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All-American Racer



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Dan Gurney


Brabham-Climax BT7




50e GP de l'ACF (June 28, 1964)


He was the man Clark feared most. He was just as versatile as Mario Andretti – and probably just as good in all the cars he drove. And he was successful in all the significant positions one can hold in motor racing, from being a driver to a team owner, and from a constructor of racing cars to being the innovator responsible for today’s ever-present Gurney flap. In a time where he personified the bridge across the Big Pond that was later broken down to create two separate motor racing worlds, he was Dan the Man.

It’s tempting to say that Daniel Sexton Gurney’s artistic flair behind the wheel was a gift passed on to him by his father, who was a star with the Metropolitan Opera while he toured the country. But instead of drifting into the uncharted territory of genetics, we could simply point to opportunity. As a teenager, the East Coast-born Gurney moved to Riverside, California with the rest of the family after his father had retired from singing. Just the sound of their new hometown’s name will still give a buzz to almost every American road racing fanatic as the town gave host to Riverside International Raceway, but it wasn’t at RIR where young Dan honed his skills – the track didn’t open until 1957! Instead, he learned his trade by weaving through the orange groves, inspired by the rapidly expanding SoCal hot-rod scene.

Having been hooked to the smell of oil, gasoline and rubber since he was taken to visit the 1937 and ’38 Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island, where he was born, he would join a group of older youths to go and see the midget car races at Freeport Stadium during the war years. In 1948, at the age of 17, he bought his first car, a 1933 Ford roadster. Shortly after, when the family moved to California, he prepared himself a Mercury Special and was soon to be found on Utah’s Bonneville salt plains joining the speed record crowd, before he was whisked off to Korea for two years of army duty.

In 1954, on his return from Korea, Dan and his hometown buddies followed RIR’s build-up closely, tracking the bulldozers around on their motorcycles – and now he knew he was exactly where he wanted to be. Later, when Gurney and Riverside became an inseparable combination when he won the NASCAR race there four times in a row, he must have thought back to the days when he ploughed his way through the sand where the esses were already outlined. His signature racing number 48 harked back to Riverside as well, as he borrowed it from Riverside owner Les Richter, who wore the number in his days with the LA Rams football team.

His competition debut came at Torrey Pines in October 1955, where he took his latest acquisition – a Triumph TR2 – to third in class, before he switched to a Porsche Spyder, winning his first race at Montgomery Field in San Diego. His cool and confident driving style soon attracted the attention of some of the most important figures in American racing. First, legendary team boss Frank Arciero offered Dan a drive in his 4.9-litre V12 Ferrari. In return, Dan gave Arciero three wins from six starts. This was duly noticed by Phil Hill, the American racer who preceded Gurney on their travels to Europe – but as it turned out only just.

After Hill’s talent spot, things went very quickly indeed. In the US, he stormed through to become USAC’s 1958 road racing champion in Arciero’s Ferrari. Meanwhile, a Sebring drive in the 12 Hours fell through but Luigi Chinetti did put Gurney in his Le Mans squad later in the year, teaming him up with Bruce Kessler in the 3-litre class. Their NART 250 TR was out by lap 64, but a subsequent Nürburgring drive with an OSCA led to a seventh-place finish. His European breakthrough came in the Reims 12 Hours, where he led until co-driver André Guelfi crashed out. Which all led to Gurney testing a Ferrari F1 car before the end of the season! Hill’s initial tip to Chinetti had been followed by the American Ferrari importer tipping Ferrari competition boss Romolo Tavoni, who was in dire need of new talent after Collins and Musso’s deaths, and Mike Hawthorn’s retirement announcement. Gurney made such an impression that he was signed on immediately.

And to great effect – partnering Chuck Daigh and taking on board Hill and Gendebien in Ferrari’s Fantuzzi Spyder, Dan immediately won the Sebring 12 Hours, beating the sister car of Behra/Allison. There was bad luck in the Targo Florio and at Le Mans, but with Allison he finished fifth at the ‘Ring while a switch to Brooks’s Testa Rossa for the season-closing Goodwood TT gave Gurney another fifth in a season that would go Aston Martin’s way.

Dan got his break as a Grand Prix driver in France, exactly a year after Phil Hill made his Grand Prix debut. He retired with a broken radiator after 19 laps while in 7th place, but his position as a junior driver changed soon after when new signing Jean Behra found his pugnacious self in trouble with Tavoni. Suddenly he was the new number three behind Brooks and Hill, and he started off by outqualifying and outracing his more experienced countryman at AVUS to finish a close second to team leader Brooks. This was followed by a third in Portugal – being the fastest of the Ferrari trio – and a fourth at Monza. With less than half of the races competed in he finished 7th in the 1959 championship.

