By on January 19, 2018

gurney rip

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”

gurney rip ford gt

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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10 Comments on “Dan Gurney, One of the People Who Has Made America Great...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Thanks for the inclusion of those photos, and the NAIAS angle. The R&T articles are definitely worth a read.

    Dan Gurney certainly did help make America great.

  • avatar

    Things are just different now. When I was a kid, Dan Gurney was a household name. So was Don Garlits, A.J. Foyt, and Parnelli Jones. The Indy 500 was must-see tv, road racing was pretty much relegated to “Wide World of Sports” but we watched it when we could. It’s like boxing, back then I could tell you held the title in every weight class, now I don’t know any. Lots of other things vie for our attention now. It would be pretty hard to convince people these days what a huge deal winning LeMans was. Gurney was kind of like a 4-wheeled astronaut back then.

  • avatar

    Glad Ford feels entitled to bask in his legacy. So what’s next, a Dan Gurney edition EcoSport? I hope they let the old man rest in peace and don’t pee on his grave like that, but I’m honestly not very confident.

  • avatar

    Never heard of the man. He was a decade or more early as I started watching Formula 1 in the mid seventies. I was glued to the TV every Sunday there was a race for years.

    Isn’t it sad that now-days America which likely boasts the highest per capita car ownership in the world cannot produce a single decent Formula 1 driver for decades on end?

    • 0 avatar

      Normally, I would avoid the tropes about how great it was to grow up when I did as each generation has its heroes.

      But, in this case, I will make an exception. Dan Gurney was as complete a package as they had ever been: driver, car designer, team owner, inventor and legend barely sums him up. He was larger than life (and tall enough to require modification of the GT-40 MkIV’s roof to accommodate his height known as the “Gurney Bubble”.

      Those of us who grew up in that era did, truly, live in a time of giants.

      Godspeed, Dan Gurney.

    • 0 avatar

      For a couple of decades the most talented American racers have tended to go to NASCAR, not open wheel racing. Also, F1 uses European series like F2 and others to spot talent. It’s expensive for an American to go to Europe and build a racing resume. Finally, I think there is some prejudice against American drivers.

      When Jeff Gordon got a chance to drive Juan Pablo Montoya’s F1 car at the Indy road course his lap times were F1-worthy.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        I think a large contributing factor is the mainstream US racing.

        Indycars and NASCARs really don’t pull at the emotional strings of many outside the US.

        Touring cars are quite large in the EU and Oceania in lieu of the US’s many short track speedway events. This style of racing is not as attractive, even in the US the South supports this style of racing more so than elsewhere.

        Speedway was popular in Australia and even the UK in the 60s and 70s in Australia, but it was the Sprint Cars and Side Cars and supporting Midgets you went to watch. As a kid Sydney had two great 1/4 mile speedways, one clay and one asphalt. Clay was great to watch.

        The drags is quite popular in Australia, due to our V8 and performance car culture. Some of the young now seem interested in drifting.

        Touring Cars have been a favourite of the EU and Australia/NZ since year dot. The EU and to a lesser degree Australia/NZ love rallying.

        F1 and the Moto Series of bikes are quite popular in Australia.

        I will say Le Mans is not so popular here as in the US, the reason is most are less likely to connect with the vehicles. It’s fantastic racing.

        It seems outside of the US most want to be able to connect with whatever form of racing is taking place, ie racing with more than lefthand turns, cars that are quite unmistakably and easily identifiable from a manufacturer.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    His Gurney Flap – and its broad daylight subterfuge – were a few strokes of genius.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    Excellent article, thank you!

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