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One thing that was certain about American automobile racing in the 20th century was that Mario Andretti was rated by many as the USA’s greatest race car driver of all-time. Fifteen years ago polls of fans and media across the United States unreservedly chose him and since his retirement from racing Indycars 20 years ago nobody has emerged to offer Mario even a remote challenge.
It’s an uncontested fact that Andretti’s record of success across a wide range of racing categories over an abnormally long and competitive career puts him in a league of his own, undisputed by his many challengers. But there may be more of a debate about who America’s greatest overall racing man of all time may be.
You could nominate Bill France Sr. and his son Bill Jr. for founding and building NASCAR into America’s most successful form of racing. You could also nominate Roger Penske for creating and building America’s definitive race team. Or you could reach back and select a man like Harry Miller who built and raced the fantastic Miller Indy cars from the 1920s and ’30s, or Fred and Augie Duesenberg who preceded Miller by a few years as America’s first great race car builders.
Then of course there’s Richard Petty (below) the all-time King of NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt who became even more of an icon of NASCAR in death than he was in life. And there’s Andretti not only for winning races and championships in a wide range of categories, and making himself the personification of the international American racer, but also for transcending the sport and becoming a renowned example of the American immigrant made good.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that Dan Gurney is America’s greatest overall racing man. Dan’s driving career is one of the few that rivals Andretti’s for diversity and achievement while his remarkable second career spanning more than 30 years as a team owner and innovative car builder elevates Gurney to a unique category.
As a driver, Dan stands out for many reasons and by my reckoning is second only to Andretti on the all-time list of top American racers. Famously, Gurney is the only American driver to win a Grand Prix in a car built and raced by his own team at Belgium’s fearsome Spa-Francorchamps in June of 1967. The track was then more than eight miles long and there wasn’t a single chicane in sight. Driving a classically beautiful Eagle-Weslake V12, Dan won the race and set a new track record of 148.8 mph.
The previous weekend Gurney had teamed with AJ Foyt to win the Le Mans 24 Hours driving a Ford Mk IV. Dan was the driving force in that victory as Le Mans rookie Foyt deferred to Dan’s considerable experience in setting up the car for the race. Gurney invited Foyt to join him in a vacant second AAR Eagle at Spa the next weekend, but Foyt flew home to Texas while Dan drove to Belgium to write another chapter in motor racing history.
From the archive: The day Gurney popped the champagne at Le Mans
Those successive spring weekends in June, 1967 define Gurney’s driving career. He was as versatile as they come racing F1, long-distance sports cars, Can-Am cars, Indycars, NASCAR stock cars, Trans-Am cars and almost anything in between. About the only thing Gurney didn’t do as a driver was dirt track racing in midget or sprint cars and that was largely because he’s so tall he couldn’t fit in those cars.
Dan always preferred to do his own thing and his record as a driver is probably less impressive than it might have been had he chosen not to pursue his dream of building and racing his own Eagle racing cars out of his All American Racers shop in Southern California. The effort that went into running the team and finding the necessary funding resulted in Dan dropping out of F1 before he would have had he remained a mere driver. During the three years (1966-’68) he spent building, developing and racing his own F1 cars he probably could have won plenty of races and championships with Jack Brabham, who wanted Gurney to continue with his team after the 1965 season. Bar the odd race, that was not Dan’s way.
Gurney raced F1 cars for 12 years from 1959-70. He started with Ferrari in 1959, moved to BRM in 1960, to Porsche in 1961 and ‘62, Brabham for 1963-65, then raced his own cars from 1966-68. He came back to drive a few races for McLaren in 1968 and ‘70, but retired from driving near the end of 1970. Dan won four world championship Grands Prix during this time and three more non-championship F1 races of which there were many in those days. He finished third in the 1961 world championship, tied with Stirling Moss, and was fifth in the championship in 1962 and ‘63, sixth in ‘64, and fourth in ‘65.
With due respect to Mario, it can strongly be argued that Dan was the fastest American Grand Prix driver we’ve ever seen. He started from the front row 22 times in 86 world championship starts and recorded fastest laps and track records at true driver’s tracks like Spa and the Nürburgring. Famously, he was on pole at Spa in 1964 with a Brabham, set a new track record in the race and would have won had he not run out of fuel on the second-last lap. In the German GP at the ‘Ring in 1967 he set a new track record and was leading the race by almost a minute when a driveshaft broke.