Gurney’s technical mind led him to believe that the rear-engined Grand Prix car was the way forward, and so he decided against staying with Ferrari. But in signing as team mate to Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier at BRM he made the wrong choice of rear-engined car – the new P48 being nothing else than a reworked P25 with the engine in the back. It turned into a very unhappy Grand Prix season for Gurney, suffering from a total lack of speed and woeful reliability, not making any impression on his team mates and ultimately not scoring any significant result at all – that is, if we indeed classify Dan’s second place to Trintignant in the Buenos Aires GP in February as insignificant.

Dan kept his reputation alive in sportscar racing, joining Moss in the Camoradi-entered Maserati Tipo 61. A fastest lap for Gurney in Buenos Aires and for Moss at Sebring preceded a well-earned win in the Nürburgring 1000kms for the ‘Birdcage’ pairing. And at the start of 1962, Dan won the Daytona 3-hour race in Frank Arciero’s Lotus-Climax 19B, beating the NART Ferrari of P Hill/R Rodriguez.

The advent of the 1.5-litre era in Grand Prix racing meant a sea change as Gurney signed to drive for Porsche in single-seaters as well as sportscars, with Bonnier following him as a team mate in both. The sportscar season started off well with a second place in the Targa Florio but there was less reward for the remainder of the year as Ferrari’s latest incarnation of the Testa Rossa swept the board. The Italian squad’s ‘sharknoses’ were similarly dominant in Grand Prix racing, leaving the British to fight over the crumbs as they came to terms with the failure of the Intercontinental formula. In their first year in the top class, their formerly class-winning F2 design now eligible for F1, Porsche registered what can be termed a learning year, although Dan came very close to victory in the race of attrition at Reims, where Baghetti came out of Gurney’s slipstream to record his famous win. And that was after the Italian had already beaten the American at Syracuse to post his real debut Grand Prix win…

Getting into his stride, Dan took another second, albeit a distant one, to new World Champion Phil Hill at Monza, helped by Clark and Surtees being eliminated in the fatal von Trips accident and Baghetti, Rodriguez, Ginther and Moss all falling by the wayside. When Ferrari decided against the journey to Watkins Glen, the championship wrapped up and still mourning over the loss of von Trips, Dan took a close second to Innes Ireland in the US GP, which meant that he finished fourth in the World Championship. Apart from the podiums at Syracuse, the Solitude and Modena (trailing Bonnier on these last two occasions) there wasn’t much to write home about for Gurney in the multitude of non-championship events on the 1961 calendar, which formerly ran to F2 regulations but suddenly found themselves hosting F1 events. Porsche simply didn’t bother to enter most of them, instead concentrating on the big races.

A simple reason for this was Gurney using his weekends off to travel to the US, letting Bonnier represent Porsche in a one-car effort in the most important non-championship events. Continuing to compete for Frank Arciero, he won the Nassau Trophy races on the Bahamas in 1961, and three more in 1962 (Mosport, Kent, Laguna Seca), again in Arciero Lotus 19. Frank’s Lotus 18 was used in US Libre events, resulting in wins at Bossier City and Indianapolis Raceway Park, while he started a tradition in NASCAR by returning for his home race in 1962, and winning it five times on the trot from 1963 on, only missing out on the 1967 win – finishing 14th on a day when Parnelli Jones was untouchable. Initially driving Holman & Moody’s Ford before switching to the Wood Brothers car, Gurney would firmly turn the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside into territory of his own. Over in the UK, short breaks in the British Saloon Car Championship netted him two poles and one win (at Oulton Park) from three starts, in Ford’s big Galaxie.

Although Gurney would not better his fourth place in the 1961 World Championship standings, instead ending up fifth behind Hill, Clark, McLaren and Surtees, 1962 is usually marked out as Porsche’s most successful season in their short presence as a works Grand Prix team – and of course it’s because of that win. Ironically, it came right after Porsche had withdrawn from the Belgian GP, trying to kick some life into the new 804 while allowing Gurney to race a Lotus-BRM for Wolfgang Seidel – which resulted in a DNS, as he didn’t find the car raceworthy. At Zandvoort, Gurney had been a desolate 12th before retiring with a broken gearbox while Bonnier was beaten to the final championship point by privateer Carel Godin de Beaufort in his three-year old Porsche – by a lap! At Monaco, Dan was out at the start, tangling with Trintignant, leaving Bonnier to soldier on to be the last man running in 5th place, 7 laps down. So a win was the last thing on everybody’s mind at Porsche System Engineering, and probably the rest of the paddock as well, as they travelled to Rouen for the French GP.

