Dan Gurney, legendary motorsports champion and true gentleman, dies at 86

Dan Gurney, legendary motorsports champion and true gentleman, dies at 86

As the racing world remembers his many achievements, a personal encounter illustrates his kindness and generosity

Sunday marked the passing of American motorsports legend Dan Gurney, champion driver, engineer and racing-team owner. Gurney was 86 years old, and during those years, he achieved many lifetimes worth of accomplishments.

Gurney first made his first mark on the racing world when he drove a largely undeveloped racecar called the Arciero Special – a Maserati Mistral powered by a hot rodded 4.2-liter Maserati engine – to second place in the inaugural Riverside Grand Prix in 1957. The fact that he could take such a crude racer to a second-place finish made the influential U.S. Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti take notice, and Gurney was on his way.

Gurney racing a Ferrari Testa Rossa at Goodwood in 1959

Due to Chinetti, Gurney found himself sharing a factory 250 Testa Rossa with Bruce Kessler. Despite the Ferrari failing to finish because of a crash, Gurney’s performance behind the wheel brought him the opportunity to drive for Scuderia Ferrari’s Formula 1 team at Reims in 1959.

He ended up with three F1 appearances with Ferrari, which included two podiums and a fourth-place finish, but he became disenchanted with the culture of the Ferrari race team and so moved on the following year. In 1962, he gave Porsche its first and only F1 victory when he won at Rouen.

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Despite these successes, including two wins with BRM, Gurney very much wanted to see an American team in F1 and worked toward that goal.

Gurney at the Indianapolis 500 with an AAR Eagle V8

The dream came to fruition with the formation of All American Racers, or as it was known in F1, Anglo American Racers. Gurney was able to design, build and drive an American F1 car, and that car won its first race in 1967 at Spa.

The story only starts here, though. Gurney also won the 24 hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40 just a week before he won the F1 race in his own F1 car.

Gurney’s racing record as a driver includes seven wins in Formula 1, seven wins in IndyCar, five wins in NASCAR (all at Riverside) and two second-place finishes at the Indy 500, again in his own cars.

Racing a Shelby Cobra at the 1964 Targa Florio

Gurney wins in sports car racing include victories at Nurburgring, Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, among others. During his career, he achieved 42 pole positions.

Notably, Gurney was the first driver to win in all four of the major fields of motor racing: Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR and sports cars. Only two other drivers have ever done the same: Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.

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After retiring from driving, Gurney became a team owner and the designer of the Eagle race cars that won the Indy 500 twice, with drivers Bobby Unser in 1968 and Gordon Johncock in 1973. He then entered IMSA’s GTP class with his Toyota-powered Eagle prototypes in the 1992 and ’93 seasons, and during those two seasons, won 17 consecutive races. The AAR built 157 race cars total, which combined to win 78 races.

With his winning smile at the 1964 French Gran Prix

Gurney also contributed to the social side of racing by inventing the idea of spraying champagne at the podium, which he did for the first time, much to the surprise and amusement of onlookers, in 1967 after winning Le Mans with Ford.

I am grateful and honored to have known Gurney and called him a friend, which leads to a story.

In 2003, I was a brand-new auction reporter and was attending Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale, Arizona, for the first time as a journalist. In my media kit was an invitation to the Black Tie gala in celebration of Carroll Shelby’s 80th birthday.

Being the formal kind of guy I am, of course I wore a tuxedo to the gala. When I arrived, I was directed at a table at the head of the room. Being new, I did what I was told and took a seat.

Gurney at his induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

A few moments late,r a man who was very obviously champion driver Bobby Rahal sat across from me. He introduced himself and we started talking. During the next few minutes, Rahal and I were joined by Auggie Pabst, Edsel Ford, Parnelli Jones and the man himself, Carroll Shelby.

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Last to the table was a tall man who was obviously Dan Gurney. He introduced himself and asked my name and when I raced for Shelby. I replied that while I had raced in NASCAR, I had never raced for Shelby and that perhaps I was at the wrong table. Gurney said not to worry and that I should stay.

I wondered aloud why I was seated there in the first place, and he said with a laugh, “It’s because you wore the right suit… party crasher.”

When the waiter came to the table and told us that there must be a mistake as there was one too many at the table, Gurney told him that I was with them, and the waiter left. The nickname Party Crasher stuck with me, so that whenever we talked later, that is what he called me.

That kind of kindness and generosity in any person is rare, and in a race car driver is almost unheard of. Gurney was a gentleman in the manner of the fictional English gentleman John Steed of the Avengers TV series, and the Party Crasher will miss his friend greatly.

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  • Bill Pack
    January 15, 2018, 1:45 PM

    Nicely done "Party Crasher".

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  • Bill Pack
    January 15, 2018, 1:48 PM

    Nicely done "Party Crasher".

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  • Robert Bertini
    January 15, 2018, 3:41 PM

    I’m not sure of the year but my father took me to the Riverside 500 maybe 1964 or 1965. That was my first time to any kind of car race. Dan Gurney must have won because I became a follower of that #48 car and and a true NASCAR fan from then on! Thank you #48 and thankyou Dan Gurney. Rest in peace

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    • Skip Humphrey@Robert Bertini
      January 15, 2018, 4:51 PM

      Dan Gurney, REST IN PEACE, we never met but I followed your career, the world has lost another great man. The Mercury Cougar owners have lost a legend with you gone with the XR7-G "Dan Gurney Special Edition".

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    • Bob Manzo@Robert Bertini
      January 15, 2018, 6:54 PM

      Dan Gurney, a great driver and true gentleman, always with his winning smile. He is now in his Eagle spraying champagne.

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  • gehudson
    January 15, 2018, 6:07 PM

    Party chrasher!
    A long time ago I visited the Cunningham Museum every time I found myself in the area. It contained the cars of my dreams. One morning it seemed that I was alone in the space and I shimmied under the roped off Porsche 904 to see how it was configured underneath. Very soon there was a pair of brown shoes beside me asking if he could help. I explained that I owned a 904 ex-factory hillclimb car and wondered if the LeMans version had a bellypan-it did not. Cunningham introduced himself and told a great anecdote about his 904 being delivered directly from the Porsche factory to him at LeMans without the required side clearance lights. We laughed about the French bias toward Americans. He then graciously invited me to meet a couple of friends in " the backroom". Much to my amazement they were Dan Gurney and John Westlake were attempting to time the cams on the Westlake F-1engine. Needless to say a yokel from Kansas was overwhelmed. I was in the company of legends and they were so kind to include me . I will never forget that day and the generosity of these guys who convinced me they put their pants on "one leg at a time". Thanks, Dan you were just as everybody says a true American Gentleman.

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  • Kevin McArdle
    January 15, 2018, 6:56 PM

    What a life, and what a phenomenal resume’. He like Shelby was a racing icon. Rest In Peace.

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    • Alan sullivan@Kevin McArdle
      January 15, 2018, 9:44 PM

      He was one of my two most admired and beloved racers of my youth, along with Jim Clark. What a full, exciting and productive life! A true American icon. RIP

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