Chatting with Clark at Spa in ’64
During this time Jim Clark became a great friend and rival. Clark and Gurney had tremendous respect for each other and were Lotus team-mates at Indianapolis in 1963 and ‘64. Dan was a moving force in bringing Lotus founder Colin Chapman and the Ford Motor Company together to introduce the rear-engine revolution to Indianapolis and Indycar racing as documented in the recent issue of Motor Sport.
Dan made his name driving a 4.9-litre Ferrari sports car for Frank Arciero in California in 1957 and ‘58 and through Luigi Chinetti he was invited to test a factory Ferrari sports car in Italy at the end of 1958. Gurney was hired by Ferrari to drive sports cars in 1959 and after showing his speed and skill he was promoted in the middle of the year to the F1 team. It took Dan only 30 races to make it to F1 from his first race in the autumn of 1956 aboard a Triumph TR2.
As a long-distance sports car driver Gurney was as good as they come. He won the Sebring 12 hours with Ferrari in 1959 and the Tourist Trophy six-hour race at Goodwood too. At Goodwood he co-drove with Tony Brooks who was Ferrari’s F1 team leader that year. Many people believe Brooks was the equal of Stirling Moss and Brooks has great praise for Gurney.
The Books/Gurney Ferrari 250 at Goodwood in ’59
“Dan was an extremely good driver and I was delighted to be paired with him,” Brooks says. “The only problem was he’s a great, big chap and his legs are so much longer than mine, so I didn’t really fit the seat very well. But Dan and I got along extremely well. We hit a very happy note and it was clear that Dan was going to be an extremely good driver, which of course, he subsequently proved.”
After leaving Ferrari for BRM in 1960, Dan drove some sports car races aboard a Maserati T60 for Lucky Casner’s Camoradi team. At the Nürburgring 1000Kms Dan was teamed with Stirling Moss and the pair came back from a pitstop to replace a blown oil line to catch and pass Ferrari’s team of three cars in pouring rain. It was one of the most classic comeback victories ever seen at the ‘Ring and Moss echoes Brooks’ comments about Dan as a co-driver.
“I thought Dan was one of the finest drivers in the world,” Moss said. “I had great respect for his ability and he wasn’t hard on the car, so there really was no downside. I put him extremely high on my list of people I’ve driven with. There are two or three people I would put on a very high plane. Dan is one of them and Tony Brooks would be another.”
Dan also scored a famous win in the inaugural Daytona international sports car race in 1962. Run a few weeks before the 500, like today’s Daytona 24-hours, the race was run over three hours in ‘62. After leading most of the race in Frank Arciero’s Lotus 19, Gurney’s engine blew on the last lap and he had the presence of mind to coast to the finish line and wait until the chequered flag waved before using the banking to coast across the line ahead of Phil Hill’s Ferrari and Jim Hall’s Chaparral.
From the archive: Nigel Roebuck on the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours
Then of course there’s his Le Mans victory with Foyt and Ford in ‘67 (below), and many great showings in the old Can-Am series. Gurney was the only man to win a Can-Am race for Ford, driving his own AAR Lola T70-Ford to win at Bridgehampton in 1966. He also won a Can-Am race at Mosport in 1970, driving in place of Bruce McLaren who had been killed while testing the latest McLaren Can-Am car the previous month. Dan’s victory at Mosport helped pull the McLaren team together after the death of its founder and driving force.
As I mentioned, Gurney was a true all-rounder like few other drivers in the history of the sport and he dominated the NASCAR races at the old Riverside Raceway, his home track. Dan was renowned as the ‘King of Riverside’ and he added to his reputation by winning the January 500-mile NASCAR race five times over seven years between 1963-68, four of them with the Wood Brothers who say that Gurney was the best driver they ever had. And remember that each of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and AJ Foyt drove for the Wood Bros.
Dan also successfully raced both a Chevrolet Impala and Ford Galaxie in British touring car racing in the early ’60s, thrashing the favoured Jaguars and Lotus Cortinas. And there was the original Cannonball Run of course, in which Dan set a cross-country record from New York City to Newport Beach, California at the wheel of a Ferrari GTO with journalist Brock Yates riding shotgun.
So there’s a brief synopsis of Gurney’s driving career, unrivaled by any American but Andretti. But then there’s Dan’s highly successful second career as a team owner and car builder. No other top American driver has enjoyed anything comparable.