The Grand Prix de l’ACF had returned to the track after a five-year break, with lap times improving over seven seconds. These weren’t set by Ferrari, however, as the team was absent due to an industrial strike in Italy – but what else was new. Early on, Gurney showed that Porsche’s efforts hadn’t been in vain, as he posted the third quickest time on Thursday. In Friday qualifying Clark, McLaren and Brabham beat the American’s time, which meant he would line up on the third row. Away from the startline, Hill and Surtees quickly disappeared into a race of their own, while McLaren and Brabham dropped out at the front on lap 10. Three laps later, Surtees was in the pits with suspected fuel starvation, leaving Clark to chase Hill in vain, with Gurney now best of the rest, ahead of Gregory, Bonnier and Maggs.

Past the half-way distance Hill was leading by a mile – literally – and came up to lap Jack Lewis’s Cooper. But then disaster struck for Graham as the Cooper’s brakes failed at the very next corner, resulting in Lewis torpedoeing straight into the BRM’s side. His 22-second lead was wiped away on the spot, as Clark nipped past before Hill was able to resume. The Scot’s time in the lead was shortlived, though, as a suspension problem dropped him back into Hill’s clutches before it became terminal. This left Hill with 20 seconds over Gurney, who was simply plugging along in this race of attrition and himself held a nice cushion to Surtees, who had worked his way back through the field. With 12 laps to go Hill looked to have the race in his pocket but then his BRM came to a standstill at Nouveau Monde. What had happened? An injection problem had put an end to Graham’s efforts, and for the rest of the race he would trundle around on tickover speed to finish 9th, 10 laps behind. Suddenly Gurney and Porsche found themselves in first place, miles ahead of the competition, since Surtees’s Lola had developed a gearbox problem and started to drop back again to eventually finish 5th, while new second-place man Maggs was now over a lap behind. And so both the American and his German team went from zeroes to heroes in the space of a month.

A second win – and a one-two for Porsche – would follow at the Solitude GP, the following weekend, with pole and third place for Gurney at the German GP in early August. It was indeed a summer of joy for Porsche but the success tailed off in the autumn and the factory decided against continuing in Grand Prix racing. Dan was happy to join Jack Brabham’s fledgling BRO outfit for 1963. Although the season would be totally dominated by Jim Clark, Gurney showed why he was the man feared most by the Scotsman by fighting his way up to second at Zandvoort (from 14th on the grid) as the Lotus disappeared into the distance. Dropping out of contention at Silverstone and Watkins Glen, Dan took another second and fastest lap at East London to consolidate his fifth place in the championship. Staying with Jack for 1964, Gurney took consecutive poles at Zandvoort and Spa before giving the Brabham marque its first win, as he had done for Porsche two years earlier, also at Rouen-les-Essarts. Continuing to never qualify lower than fourth he was always in contention for a win, only to be blighted by mechanical failures. But finally, in Mexico, the scene where Jim Clark and Graham Hill lost their second titles and Surtees won his first, Dan grabbed the top spot for Brabham for the second time.

Meanwhile, Gurney showed his versatility by excelling on the American sportscar scene, in Shelby American’s Cobra, the 1963 highlight his win in one of the Bridgehampton 500s, his John Edgar-entered example beating the Vic Damone Cobra of Ken Miles and the Briggs Cunningham E-types of Hansgen and Richards. He continued with Shelby American in 1964 and was usually the fastest among the big-bore GT cars, his best international results being a fourth at Le Mans, sharing with Bob Bondurant, and a third in the Goodwood TT.

The two wins for Brabham in 1964 gave hope for the final year of the 1.5-litre era – if only the team could cure the reliability problems that had blunted their charge. The result was that they eventually did just that, but at the cost of ultimate speed. So while Clark and Lotus again ruled the roost, Gurney could do little else than take a string of thirds and seconds. And on those occasions when the infamous Lotus fragility played up there would be the arrival of a new young star named Jackie Stewart or a sudden up-turn in form for Honda at high Mexican altitudes that kept Gurney away from accepting the laurels of another Grand Prix win.

It caused him to rethink his future and follow the example of his team boss. With the new 3-litre formula coming up, this would be the perfect moment for building his own car and setting up his own team. And so Anglo-American Racers was formed as an offshoot to Gurney’s original All American Racers (co-founded with Carroll Shelby in 1965) to manufacture the Grand Prix Eagle, the car with which Gurney hoped to emulate the success of Jack Brabham, racing driver, constructor and team owner.

