Sportscar Retrospective – Dan Gurney

Photo credit: LAT Photographic

If a Mount Rushmore of American racers was ever erected, the face of Daniel Sexton Gurney would have a strong case to occupy the most prominent position. His contributions to motor racing transcend any number of victories or championships, reaching decades past his retirement as a driver and across a variety of racing disciplines.

Dan Gurney was born into a family with a lineage of innovation and talent. His grandfather, Frederic, invented the Gurney Ball Bearing, and three of his uncles were engineers at MIT. His father, John, was a business major at Harvard but pursued a career as a singer in the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. After Dan graduated high school in Manhasset, New York, John moved his family to Riverside, California, purchasing a citrus and avocado orchard. At that time after World War II, the hot rod culture was blooming in Southern California, and Dan was quickly ingrained into it. At age 19, he built his own car and raced it at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

After serving in the U.S. Army as an artillery mechanic during the Korean War, he began racing a Triumph TR2 in amateur events in 1955, then a Porsche 356 in 1956. His big break came in 1957, when he drove a car for Frank Arciero in the Riverside Grand Prix that was part Maserati, part Ferrari, and part Mistral. The car was a brute to handle, but he finished second to Carroll Shelby in that race. His performance drew the attention of the famous North American Ferrari importer, Luigi Chinetti, who arranged for him to drive for Ferrari at the 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans. In that race, he and teammate Bruce Kessler had moved up to fifth place overall, but ended when Kessler was caught up in an accident. 

Dan Gurney driving a Ferrari in 1959.
Credit: WTF1

Gurney signed with Scuderia Ferrari to be a factory driver for select races in their Formula One and sports car programs in 1959. His first assignment with the team was the 12 Hours of Sebring, which he won in a Ferrari 250 TR. He finished on the podium in two F1 races that year, but he was dissatisfied with the team’s strict management style, and left for the factory BRM team of Owen Racing in 1960. The unreliability of the BRM resulted in poor results in F1 that year, but he won sports car races at the Nurburgring and the Nassau Trophy race. A move to Porsche in 1961 brought better F1 results, culminating in his and Porsche’s first F1 victory in the 1962 French Grand Prix.

1962 was a busy year for Gurney, and one that shot him into stardom. A new international sports car race was organized at Daytona that year, the 3-hour Daytona Continental, precursor to the Rolex 24 Hours. Driving a Lotus 19 for Arciero Brothers Racing, he led most of the race but his engine blew on the last lap. He used the banking to coast across the finish line to claim the victory. A few weeks later, he ran in his first NASCAR race at the Daytona 500, finishing 27th. In May he raced in his first Indianapolis 500 (also his first oval race), driving Mickey Thompson’s Buick-powered Harvey Aluminum Special, the first mid-engine car to run in the race. Despite a misfire, he ran in the top ten for most of the race until a transmission seal failed. He won the French Grand Prix in July, followed by the non-championship Solitude Grand Prix near Stuttgart a week later. 1962 was also the year that he and Carroll Shelby began to discuss their mutual dream of building an American race car that could compete with the best that Europe had to offer. This dream culminated in the founding of All American Racers in 1965, based in Santa Ana, California with backing from Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. 

Over the next few years, Gurney won races in F1 (two wins in 1964 while driving for Brabham), NASCAR (five wins in six years at his home track of Riverside), sports cars, and Can-Am. He convinced Colin Chapman to develop a rear-engine car for Indy in 1963, and brought Chapman and the Ford Motor Company together run a rear-engined Ford-powered Lotus in the Indy 500 for three years. He was instrumental in the car’s design and development, although it was his teammate, Jim Clark, who would deliver the win in 1965. Gurney’s fame, good looks, and popularity led to Car and Driver Magazine starting a humorous “Gurney for President” campaign in 1964, with editor-in-chief describing him as “the patron saint of American sports car racing”. The “campaign” was cut short when it was discovered that he was too young to qualify as president. In 1966, he famously pushed his Ford GT40 Mk II across the finish line at Sebring after an engine failure in an attempt to finish second; he was later disqualified for his valiant effort. The Mk II was fitted with a “Gurney bubble” – an indentation made in the roof above the cockpit to accommodate his 6-foot 4-inch frame.

1967 24 Hours of Le Mans celebration
Credit: allamericanracers.com

1967 was the year that Gurney cemented his status as a racing legend. Driving the AAR Eagle Mk1, he won the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in March. He entered his first career Trans Am race in April, and won it. He qualified his Eagle on the front row of the Indianapolis 500, but retired from the race due to a piston failure. June was the month of the greatest accomplishments in his driving career. Teaming with A.J. Foyt in a Ford Mk IV, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and in celebration established the winner’s tradition of spraying champagne. After the celebration ended at Le Mans, he drove to Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix, and scored the only F1 victory for an American-born driver in an American-built car. To cap off the year, he won the USAC Champ Car season finale at his home track of Riverside in November, making a dramatic last-lap pass of Bobby Unser after losing two laps from a punctured tire.

