels, Harry Weslake’s stepson, certainly deserves a mention since he was the main driving force behind all the many miracles achieved by the very small force of dedicated and talented people at Weslake’s in Rye during our all too brief Eagle effort in F1.

Our winning Spa Eagle was acquired by Miles Collier about ten years ago. It is in his museum in Florida and every once in a while it shows up at some historic event. Last time I saw it was at the Festival of Speed at Goodwood in June 1995. (I drove the sister car).

Thank you so much for devoting so much space to the Eagle. It is quite a beautiful bird and evokes an era in motorsport history which was glorious, tragic and wonderful.

I am, yours, etc.,

Dan Gurney, All American Racers, Inc., Santa Ana, California, USA