Retrospectively called the T1G, the first Eagle Grand Prix car penned by Len Terry was initially powered by a bored-out Climax before Harry Weslake’s 3-litre V12 – officially known as ‘Gurney-Weslake’ – was put in the back. A strikingly handsome design, which still today features in many top-tens of most beautiful Grand Prix cars, it had a light-alloy monocoque and sported wishbone and coil spring/damper suspension. The Aubrey Woods-designed V12 was built in Rye, at the AAR workshops themselves, where the first one was completed in the summer of 1966, to race at Monza. Although reasonably powerful, the hand-built machines would give AAR all sorts of trouble in their three years of competition, as their power output varied greatly amongst its examples while their components suffered from low interchangeability.

In the team’s first year, Gurney’s two points-scoring efforts were with Climax-engined Eagles but the outfit made quick progress in 1967, starting off with a fine win in the early-March Race of Champions. In the World Championship, Dan was seen qualifying at the front of every race. And although he lost third place at Monaco because of a fuel-pump problem, he put the Eagle on the front row at Zandvoort and Spa, making Gurney the quickest challenger to the new Cosworth-powered Lotus 49 that swept the board at the Dutch track. This was brought about by the greater use of titanium and magnesium, making the Eagle as swift as it already looked. Weslake trouble had blunted his Dutch challenge but at Spa everything clicked, as he split the two new wonder Lotuses in practice. But suddenly, right at the start, the Eagle’s only Grand Prix win looked a lot less likely, as Dan failed to put the car in gear quickly enough. Beaten away from the flag by Rindt, Stewart, Parkes and Amon, he at least didn’t need to worry about Hill in the second Lotus, which had remained stuck on the dummy grid with a flat battery. Then, into Blanchimont, another rival fell by the wayside, Mike Parkes crashing out heavily and effectively ending his Grand Prix career right there. With Clark leading Stewart, already by a large margin, Gurney dealt with Amon and Rindt to lay third after three laps while closing the gap to Stewart. Another nine laps later the leader was in! A spark plug needed changing, dropping Clark to 7th. And then Gurney was in as well! Not stopping like Clark did, he shouted to his crew that he was suffering from low fuel pressure before pressing on, handing Stewart in the BRM a nifty 15-second lead. Then at half distance two other contenders retired – Hulme and Brabham’s Repco engines harmoniously giving up after continuous fuel scavenge problems – while Clark had another plug replaced and then ran into gearbox trouble. The same problem started to overcome Stewart as well, the wee Scot now forced to keep his selector in gear while steering with the other hand. With seven laps to go Gurney had closed the gap to the BRM and overtook it to run away to a famous win.

The car would last on just on other occasion, when Dan took third in Canada, but the rest of 1967 was spent in frustation. In a series of what-might-have-beens, Gurney lost a second place in France, an almost certain win at the Nürburgring and again a second place at Monza. The crew worked hard to improve the Eagle over the winter, and indeed an uprated version saw the light of day in Spring of 1968. But it was too little too late, as the opposition had now all switched to the all-conquering DFV, while the Weslake units continued to give the AAR team enough headaches to cut the Eagle story short half-way into the season. Gurney unconspicuously finished the 1968 season with McLaren, having already raced a third Brabham at Zandvoort. The Tony Southgate-designed (and Cosworth-engined) follow-up car remained stillborn, and the only Eagle ever to be seen on a Grand Prix grid since was Al Pease’s Climax-engined 1966 car, the local Canadian hero embarrassing himself enough to be disqualified from the 1969 Canadian GP by driving in the way and knocking Beltoise out of the race.

It wasn’t the end of the line for the Eagle marque, however, since originally All American Racers was set up in Santa Ana, California, with backing from Goodyear to challenge Firestone’s reign at the Indianapolis 500. Indeed, the team’s name was suggested to them by the then-president of Goodyear, Victor Holt. Their aim finally gained momentum in 1967, when the Indycar Eagle started to become a competitive proposition. The debut win by Roger McCluskey at Langhorne in 1966 as well as a ‘home’ win for Gurney himself in the 1967 Rex Mays 300 at Riverside prompted Dan to switch AAR’s emphasis to the US, eventually closing down the British factory to concentrate on Indy racing. More wins followed in 1968, at Mosport and again at Riverside, while Dan took his first of two consecutive runner-up spots in the 1968 Indianapolis 500 – won by Bobby Unser in another Eagle. The following year Dan took wins at Indianapolis Raceway Park and Brainerd before taking his final big Indycar win at Sears Point in 1970.

