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One of the greatest and most famous of American racing drivers to have impressed on the global stage, Dan Gurney, passed away last month at the ripe age of 86. Dan was not just the old school type hero who knew how to drive a race car but also a thinking man’s driver with lots of influence on the sport in so many areas that one could call him a harbinger of change.
There are too many instances of Dan Gurney to speak about but one which we must first put into context is the fact that he came out of US sports car racing and that allowed him to master and tame the evil handling Ferraris of the 1950s, thereby getting the call from Enzo Ferrari to come to Europe and commit to Grand Prix racing. This he did and was a front line Ferrari GP driver but he didn’t have much success behind the wheel of the front-engined Ferrari F1 cars at a time when Cooper was making the F1 world see the benefits of rear-engined projectiles. In those days American drivers were bold enough to cross the pond and come to fight with their European counterparts and more often than not were more than a match for them.
Dan Gurney was in that vein and not only was he a quick and fast driver but also one who brought and perfected the art of car set-up just like Jack Brabham was prone to! In fact, both Gurney and Brabham were good friends, colleagues and also employee and boss at one time in their competition life! At Ferrari, Dan helped come up with the idea of trim tabs on the rear of the sportscars to cure their high speed evil handling, and as he went ahead with his Indianapolis cars, he gave the racing world an aerodynamic appendage that to this day plays a vital role in easing airflow over a racecar’s rear wing and yet pins it to the ground. This invention came to be known as the Gurney Flap, probably the biggest and simplest advance in motor racing aerodynamics.
Gurney was a class act, not just as an innovator and engineer but also as a great driver. I can’t think of anyone in history who gave not one or two but three teams their first F1 World Championship successes, a record unsurpassed to this day. He gave Porsche it’s first and only F1 victory when he won the 1962 French GP. He had earlier driven for Ferrari and BRM but after the works Porsche team pulledout of single seater sport, he moved to Jack Brabham’s eponymous F1 outfit and in 1964 wonthe French and Mexican GPs for the team, the first World Championship successes for the Brabham marque.
With the advent of the new 3-litre F1 engine formula, he set up his own GP team, the AAR Eagle and while the new V12 engine he had designed with Harry Weslake took some time in coming, I do think as do many others, that the Eagle-Weslake was probably the most beautiful F1 car of its time. Sure enough, Gurney drove this stunner to win the 1967 Belgian GP at the superfast Spa- Francorchamps circuit, the first time an American driver in an American car had won a GP since Jimmy Murphy won the 1921 French GP in a Duesenberg!
What underlined this win was that just barely a week ago he had driven a solitary surviving Ford GT40 Mk IV to victory at Le Mans with yet another American ace as his co-driver – the legendary A J Foyt. These two kept a pack of Ferrari 330 P4s at bay all race long to deny Ferrari a comeback victory at the Sarthe! Yes Dan was, along with Mario Andretti and a certain Juan Pablo Montoya, the only ones who had scored victories in F1, IndyCar, NASCAR and world championship sportscar racing.
However, his influence wasn’t just in his driving. He was the one who saw the rear-engined era before most and while not many may know it, he stumped up the cash to buy a ticket to Indy for Colin Chapman and to introduce him to Ford. Thus was born the Lotus-Ford Indy 500 era that began in 1963 where Jim Clark came second and Gurney was seventh. In 1965 though, Clark and Lotus and Ford would win and from thereon, the front engined roadsters were banished.
“But when we did spend time with him,” Clark’s father remarked, “and Jimmy started discussing other drivers with us, I wanted you to know that he told us on more than one occasion that the one driver he said he ‘feared’ the most as a competitor was you.”
Probably a measure of how good he was behind the wheel can best be summed up by what transpired at the funeral service of the great Jim Clark, which Gurney attended. Clark’s father came up to Gurney and introduced himself. He lamented the fact that British tax laws had forced his son to stay in Europe meaning in effect that he spent very little time with his family. “But when we did spend time with him,” Clark’s father remarked, “and Jimmy started discussing other drivers with us, I wanted you to know that he told us on more than one occasion that the one driver he said he ‘feared’ the most as a competitor was you.”
That then was Dan Gurney. The good All-American racer par excellence!