Dan Gurney, the tall, handsome, all-American driver from California, who had success in almost every kind of road racing there is, and who drove in the golden age of Grand Prix and sports car competition in Europe and America, passed away today of complications from pneumonia at the age of 86.
“With one last smile on his handsome face, Dan drove off into the unknown just before noon today,” read an email signed Evi Gurney, the Gurney family and AAR teammates. “In deepest sorrow, with gratitude in our hearts for the love and joy you have given us during your time on this earth, we say, ‘Godspeed.”
Gurney began racing in 1955 and drove competitively for 15 years. He competed in and won in just about every form of racing he tried. In Formula 1 he drove for Ferrari, BRM, Porsche and Brabham before forming his own team and designing and engineering his own cars. He won the Belgian Grand Prix in 1967 in his own car, the first and only time an American has won an F1 race in a car of his own design, and a feat matched by only a small handful of other driver/designers. In that same year, 1967, he co-drove with AJ Foyt to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40, immediately afterwards inventing the now-regular tradition of spraying champagne from the podium. He also saw success in IndyCars, sports cars, Trans-Am, Can-Am and NASCAR.
Gurney was born in Long Island, New York on April 13, 1931. His dad was a star in the Metropolitan Opera and his grandfather was a manufacturer who invented something called the Gurney ball bearing. The Gurney family moved from Long Island to Riverside when Dan graduated high school and from there the young future-racer got going. There’s a famous photo of the teenaged Dan Gurney waving to a camera as he works on a car with the words, “Bonneville or Bust” scrawled on it. He drove his first road race in a triumph TR2 in 1955 and from there never stopped winning, both as a driver, constructor and team owner.
In all he won seven times in Formula 1, seven times in IndyCar, five times in NASCAR – all at Riverside – and took two second-place finishes at the Indy 500. In sports cars he won at Nurburgring, Daytona, Sebring and, of course, Le Mans, among many other iconic tracks. His career included 42 pole positions and 58 front rows. He was the first driver to post wins in all four of the major fields of competition: Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR and sports cars. Only two other drivers have done it since: Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.
He retired from driving in 1970, having won 51 races, but remained in the sport as owner of All-American Racers, having bought out co-founder Carroll Shelby. As a constructor his Eagle race cars won Indy twice — with Bobby Unser in 1968 and Gordon Johncock in 1973. When he entered IMSA's GTP class with his Toyota-powered Eagles in the 1992 and ’93 seasons, Gurney’s cars won 17 consecutive races. AAR built 157 race cars total, which won 78 races.
Along the way he invented the Gurney Flap, a right-angle extension on the upper trailing edge of the rear wing that increases down force. It is used today on just about every race car that has wings. He was also the first big-time driver to wear a full-face helmet.
AAR is still a thriving business, too, now run by Gurney’s sons Alex and Justin, the company having branched out to a number of other engineering endeavors, including aerospace.
Three years ago, at a celebration for his 85th birthday, Gurney’s son Justin praised his famous dad.
“You don’t realize how cool this guy is,” he said.
Justin Gurney started off by pointing out that on that very day, Dan Gurney’s birthday 2015, SpaceX was scheduled to launch a heavy rocket to the space station that would have on it a number of critical parts made by AAR, including the big carbon-fiber legs the rocket would land on when it came back to Earth.
“Over the course of 19 days in 1967, he set motorsports history,” Justin Gurney said. “On May 30, he ran in the Indy 500, leading two laps before retiring with mechanical difficulties. Five days later, he raced in the Dutch Grand Prix. Seven days later, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Seven days after that he won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.”
Our own Denise McCluggage, who herself passed away just three years ago, was a lifelong friend of Gurney's. In her many columns for Autoweek, she often wrote of the tall, quietly confident young American who was part of a community of drivers the likes of which we may never see again. When she gathered all those stories together in a book, she chose for a title part of an A.E. Houseman poem, that describes that time and those young men perfectly:
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had
For many a rose-lipped maiden
And many a lightfoot lad
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid
The rose-lipped girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade
Gurney is survived by his wife Evi, sons Alex, Justin, Jimmy, Danny and Dan Jr. At last count there were eight grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are to be private but the family suggests donations be made to the Hoag Hospital Foundation in Newport Beach, Calif.