Dan Gurney – Racing Ground Breaker in Motorsports
Like all of the great drivers that we’ve profiled on these pages, Dan Gurney was a true ground breaker within the sport. Across a long career, he recorded many achievements on the track but, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was also an innovator off it.
Some notable traditions and designs that we take for granted in the modern day can be attributed to Gurney who, as we are about to see, was a hugely influential figure in a number of spheres.
A Le Mans 24 hour winner, the Dan Gurney racing career also covered Formula One, NASCAR and much more so let’s kick on and pay tribute to this incredible driver.
Daniel Sexton Gurney was born in Port Jefferson, New York in 1931 and while his family wasn’t affiliated with motorsport, many had forged a successful career in engineering. The young Gurney had clearly inherited these qualities and after the family moved to California, he quickly began to embrace the hot rod culture there. Gurney had an advantage, however, and, with an engineering talent, he began to race on the local strip. He built his own sports car which is said to have achieved speeds of 138 miles per hour.
He then went to serve in the US Army and competed in hot rods as an amateur but as he returned to civilian life, his career was about to take off.
The majority of Dan Gurney’s racing career was spent in Formula One and that’s where it all started. In time, he would compete in Indy Car, Can-Am, NASCAR, LeMans 24 hour, and the Trans-Am series but Gurney owes his big break to F1 World Championship. His name was synonymous with Daytona International Speedway as well.
With his reputation growing, Gurney was invited to test a car that had been a tricky drive for great racers such as Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby. The Arciero Special was the beast in question and after Gurney appeared to tame it, his destiny was surely sealed. He also became second after Shelby in the Riverside International Raceway Grand Prix in the same year.
After a brief outing at Le Mans in 1958, Gurney teamed up with Ferrari in the following year and he achieved two podium finishes in just four races across the F1 season. 1960 provided a turning point in his career but it was unfortunate that a tragedy forced a change.
During a race at the Dutch Grand Prix, Gurney was involved in a horrific accident when his car left the track and killed a young spectator. In the aftermath, the driver reconsidered his driving style, using his brakes less frequently and this meant that his car tended to spend more time on the track.
Gurney recorded his first ever Grand Prix win in France in 1962. In total he would win four races in Formula One and while that’s a modest return by some standards, he didn’t focus purely on one discipline.
It’s also been mentioned that he was a great innovator and this is where the Dan Gurney sprinkling legacy was born. For many years, those drivers who finish on the podium proceed to spray champagne at themselves and the crowd. A lesser known fact is that Dan Gurney was the first to do this at LeMans and his actions inspired a legion of drivers that followed.
Gurney was also the first man to ever wear a full face helmet during a race. He drove in an era where safety wasn’t quite the paramount issue that it is today and sadly, a number of casualties were recorded in Formula One. While the new helmet alone wasn’t enough to tackle these, it did reduce injury and was certainly a step in the right direction.
Away from Formula One
Gurney would go on to record four wins in F1 racing and he enjoyed success in other areas too. His racing profession would take in virtually every discipline in motor sport and there was some success across the board.
The 24 Hours of LeMans win was clearly a career highlight and this came along in 1967. Racing with his co-driver A.J. Foyt, the team were dominant from the early stages and led from the second hour right through to the finish line. Racing in a Ford Mark IV, they were the first, and so far only all-American team to have won this incredible race of endurance.
Gurney the Engineer
Dan Gurney’s last win in Formula One was at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1967. Victory came in the Eagle T1G which was a car that he had built and designed himself and that is a clue as to where his true legacy lies. As we have seen, he was certainly an accomplished driver but away from the track he was a brilliant engineer.
That accident in the Netherlands in 1960 led to a distrust of the existing engineers in Formula One so Gurney started to ‘do it himself.’ In time, he perfected his art and that win in 1967 was the first, and so far only occasion when an F1 driver won a Grand Prix in a car of his own construction. When you consider how F1 is run in the modern day, that’s a record that is unlikely to ever be equalled.
Gurney also finished second in the Indianapolis 500 on two separate occasions. This is a feat in itself in what is considered to be a gruelling race but he would go on to record victories in this area of motorsport. Not only that, Dan Gurney was a winner in NASCAR, Trans-Am and Can-Am and that made him the first driver to ever record victories in the four main categories. That level has since been matched by the great Mario Andretti but it’s very unlikely that any other driver will come close to that achievement moving forward.
The time finally came to call time on Dan Gurney’s racing profession in 1970 and he had made some notable achievements on the track. He was far from finished, however, and it’s from here that he really came into his own as an incredible engineer (inventing such things for cars like the Gurney flap named after him).
Ford v Ferrari and Legacy
After climbing out from behind the wheel for the very last time, Dan Gurney went on to found the All American Racers company who would produce some very successful sports cars. Keeping a very familiar name, Gurney would quickly partner with Toyota to produce the GTP Eagle - a fearsome car that would win 17 consecutive International Motor Sports Association races from 1992/93.
Continuing his tendency to become a ground breaker, Gurney also competed in the first ever ‘Cannonball Run’ across America in 1971. Dan Gurney's net worth was around $16 Million in 2018 before he passed away.
In 2019, the film Ford v Ferrari was released to great critical acclaim and while Dan Gurney was taking a back seat, he was a very important figure in the movie. The film focuses on Ken Miles who Gurney raced with and against on many occasions and it tells the tale of how Ferrari took on the dominant force of Ford in Le Mans 24 hour races in the 1960s.
In a nice touch, the part of Dan Gurney is played by his son Alex, who also competed as a racing driver.
Dan Gurney lived to see himself inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2007. In fact, he lived a long life, passing away from pneumonia in early 2018. He was one of the best Formula One drivers to have ever originated from the United States of America and while that’s a smaller pool when compared with some countries, Gurney’s achievements in F1 are comparable to other greats including his compatriot Mario Andretti.
He was a groundbreaker in many ways, both as a driver and an engineer and while some of his contemporaries may be more familiar to modern day racing fans, we actually owe him a great deal. Dedicated petrol heads will certainly remember him and perhaps, in the wake of Ford v Ferrari and biographies such as these, we may now look at the champagne celebrations post race and raise a glass of our own to Dan Gurney.