(Editor’s note: Dan Gurney, one of America’s greatest auto racing heroes, died Sunday. He was 86, and had been in declining health)
Ford was getting ready to launch the Le Mans-inspired Ford GT and part of the launch program was a press event on the Monterey Peninsula timed in conjunction with the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and the Monterey Historic vintage races.
Those of us invited by Ford got to drive early production Ford GTs from Monterey to Big Sur and back and, on the day after the vintage racers had pulled out of Laguna Seca, each of us would be granted three laps around the famed racing circuit in one of the cars.
As I walked from the paddock to the pit lane, I noticed a man, looking younger than his 74 years, sitting alone on the pit wall. Like Jay Leno, Ford had invited Dan Gurney to be present that day, presumably on hand just to chat with the media about his victory, co-driving with A.J. Foyt, in the original Ford GT40 at Le Mans back in 1967.
I’d grown up reading about Gurney’s successes as a racing driver and car builder — imagine, an American driving a car of his own creation in a Grand Prix event, and winning! As a daily newspaper sports writer and then as a magazine motorsports editor, I covered some of Gurney’s subsequent races in Indy cars, even in one of those amazing butterscotch-colored McLaren Can-Am racers, and covered his All American Racing team when it raced — and dominated — in IMSA GTP competition.
And here he was, a genuine American sports hero, sitting on the pit wall. I walked over, introduced myself, explained that I was writing a book on the development of the Ford GT, and asked if he’d be willing to join me in my three laps on the track.
Except instead of me driving, and perhaps embarrassing myself by succumbing to the “red mist,” I wanted Gurney to drive, with me in the passenger’s seat with my tape recorder running and with him talking not only about what he thought of the new Ford GT, but about his race at Le Mans, winning in the famed GT40.
He seemed delighted. We climbed into the car, put on the helmets Ford had provided, buckled up and headed down the pit road.
On the track, Ford had placed orange cones in strategic places so as to keep overzealous journalists from pushing too hard and (at best) running any of the GTs off the track or (at worst) into walls or into each other.
I doubt he even broke a sweat as he hustled the car around the various turns, hurrying up the Laguna hill, plunging down the Corkscrew, and all the while continuing to answer my questions as calmly as though we were doing this interview while sitting on the pit wall.
As he talked our way around the track on the first lap, Gurney used the front corners of the GT to nudge those cones out of their approved positions.
Why? I wondered.
His response was something along the lines of: Don’t you want to see what this car can do? I do, and those cones will be in the way.
Thus on our second and third laps around Laguna, Gurney drove the car as it was meant to be driven, driven by someone — even in his mid-70s — with amazing, world-class skills. I doubt he even broke a sweat as he hustled the car around the various turns, hurrying up the Laguna hill, plunging down the Corkscrew, and all the while continuing to answer my questions as calmly as though we were doing this interview while sitting on the pit wall.
As we climbed out of the car after our laps, Gurney seemed to genuinely enjoy getting to drive the car, which Ford got back without any damage other than perhaps a little less rubber on the tires. Meanwhile, someone was dispatched to put the cones back where they belonged, and I got a lifelong memory and great final chapter for my book.