Dan Gurney, One of the People Who Has Made America Great

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
dan gurney one of the people who has made america great

He called his cars — made in California — Eagles, and his friends and fans nicknamed him Big Eagle. His company and team were the All American Racers (though they raced Toyotas for some time). He was one of less than a handful of American drivers to win in Formula One, but the only one to do so in an American race car, built in his own shop. He, along with A.J. Foyt and Roy Lunn, helped The Deuce kick il Commendatore’s ass at LeMans, in a car designed and built in Dearborn, Michigan. There was even a lighthearted attempt to draft him to run for president.

Dan Gurney was quintessentially American, one of the people who have made the United States a great country.

It’s not my purpose here to write an obituary or encomium. People who knew him can better speak to his life and accomplishments than I can. You can read what Marshall Pruett, Sam Smith, Peter Delorenzo, and Gurney’s fellow racers say about the man. I myself read of Gurney’s passing last Sunday while I was in between events connected to the Detroit auto show’s media preview.

On my way down the Lodge Freeway to Cobo Hall on the first day of the NAIAS media preview Monday morning, I was listening to a local sports radio station, a CBS affiliate. There was a one of those short features from CBS Sportsradio; I think it was Jim Rome. The commentator eulogized the recently departed Keith Jackson. I understood why, Jackson was a giant in his industry. I certainly enjoyed his play-by-play when the University of Michigan football team was playing on national television. Still, I was a little bit annoyed that nothing was said about Dan Gurney.

Yes, I know that compared to the stick and ball sports, even NHL hockey and soccer, auto racing is the abandoned stepchild of sports journalism. I’ve heard sports writers even deny that race car drivers are athletes, but then I’ve also heard them deride Tour de France cyclists as just being able to spin one foot after the other. However, it could be well argued that Gurney was the greatest American race car driver ever. He won driving sports cars, stock cars, and open wheel race cars. He won at LeMans, and in Formula One, USAC, NASCAR, Can-Am, and the Trans-Am Series. As a team owner he won the Indy 500, after earning four podiums as a driver, placing 2nd twice.

It wasn’t just as driver or owner that he had an impact on his sport. His 1977 “white paper” on open wheel racing in America and the need to consider the financial concerns of team owners lead to the creation of CART.

If sports journos weren’t going to honor Gurney, as I entered Cobo, I was hoping one of the car companies with whom he raced would acknowledge his passing. The news broke too late on Sunday for it to have been acknowledged at Ford’s Ranger reveal in the afternoon. As the media preview progressed, I grew disappointed. However, as I was doing one last round of the floor at Cobo on Tuesday to get photos I might have missed, at the back of the Ford display, where they were keeping the performance cars, I spotted a couple of round stickers on the flanks of the red Ford GT that was the centerpiece of that part of the Ford booth. They were in memory of Gurney, with an image of him at the wheel of his LeMans winning car, and “In Memory Of Dan Gurney. Legend. Friend. 1967 LeMans Winner. Ford Mark IV”

It was just a coincidence, but I suppose it was providential that someone at Ford decided to use the NAIAS to spotlight a ’67 Heritage Edition Ford GT, which shares its red-and-white livery with the Ford GT40 Mk IV Gurney drove to victory with A.J. Foyt at LeMans in 1967. That Ford’s memorial to Gurney went on a car that is a tribute to his victory is altogether fitting.

Good acts deserve praise, so I asked around and was told that the idea to memorialize Gurney at the show was that of Ford senior executive Raj Nair. Nair personally afixed the stickers to the red GT. Props to Ford for recognizing a great American and may Daniel Sexton Gurney rest in peace.

[Image source: author]

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  • Stingray65 Stingray65 on Jan 20, 2018

    I think modern racing is really missing the versatility that great drivers such as Gurney displayed every season during their careers. Gurney won in virtually every type of racing, F1, Indy, NASCAR, sports cars, but so did A.J. Foyt, Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, Graham Hill, Denny Hulme, etc. Of course they did it because the money sucked back then, so racing in other series and events increased their opportunities for paydays, but the fact is they won and placed regularly against the best in all the racing series they competed in and expanded their fan base in the process, which is something few drivers today seem interested/able to do.

  • TomHend TomHend on Jan 21, 2018

    Excellent article, thank you!

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  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
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