From the archive: Lunch with… Dan Gurney (2009)
Over a 34-year stretch running from 1966-99, All American Racers built and raced winning cars for many categories – F1, Indycars, Can-Am, Trans-Am and IMSA GTO & GTP cars – starting with the beautiful and thoroughly competitive 1966 and ‘67 F1 and USAC Eagles. AAR’s record of wins over that time includes 50 Indycar wins in USAC and CART; two F1 wins; one each in Can-Am and Trans-Am; four in IMSA’s GTU category; six in GTO; and twenty-three in GTP.
Roger McCluskey (below) scored the first Indycar victory for the Eagle marque at Langhorne in August of 1966 before Dan won F1 races at Brands Hatch and Spa in ‘67 with the Gurney/Weslake V12-powered machine. Bobby Unser recorded the first of three Indy 500 victories for the Eagle marque in 1968 and a few years later the legendary ‘72 Eagle-Offy, designed by Roman Slobodynskyj, set new standards for oval track racing.
The ‘72 Eagle broke the 200 mph barrier for the first time in Jerry Grant’s hands and destroyed the track record at Indianapolis by 17 mph with Bobby Unser at the wheel. This record-setting car dominated USAC racing for three or four years and lasted as a competitive car for five years. Gordon Johncock won the ‘73 Indy 500 in one of these cars run by Patrick Racing, Bobby Unser took the ‘75 Indy 500 driving for AAR, and no fewer than twenty Eagles were in the Indy 500 field in 1973.
Another notable Eagle Indy car was the ‘81 Eagle-Chevy. This car pursued a completely different technique of generating ground-effect called BLAT (boundary layer adhesion technology) developed by designers John Ward and Trevor Harris, and was powered by an all-aluminum ‘stock-block’ Chevy V8 at a time when everyone else was running Cosworth DFX turbos. Mike Mosley put the car on the front row at Indianapolis in 1981 and scored a famous win from the back of the field at Milwaukee two weeks later, but the car eventually was outlawed by AAR’s rival CART team owners.
After hanging on in CART for a few more years racing March chassis, AAR re-established its reputation in IMSA with Toyota, building and racing championship-winning GTU, GTO and GTP cars. AAR’s Toyotas won the IMSA GTU championship in 1985 and the GTO title in ‘87 while the spectacular Eagle-Toyota GTP cars won 17 straight races – 23 altogether – and successive IMSA championships in 1992 and ‘93.
Gurney and AAR returned to Indycar racing with Toyota in 1996 and a series of new Eagle-Toyota CART cars were designed and raced. The first wasn’t up to the job but the last Eagle Indycar was a typically beautiful and effective one that never achieved its potential because it took Toyota quite a few years to make reliable, let alone competitive, engines and also because AAR was contracted to run Goodyear tyres in the face of overwhelming opposition from Bridgestone/Firestone. At the end of 1999, Toyota turned to Chip Ganassi to field its lead team in CART and AAR’s long run as a car builder came to an end.
Over four decades AAR earned a deeply deserved reputation for producing some of the most beautifully engineered and constructed racing cars in history. Veteran craftsmen like Phil Remington and Jerry Whitfield contributed an enormous amount to the quality of AAR’s Eagles.
On top of all this, Dan has made a number of other important contributions to the sport. For one, he was a big help to Chris Pook in founding and building the Long Beach GP into the classic street race it’s become. He also helped Bell introduce the full-face helmet to racing back in the late ’60s and of course, he invented the Gurney flap, used for many years by racing teams the world over to aerodynamically tune their cars.
Dan was also one of the founders of CART in 1978 and ‘79 after pushing USAC hard for years in search of better management of the rules and an improved commercial package. Dan’s famous ‘White Paper’ spelled out what was required to turn Indycar racing around and is worth reading today because his thoughts remain eminently sensible and relevant.
Beyond these many accomplishments Dan is also a true gentleman. He’s an erudite, well-read man with a keen sense of humour. Invariably, when fans have the chance to meet him they’re impressed with his humble, civilised manner. Over the years I’ve heard many race fans remark: “What a nice guy! What a gentleman.”
So there you have the many reasons why Dan Gurney is America’s greatest racing man. He deserves a hearty round of applause from all of us and a special place in Motor Sport’s Hall of Fame.
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