Dan Gurney: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

Dan Gurney, 1967 Belgian GP

Gurney in his Eagle on the way to victory in Belgium

Bernard Cahier / Getty Images

At Goodwood, no one was more caught by the atmosphere than Dan Gurney. “Yesterday I played in Lord March’s cricket match,” he said. “I was on his team, and beginner’s luck – I ended up making eight, er, runs, including a four, so I was pretty stoked about that! And also I got Doug Nye – he hit sort of a rounder to me, and I threw the ball, and hit the three posts before he got there…

“Charles March told me the first time cricket was played there was in 1702, and there we were, in the same setting. Then this Spitfire came by, banked over, flying down below the top of the trees. Just super! I was in tears, believe me.”

Now 67, Gurney continues to have a handle on eternal youth, in part, I suppose, because he has never lost enthusiasm for the things which orignally captivated him. For Dan, the cars at Goodwood were merely one of the attractions: “I’m an aviation nut, too, and to see three or four different types of Spitfire here is something else – plus, I find it was from here that Douglas Bader flew his last mission…”

Charles March’s flair had led to the constructing of a RAF-style ‘mess’, this a place where the drivers could go to relax. I had often interviewed Gurney before, so we talked not of his Eagles, or anything of the kind, but of his first years in Europe. It was typical of Dan that he should speak primarily of others.

“I was here in ’59 for the TT, sharing a factory Testa Rossa with Tony Brooks, and Goodwood really is pretty much as I remember it. Kind of a time warp thing. I guess we should all have black-and-white film in our cameras.”


Gurney ahead of the 1961 International Trophy race at Silverstone

Grand Prix Photo

Gurney’s rise in the sport was extraordinarily swift indeed, his Formula One debut, at the 1959 French Grand Prix, he reckons to be have been only his 23rd race. He’d made his name, like countrymen Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill in American sportscar racing.

“I got my big break in a 4.9 Ferrari owned by Frank Arciero, a car that used to belong to this amazing guy named Tony Paravano. I knew him a little bit. In ’57, six or seven of us were invited to have a try-out for his team, at Willow Springs, California. There was Skip Hudson, Richie Ginther, Bob Drake, some fellow we called ‘The Lone Ranger’ who was from Hollywood, a guy named Bart Spiegelman, and me.

“Well, Tony showed up with a Maserati 250F, a 4.5-litre V8 Maserati, a 300S, a 4.9 Ferrari, a 4.4, a 3-litre… I mean, about eight cars in total! We’d not only never seen these cars, but just barely seen pictures of them, and here they were in Willow Springs, which had a population of about ten.

“I got an old 2-litre Ferrari Mondiale and managed to spin off. There was a hole in the fuel tank and although I’d run the car faster than the other guys, by a substantial margin, this fuel was leaking out, and Paravano says, ‘Hey! Someone’s been off the road in one of my cars!’ I said, ‘Well, I did it.’ And he says, ‘OK, you’re fired!”

Who finally came out on top in the test? “Bart Spiegelman. Never heard of him again. Maybe you shouldn’t put too much importance on tests…” Gurney came to Europe in the summer of ’58, with Troy Ruttmann, who had won the Indianapolis 500 six years earlier. Dan admits he was more spectator than participant that first year, but he raced a Ferrari at Le Mans, and a Scuderia CentroSud Osca at the Niirburgring organised by journalist/photographer Bernard Cahier.

“Ruttmann drove in the Race of Two Worlds at Monza, and he and I got to know Bernard well. He organised a Renault Dauphine for us to get around, and we went to several Grands Prix in it.

