Above: Dan Gurney’s milestone win in his Eagle at Spa, 1967.
He wasn’t an American Treasure as much as he was America’s treasure.
From the time he went from a sports car at Riverside to sitting in a Ferrari at the French Grand Prix in only 23 races to helping change the face of the Indianapolis 500 with rear-engine cars to teaming with A.J. Foyt to win Le Mans to capturing Spa in his own design to dominating Indianapolis with his Eagles to racing a street car across the United States at 150mph in a race that paid nothing, Daniel Sexton Gurney embodied everything that was cool and daring and spirited about motorsports.
- Dan Gurney, 1931-2018
- RACER video series: “Dan Gurney: All American Racer presented by Bell Helmets”
- Video: Robin Miller on Dan Gurney (2016)
He was a fearless competitor in the deadliest era of Formula 1 who had Jim Clark’s undivided attention, a versatile road racer that won in F1, Can-Am, IndyCar and NASCAR but who also adapted quickly to ovals – especially Indianapolis.
In 312 starts, he scored 51 victories and 47 podiums while driving an astonishing 51 makes and more than 100 models from Europe to California to Canada.
But as great as he was in the cockpit and as willing as he was to drive anything with four wheels, the reason we loved The Big Eagle was because he charted his own course. The All-American Racer did it his way, from building his own chassis and engines to pushing boundaries and never hesitating to run with an idea.
“He was a great race driver but what we had in common and what I liked most about Dan was that he built his own cars and engines and we did it our way,” said Foyt, who was devastated to hear of Gurney’s passing.
“I always respected him because he was an American in Formula 1 racing his own car and then we won Le Mans together, a couple of Americans in a Ford, and that was pretty cool. He wasn’t afraid to try something different and I had so much respect for him.”
It was because of that mindset that Gurney never became an F1 or IndyCar champion, because instead of going with a conventional car or engine that were reliable, he wanted something different, faster, zoomier. And something that was his.
“If Dan would have driven for Lotus or Ferrari he’d have been a multi world champion,” said Mario Andretti, who also took the news of one of his heroes quite hard. “But he did it his way, be it F1 or Indy cars, and he paid dearly but you have to admire him for that. In my book he was a world champion. He just didn’t have the trophy.”
His F1 career started with Ferrari then went to Porsche, where he earned his first victory in 1962, then BRM and then chalked up two wins for Brabham before starting All American Racers. In 86 starts, he was on the front row 22 times but fourth in the championship was his best-ever showing. But he never second-guessed what he did.
“When I look back we were pretty confident as well as curious because we did some radical things but I loved being creative, something not allowed anymore,” he said back in 2009.
“I liked having my own stuff, and if we hadn’t run out of money with the Weslake engine I think we could have given everyone a run for their money.”
Of course his competitors knew what they were up against. Stirling Moss told veteran motorsports writer Gordon Kirby that Gurney was one “of the finest drivers in the world,” while Clark’s father told Dan at the funeral that The Big Eagle was the only driver his son feared.
In today’s specialized world of race drivers, it’s hard to fathom Gurney’s greatest year in 1967 when he won a Trans-Am race, then co-drove to victory with Foyt at Le Mans and a week later captured Spa in his Eagle before capping off the season with an IndyCar win at Riverside. He owned the NASCAR race at Riverside with five wins, and helped keep McLaren on track by winning the Mosport Can-Am race for them shortly after Bruce McLaren’s death.
Gurn (as Troy Ruttman’s daughter Toddy calls him) also won endurance races at Sebring, Daytona, the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood and Nurburgring. He brought Ford and Lotus to Indianapolis in 1963 but had his best success at IMS in his Eagles – finishing second twice and third once before retiring after 1970.
“Those were great times because A.J., Mario, Parnelli and myself were always driving something different and it was a great feeling to jump into a new car and get right up to speed,” said Gurney in 2012.
“I feel bad for these kids today because most of them are stuck in one category their whole career and it deprives the fans of seeing how versatile they could be. I’d never trade the era I raced, I think it was the best and most rewarding time for a driver.”
After stepping away from the wheel (other than his 35-hour win in the inaugural Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash in a Ferrari Daytona in 1971 and his mastery of the Toyota Celebrity race at Long Beach), Gurney concentrated on AAR and Indianapolis.
Dan’s pride and joy was the 1972 Eagle, in which Bobby Unser obliterated the IMS track record by 17mph in the AAR Eagle in 1972 and was long gone in the race before an ignition failure.
“Dan was so smart about cars it was scary,” said Unser, who broke eight track records in ’72. “He’d invent an idea and I’d run with it and it was a great combination. That was the best car I ever drove and it was so far ahead of anything else at that time.
“I’d have lapped the field that day in ’72 and I was just coasting.”
That Eagle became the most popular car in Gasoline Alley as 19 of the 33 starters were in Eagles the following May, which always gave Dan pride but pain. “We sold them for $40,000 apiece so we only lost $20,000 per car,” he’d chuckle.
Unser gave the Eagle its initial win in 1968 and then Uncle Bobby finally got the Big Eagle into Victory Lane at Indy in 1975 after Johncock drove an Eagle to first in 1973. Mike Mosley gave Dan one of his finest moments – going from last-to-first at Milwaukee in the beautiful Pepsi Challenger before that design was neutered by the CART board.
So he moved on to sports cars, where his Toyota-powered GTP Eagle MKIII ran roughshod over the IMSA competition from mid-season in 1991 to 1993 (it scored 19 wins in 24 starts in ’92 and ’93) and ran Nissan and Jaguar out of IMSA.
The final IndyCar looked great but was handicapped by Toyota’s unprepared engine and Goodyear tires, so AAR never got a sniff from 1996-2000.
But in the final analysis, AAR cranked out 50 IndyCar wins, 21 in GTP, six in GTO, four in GTU and two in Formula 1 during its remarkable 34-year run.
For the past decade Gurney had been concentrating on his Alligator motorcycle while sons Justin and Alex (above) take AAR into a new direction with government work. At 86, he still had his right-hand girl Kathy Weida pick him up every day and go to the shop so he could brainstorm with Chuck Palmgren about their new motorcycle engine or talk with the boys or to go Mexican lunch on Thursdays. It kept him going and his mind was just as sharp as ever just a week ago.
“Dan was a super nice person who lived for racing and he was still sharp as a tack the last time we spoke,” said Unser. “He was also a helluva a good driver and I’ll always be happy we got to win Indianapolis together.”
Parnelli Jones was shocked to hear of his pal’s passing because they’d just eaten lunch together a couple weeks ago. “He was in great sprits and we had a lot fun that day,” said Rufus. Asked to reflect on Gurney’s career, the 1963 Indy winner replied: “Dan was always tough in whatever he ran when I was around, one of those guys you always had to beat. He could drive anything and drive it well.
“But truly he was the All-American guy. Who else had a bumper sticker that said ‘Dan Gurney for President’? I think everybody liked cheering for him.”