Dan Gurney in the hot seat: the questions you've always wanted to ask

Dan Gurney was the clean-cut boy of American racing — yet he 'stole' towels from hotel rooms, liked drag racer Mickey Thompson 's lndycar and put Jaguar's nose out of joint with a brash Yank tank'...

What caused you and Mike Parkes to come to a dead stop in the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours?
Ross Ainscow, Anglesey

It was not a plan, it was a spur of the moment decision on my account. Mike was very good at racecraft and he knew very well that ours was the only Ford remaining in the race. He knew, too, that his best chance of winning for Ferrari was to get me back into racing driver mode rather than endurance driver mode: he was pestering me like a mosquito. So I thought that if I pulled over and stopped to let him by the problem would disappear and I could continue with my own race. I did just that, over on the right after Arnage. But he stopped, too, and we sat there for maybe 10-15sec until he got embarrassed and drove past. I set off at the same pace that I thought we could win the race. Four laps later, I repassed him and never saw him again.

You won a lot of races at Riverside, which of these was your best?
Hayley Griffiths, Lancaster

It was a challenging circuit that didn’t give up its secrets too easily. But I was pretty good at unravelling circuits and had a good feel for its required set-up. I won five NASCAR races there, but on occasion that was too easy because I drove for such good teams: the Wood Brothers were like Ferrari now, they seemed to have everything covered, which is a great feeling for a driver. So perhaps my best win there was the 1967 Rex Mays 300 USAC race. I picked up a flat tyre near the end, and when I emerged from the pits I was 42sec behind with 20 laps to go. All bets were off and I just went for it. The car held together and I retook the lead. I was elated. And so was my sponsor Ozzie Olson, who’d pitched a big tent and brought a load of guests along. It was one of the first PR ‘occasions’ at a race that I can remember. We had a great party.

Were Jaguar Cars behind the ‘homologation difficulties’ that forced your Chevy Impala out of the 1961 British saloon car scene?
David Fox, Harleysville, Pennsylvania

Yeah, it was Lofty England. I don’t blame him, it’s a part of racing. I’d given the Jags a big fright at the International Trophy meet, and he was protecting his patch. They never explained the discrepancies that prevented me from using the Chevy again, but I never really looked into it. Why fight City Hall?

Did you consider standing for President, and what was the story of that famous sticker?
Christopher Watts, Ipswich

David E Davis of Car & Driver thought of it. I said he had to be kidding, but he said that they could have some fun with it. It was 1964, an election year, but I had no political aspirations. I heard I got quite a few votes!

What gave you the idea for the Gurney Flap?
Clarrie Mitchell, Melbourne, Australia

We’d had three exasperating days testing at a very hot Phoenix with Bobby Unser. I was sitting dejected in some shade when Bobby said: ‘Doggone it, you’re supposed to be able to come up with innovative ideas. Can’t you do anything?’ That was the trigger. I’d long been fiddling with rear spoilers on sportscars, and was aware of their importance. I wondered if putting a spoiler on a wing would make a difference. We had one made in about 20min and riveted to the tailing edge. Bobby went out… and set exactly the same time! But when he came in he said that the rear was stuck down so tight that the car now had chronic understeer. We knew we were onto something big. I even tried to get a patent for it, but a Hungarian immigrant in England had beaten me to it in 1937.

What gave you the most satisfaction at Spa in 1967: winning as a driver or as a constructor?
Will Davies, Edinburgh

I can’t separate them: what I had done was unique for an American. But I was just as happy for the team, who’d put their hearts and souls into it. It was a special occasion.

What was it like driving for McLaren in the immediate aftermath of Bruce’s death?
John Hawkins, Dorset

I enjoyed the Can-Am part of it, but I had some communication difficulties with Teddy Mayer in F1. I was doing it because I thought so much of Bruce. The team was in disarray, and I was happy to help. Of course, I would rather not have had the opportunity.

Didn’t you crash a Ferrari in one of your early tests — and did you think you’d blown it?
James Floyd, Vancouver, British Columbia

Yes. And yes. It was 1959. I’d been waiting almost an entire day at Monza to get my chance. My friend Jean Behra had just set a new lap record when the team said, ‘Okay, it’s your turn’. I did 10 laps before they called me in. At which point they asked me to assess some different-size front tyres. I thought I was being careful, but when I reached my normal braking point at Parabolica the front brakes locked. I unlocked them, but that got me in even deeper, whereupon they locked again. I backed it in and hit a grassy bank. I wasn’t thrown clear, but there were grass stains on my overalls right down to my hips! I really thought that was my F1 chance gone. But three weeks later I had my first F1 drive. To my amazement, I had equalled Jean’s time in those first 10 laps.

Why did you leave Ferrari for BRM in 1960?
Sven Krenz, Bonn, Germany

That was my fabulous judgement! The pay at Ferrari was meagre; BRM paid me twice as much just for signing with them. I was naive and thought that every team built cars as rugged as Ferrari did.

How come you missed out on dirt ovals?
Gordon Spelling, Boston, Massachusetts

I loved driving on dirt. I used to do a lot of it on my local roads when I was young. I think I could have been competitive, but the way you started out in that form of racing was at the wheel of a Midget car. I sat in one, and simply did not fit. I tried racing cars that were too small for me — and suffered a couple of shunts because of it…

Did ‘Swede’ Savage’s early death in 1973 rob the sport of a major talent?
Nigel Killpack, Zurich, Switzerland

I thought he had a lot of what it took. He was charismatic and attracted a lot of support. I didn’t doubt the sincerity of his supporters, but I doubted the wisdom of putting him under so much pressure. Some journalists wrote something along the lines of him becoming F1 champion in 1973 or ’75. The press was genuinely excited by his talent, but I objected to the hype. As history unfolded, Swede had a big wreck at Ontario and was in a coma for some time. He came back but, in my opinion, never was quite the same. I think the expectation from his well-meaning supporters may have played apart in what eventually happened at Indy.

You competed in one of Mickey Thompson’s infamous Indycars in 1962 — was it any good?
Dan Rogers, Sevenoaks

It was excellent. I qualified it ninth after a day and a half in it — and that was my first-ever qualifying on an oval of any kind. The problem was that it didn’t have an engine capable of completing the job. Mickey was a drag racer, and they like to strip their engines after each quarter-mile. That was how they approached Indy, too. They saw that they had to build more endurance into their engines.

There’s a photo of you wearing a face mask that has ‘laundry’ written across it…
Sarah Marsh, Southport

Those were the days before full-face helmet. I sometimes covered my face with the first thing that came to hand: a rag, a cloth — a towel from the hotel! don’t remember that particular item, though.