From the archive

“Cahier arranged for Ruttmann to drive a Centro-Sud Maserati 250F at Reims, and he was supposed to drive at the ‘Ring, too, but he really didn’t want any part of it. Ruttmann was a very, very, talented driver, but all the notoriety of having won the 500 when he was so young 21 or 22 had caught up with him. I think he got in with the wrong crowd, and started drinking too much which he was still very into at that time. It was sad, because Troy was a great guy and a really great driver. But it really wasn’t a good time to be driving an F1 car at the Nurburgring…” In the course of that summer, Gurney met Mike Hawthorn, then on the way to becoming World Champion. “Although they were very different in some ways, Hawthorn and Ruttmann got along very well, always joking, running around, doing crazy things. Mike was a fun-loving guy who could also drive.”

At the end of 1958, his title won, Hawthorn retired, and Gurney received ‘The Call’ from Maranello. In those days, when you joined Ferrari, you never knew what exactly the job would entail: simply, you were on the driver list, waiting to be summoned.

Still, you didn’t say no. “In fact,” Gurney said, “when I went to Modena, for a try-out with the team, I ended up driving the F1 car that Hawthorn had driven – he was a pretty tall guy, too, because I could barely reach the pedals, and I’m six-two. I went there at about eight in the morning, I remember; there were no other drivers, just Enzo Ferrari and six or seven other fellows, all with the big Fedoras and the dark overcoats. That was some big moment for me: there was the Scuderia Ferrari transporter, with two sportscars and an F1 car – I drove all of them.”

Impressively, too it would seem, for Ferrari promptly signed the crew-cut Gurney. As expected, his 1959 season began with a series of sportscar races, and among his co-drivers was Jean Behra, my great childhood hero.

“Looking back now,” Gurney said, typically under-playing his own significance, “I was very fortunate: I shared a car with Behra, I shared a car with Brooks, and I shared cars with Stirling Moss on several occasions a pretty strong list, that, and it was a fabulous experience.

Dan Gurney, 1967 Belgian GP

Gurney with Jackie Stewart and Chris Amon on the podium in what was his final F1 win

Bernard Cahier / Getty Images

“Behra didn’t speak English, and didn’t speak French, but we drove at Le Mans together, and afterwards I travelled back to Modena with him, and we managed to communicate – it was pretty primitive, but we got along very well. Behra was a fighter, even then something of a throwback to a different time. He didn’t moan at all; he was a fiery guy, and he was there to race. I thought that was great – I admired him a lot, because he had this incredibly combative spirit.

“At Le Mans he really flew, left everyone behind, including Stirling, and a lot of people said he over-stressed the car, but we were still leading in the early hours of Sunday morning, and then the crownwheel and pinion went. Yes, sure, he was going for it, but he was a proud man, and a battler — and, believe me, he wasn’t slow. It was a shame he got wasted when he was still capable of winning races…”

At the French Grand Prix, where Gurney made his F1 debut, Behra’s sister Ferrari retired at half-distance, after which manager Romolo Tavoni accused him of over-revving. Behra thumped Tavoni and was fired by Ferrari on the spot. “It was a doggone shame,” Dan sighed. “Tavoni was a good guy, and so was Behra, so why did that have to happen? Didn’t make sense. I guess sometimes, if you have a lot of honour and pride, you can get easily offended, and I think there was an element of that.”

For political reasons, that year’s German Grand Prix was run, not at the Nurburgring, but at the Avus, a ludicrous track in Berlin consisting of two long straights (separated only by a strip of grass), with a hairpin at one end, and the notorious banking at the other. It was here, in the sportscar race that preceded the Grand Prix, that Jean Behra crashed his own Porsche, and was killed. “Phil (Hill) and I saw Behra’s accident — as usual, he was on the limit, even though it was wet, and horribly dangerous.

There wasn’t a lot of skill involved in Avus; you just sat there for long periods, but where you turned off the autobahn, to go towards the banking, I remember I was the first guy to get through there flat, and that took a little bit of doing.” Gurney finished second to Brooks in what was only his second Grand Then you were third in Portugal, I said, and fourth at Monza; it was a pretty impressive beginning in F1. Dan smiled. “Yeah, you could say, I guess. Come on, let’s go and see those Manx Nortons…”