The only time Dan Gurney was fired

Racing History

In Motor Sport’s January issue Michael Green writes from California in the Letters column about Dan Gurney’s unhappy episode testing one of Tony Parravano’s Ferraris at Willow Springs in the summer of 1957. Allow me to expand a little on Mr. Green’s letter.

Tony Parravano was a successful Los Angeles-based building contractor who had built swathes of suburban tract homes across the LA basin. He was also was a reclusive figure who owned an impressive collection of Italian sports cars and he planned to enter one of the Ferraris in an upcoming race at New Smyrna Beach, Florida, just south of Daytona.

Parravano decided he was going to stage a test session with a brace of his cars at Willow Springs. He chose a short list of up-and-coming young California sports car racers to drive the cars and audition for the job of racing for him in Florida.

Gurney and his friend Skip Hudson had been pestering Parravano for a chance to drive one of his cars and they were duly invited to Willow Springs in company with Richie Ginther, Bob Drake, Bart Spiegelman and one or two others. Ginther and Drake were the most successful of the group while Dan and Hudson were among the least experienced. In fact at that point in his budding career Dan had only driven in nine races, most of them in his Porsche Speedster.

At Willow Springs, Parravano rolled out a selection of Ferraris, Maseratis and Alfa Romeos. Included were a 3-litre V12 Ferrari Berlinetta coupe, each of 4.4 and 4.9 Ferrari sports cars, a 3-litre Maserati sports/racer, a 4.5-litre Maserati V8 sports/racer and a 2.5-litre Maserati 250F F1 car. More than enough to get a young driver’s heart racing.

Ginther and Bob Drake were immediately given the chance to drive some of the faster cars while the less-experienced Gurney was sent out in a 2-litre, four-cylinder Ferrari Mondial sports car. Dan enjoyed the car’s handling and was soon cutting some fast laps only to spin and slide off into the dirt and rocks. He was able to get back onto the track and run a handful more laps, going faster than before his spin. Then he came into the pits, hoping that nobody had seen him spin.

No such luck. A rock had damaged the car’s fuel tank and fuel was leaking out of it. “Somebodys been off the road!” Parravano yelled. “Who’s been off the road with my car?”

Honest, as ever, Dan admitted he was to blame and as Michael Green writes, Parravano spared him no quarter telling Dan he was fired and admonishing him to get out of his sight. “That was the first and only time I got fired,” Dan says. “Here was this fantastic opportunity and I had managed to louse it up. I was heartsick. It was practically like the end of life. My world collapsed.”

Dan’s friend Skip Hudson looked good for a while but he also spun while driving the 4.5 litre Maserati sports/racer. Hudson was also given the heave-ho by Parravno so the two pals drove home feeling beaten. As it turned out, it was the nadir of Gurney’s epic career.

Later that year he won a race at Riverside driving a Corvette for Cal Bailey and that performance earned him a ride in Frank Arciero’s 4.9-litre Ferrari sports/racer. Dan won two of the first three races he drove in Arciero’s Ferrari which led to an invitation from Luigi Chinetti to drive a NART Ferrari 250 at Le Mans and the Reims 12 Hours which in turn led to an invitation to test for Ferrari at Modena near the end of 1958. He lapped as fast as Jean Behra in the test and was signed by Enzo to drive sports cars in 1959.

Gurney won his first race with the factory Ferrari team, the Sebring 12 Hours in ‘59, and was promoted to the F1 team in July, making his F1 debut in the French GP at Reims. It was only the 31st race of Dan’s life and he went on to forge one of the sport’s most remarkable careers not only as a highly versatile driver but also as a team owner and car builder.

Gurney drove F1 cars for Ferrari, BRM, Porsche, Brabham, his own All American Racers Eagles and a few races for McLaren, filling in for his friend Bruce after the company’s founder was killed at Goodwood in 1970. Dan won in F1, long-distance sports cars, NASCAR, Indycars, Can-Am and the Tasman series as well as building and racing some of the most attractive and appealing Formula 1 and Indycars we’ve ever seen. From 1966-’99 AAR built a range of successful Eagle F1 and Indycars as well as Toyota GT and GTP cars. More recently, in 2011, AAR built the prototype DeltaWing.

Dan was also a great friend and rival of Jim Clark. The Scot and he were Lotus teammates at Indianapolis in 1963 and ‘64 and had tremendous respect for each other. Dan was honoured at Goodwood last September and he and his wife Evi were very much touched by their time at Lord March’s estate. “We had a very nice trip to Goodwood,” Dan says. “It couldn’t have been more moving. There was a huge turnout and the British fans just went bananas. I had no idea we had that kind of old-fashioned popularity over there. It was fabulous.”

And Bart Spiegelman? He got the ride for New Smyrna, but Parravano never raced any of his cars again. A little later, Parravano returned to his native Italy and his cars were sold at auction. In sharp contrast to Gurney, Spiegelman’s career appears to have gone no further.

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