Dan Gurney, the well-known racing driver, passed away on 14 January 2018.
Where does one start with a driver like Dan Gurney? He was an inspiration to many, admired by both rivals and friends alike, and an all-round good guy. His racing achievements are so numerous and his victories so varied, that it would take a book to do them justice. But under that tough, competitive front lay a likeable and easy-going nature that, when folk approached him, would break into that familiar broad California smile.
I had the pleasure of making his acquaintance on two separate occasions, one in a face-to-face meeting and the other was on the telephone when I interviewed him a couple of years back. On both occasions, he was so easy to get on with, that I was actually taken aback.
Born on 13 April 1931 in Port Jefferson, New York, his family moved to California where Gurney would learn his profession in the school of hard knocks, as he made his name in the Hot Rod scene while still a teenager. His talent was soon spotted by the manufacturers and Gurney’s career was off and running. He drove for Ferrari in the 1958 Le Mans 24 Hours, but through his career, Gurney would drive an extraordinary array of race cars in a wide range of motorsport classes which included: sports cars, Formula 1, INDY, CART, Champ car, Can-Am, NASCAR, saloon car, stock car, Trans-Am, and he was also Chairman and CEO of All American Racers from 1970 until his son took over in 2011.
Porsche owes its only success as a vehicle manufacturer in the Formula 1 World Championship to Gurney, who won the 1962 French Grand Prix in Rouen, driving an eight-cylinder Porsche 804. Just a week later Gurney led from start to finish to triumph at the Solitude racetrack near Stuttgart. His team-mate Jo Bonnier took second place to secure a one-two for the air-cooled Porsche Type 804 in front of its home crowd.
It was while driving a Formula 1 Porsche in Europe that Gurney met the attractive Evi Butz, assistant to Porsche’s PR supremo, Baron Huschke von Hanstein. Gurney would soon whisk Evi off to America to become Mrs. Evi Gurney.
With the invention, the ‘Gurney flap,’ he improved aerodynamic efficiency by adding a spoiler to the rear wing. He was also the first driver to spray champagne on the podium, inadvertently starting a tradition that is now imitated all around the world.
In 1990, Gurney was most deservedly inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. It was in 2003, while attending the Ford Centennial in Detroit, that this writer was invited to attend that year’s induction ceremony of incumbents into the Motorsports Hall of Fame. The ceremony was held over two evenings, first was the informal evening of drinks and nibbles at the Motorsports Hall of Fame Museum where I was placed at the same table with none other than Jennifer Revson (sister of the late Peter Revson). Later that evening I met Bob Bondurant who was a 2003 inductee, and I also met Dan Gurney and had my photo taken with him. Two evenings later I was invited to attend the actual induction ceremony at the Detroit State Theatre, a formal black tie occasion. These are memories I will cherish forever.
Much later, in 2015, I had the opportunity of interviewing Dan while writing a book on the AC/Shelby Cobra, a car he spent so much time behind the wheel of, and where his experience was applied in improving the car’s performance and handling.
Because the Cobra was produced as a road car, it needed a lot of work to make it race ready. Dan told me, “The Cobra evolved into something that was quite a bit better than all the experts thought it would be. If I look back, the most enjoyable time I had with the Cobra was probably at the Targa Florio in April 1964. Initially the windscreen was pretty vertical and I gradually managed to get mine to lay back further and further, and that probably was worth 10 or 15 mph on top speed.” Dan Gurney would also drive the famous Daytona Cobra with Bob Bondurant at Le Mans in 1964 and 1965, as Dan remembered, “I thought the Coupe was going to be slower, since it was heavier, but I think it was probably as much as 30 to 35 mph faster on top speed.”
The motorsport world has lost one of its finest, a man who was not just a skilled and much-admired racing driver, but a thinking driver, as he would always come up with ways to make something better in order to go faster. He was the professional’s professional, and a gentleman.
Dan Gurney died on 14 January 2018 (aged 86) in Newport Beach, California. He is survived by his wife, Evi and their four sons, Justin, Alex, Dan Jr. and Jimmy.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & Porsche Archives