That was long after arguably the biggest win of them all, which came in 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours, when he shared a big-block Ford GT40 MkIV with AJ Foyt on their way to victory over Ferrari. Ford, Foyt, and blue-eyed Dan the Man – how much more All American could you get? Voted Chalk and Cheese by their team mates, the duo was deemed least likely to succeed, but in the end the No.1 car was the only remaining Ford in the race, and fortunately for all those at Ford, in the only place that mattered. It was something special that Henry Ford II was up there on the podium to celebrate with the boys, and Gurney got caught up in the moment so much that he started spraying champagne over the assembly of photographers present. It’s been a winner’s tradition ever since. To top it up, Dan’s victory at Spa, in his Eagle, came just a week later…

Meanwhile, he continued to race (and win) in NASCAR’s road courses, Trans-Am and CanAm – the latter category even prompting a brief F1 return for McLaren, which yielded a single point for his 6th place at Clermont-Ferrand. Dan’s CanAm exploits were much more successful, as he took two 1970 CanAm wins at the classic Canadian tracks of Mosport and Mont-Tremblant. It was the final year of his career as an active racer and he bowed out at his home track in October, in a Trans-Am race at Riverside. He bought out Carroll Shelby and from now on he was going to be AAR’s sole team boss. (That’s discounting the peculiar one-off return in the NASCAR No.48 car in 1980, as a team mate to a young Dale Earnhardt at Team Osterlund. Retiring from second place due to a snapped input shaft, Dan was cheered all the way, against the backdrop of ‘Gurney For President’ banners at the side of the legendary track.)

Remarkably, Dan’s retirement as a driver would mean an upturn in form for the Offenhauser-powered Indycar Eagles, culminating in the USAC title for works driver Bobby Unser in 1974, and victory in the Indy 500 in 1975. And it wasn’t just the works cars. By 1973 an Eagle-Offy had become the car of choice among USAC customers, with 21 examples lining up for the 1973 Indy 500, won by Gordon Johncock in one of them. AAR’s second coming in Indycars in the late-nineties would be a lot less fruitful as the team – by now more or less acting as Toyota USA’s racing arm – failed to extend their immense IMSA success.

The IMSA GTO glory of the late eighties featuring Chris Cord, Rocky Moran and Willy T Ribbs, followed by even greater GTP dominance in the early nineties with Juan Fangio II, Andy Wallace, PJ Jones and Mark Dismore can probably be classified as Gurney’s biggest success as a team boss. Who else is able to boast 17 GTP victories in a row? It’s a feat that remains unique in sportscar racing up until this day.

That’s left two of Gurney’s most popular contributions to motor racing and American pop culture unmentioned. Firstly, the invention of the Gurney flap, which came at a USAC test at Phoenix in 1971, has left a legacy in motor racing that is hard to beat. The strip, usually simply referred to ‘Gurney’, is still increasing the downforce on almost every winged single-seater today. And secondly, Dan Gurney pioneered the infamous coast-to-coast Cannonball Run when he and his co-driver Brock Yates raced a Ferrari Daytona to a win in the 1971 Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, taking 35 hours and 54 minutes to cover the distance between downtown Manhattan and the Portofino Inn at Redondo Beach, California.

Meanwhile, the Gurney name doesn’t just live on in the shape of a seemingly insignificant piece of spoiler – it’s become a household name in sportscars again since youngest son Alex successfully switched from Toyota Atlantic single-seaters to Grand-Am sportscars. Now in his third year in the category, he is regularly winning races in a Bob Stallings-run Riley-Pontiac shared with Jon Fogarty.

For a brief moment, Gurney’s name even popped up in the F1 newspaper columns again. In 2002, he grabbed the headlines by launching the idea of an All-American F1 team, co-led by the man responsible for his initial discovery – Phil Hill. First thoughts in the outside world surrounded taking over Arrows from Tom Walkinshaw, before it became apparent that Gurney was intending it to be a greenfield project financed by businessmen Bob Balachowski and Russ Olsen. A deal-on-a-handshake with Ford – another nostalgic link-up – gave AAR the engines it needed for a plan that had been on Gurney’s mind for two-and-a-half years. Still in its preliminary stages when it was announced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October 2002, the project was given a go or no-go deadline of ten days by Gurney himself. As he later said, he simply made his ideas public ahead of everything else, knowing that this had been the moment to rally additional American investors around him while Red Bull’s plans of an Arrows takeover floundered. Aware of this crucial timeframe, he hoped that the air of optimism surrounding one of America’s most popular men in motor racing would be enough to give the project a jumpstart.

In the end, it all fell through when Hill stated that he didn’t know why he had been mentioned as being involved – thus questioning the sincerity of Gurney and his backers – while remarkably the two former Ferrari team mates had been present at the IMS press conference! In all, a very strange final episode in Gurney’s four lives as a driver, constructor, team owner, and innovator.