From 1968 until his retirement from driving at the end of 1970, his focus would lie primarily in Champ Car, Can-Am, and Trans Am, with a few forays into F1. His greatest successes in the Indy 500 would come in these years, as he finished second in 1968 and 1969, and third in 1970. A customer AAR Eagle would win the Indy 500 for the first time in 1968, driven by Bobby Unser (two more Indy 500 wins for the AAR Eagle came in 1973 and 1975). In the 1968 Indianapolis 500 and 1968 German Grand Prix, he became the first Indy and F1 driver to use a full-face helmet. After Bruce McLaren’s death in a testing crash on June 10, 1970, Gurney stepped in to fill the void on the McLaren Can-Am team four days later at Mosport, and won the race. At the end of 1970, Gurney bought out AAR co-founder Carroll Shelby, and became the sole owner, chairman, and CEO of the company.

The development of one of Gurney’s most famous contributions to racing came soon after his retirement as a driver. The Gurney flap is a length of aluminum right-angle rigidly bolted to a wing’s trailing edge with the purpose of increasing downforce. In 1971 during USAC testing at Phoenix, the AAR Eagle driven by Bobby Unser showed disappointing pace. Gurney recalled how his previous race teams had experimented with spoilers to cancel lift. It took less than an hour to fabricate a strip of metal and attach it to the trailing edge of the car’s rear wing. But the car’s pace was still not what it needed to be, and the experiment was thought to be a failure. Later, Unser quietly told Gurney that the reason the car was slow with the flap was because there was now so much downforce on the rear of the car that the car was understeering badly. With the addition of front-end downforce for balance, Unser knew the car would be transformed. Through the 1971 season, teams would ask about the flap, but Gurney told them it was purely a structural feature to strengthen the rear wing. Eventually, teams caught on to what the flap could do and copied it. To this day, the Gurney flap is still utilized extensively in motorsport as an inexpensive and effective aerodynamic tool. 

In early 1978, a group of USAC car owners were dissatisfied with the sanctioning body, with their main complaints being poor promotion and small purses. Gurney became the leader of the group, and wrote the famous “Gurney White Paper”, which was the blueprint for the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams. In that paper, CART was became an advocacy group for the championship, and negotiated television rights and race purses. When USAC rejected the paper, the owners formed a new championship series in 1979 based on Gurney’s White Paper.

A pivotal moment in AAR history occurred in 1983, when a partnership with Toyota was formed. It began in the IMSA GTU class with a Toyota Celica. After a difficult start with a limited budget, the team began to win some races, then moved up to the GTO class in the middle of the 1985 season. With innovative design and a generous interpretation of the IMSA rulebook, the team became a dominant force in GTO in 1987, winning the Driver’s and Manufacturer’s championships that year. A step up to the GTP class with Toyota came in 1989. The AAR Toyota Eagle HF-89 and HF-90 were difficult cars to get in their sweet spot, but an entirely new car in 1991, the Eagle MkIII, would reach unprecedented success in IMSA. 

Toyota Eagle GTP MkIII Credit: Wouter Melissen, Ultimatecarpage.com

It was an efficient yet innovative design based off of Formula One cars, featuring a separate diffuser in the nose of the car that increased front end downforce. The AAR Toyota Eagle MkIII is considered by many to have been the best car in the greatest era of American sports car racing. It won 23 out of 27 races it entered, two Driver’s Championships, and two Manufacturer’s Championships. It was voted Car of the Decade by On Track Magazine. But its dominance may have led to the demise of the GTP class at the end of 1993, as no other manufacturers wanted to spend the money needed to keep pace with the Toyota.

With the demise of the GTP class, AAR and Toyota pulled out of prototype racing and returned to CART in 1996. But that program faced many setbacks in reliability and performance, as well as uncompetitive tires from Goodyear. Toyota withdrew from CART at the end of 1999, and after a single season of fielding a car in the Atlantic Championship for Alex Gurney in 2000, AAR ceased active racing.

Dan Gurney’s passion for speed and innovation extended to motorcycles as well. He invented the Alligator motorcycle because as he was quite tall, he found the riding position on most bikes was too high and crouched forward. His design featured a much lower riding position, with the benefit of lowering the bike’s center of gravity. A production run of 36 motorcycles was carried out in 2002, but Gurney continued to experiment with new chassis and engine configurations for years.  

With Gurney’s history of innovation and creativity, it was not surprising that AAR constructed the Ben Bowlby-designed Delta Wing. In 2006, years before the Delta Wing project, Gurney described his ideal race car: “It should be basically a tunnel car without wings with a ‘spec’ rear spoiler. It would have an underbody and no wings. It would have skinny tires and a tiny little engine. You need to keep the tires relatively small because in this day and age you can get pretty good brakes relatively inexpensively. A four-cylinder engine can put out a lot of power and is probably the least costly.” His ideas formed the basis for what the Delta Wing would become. The original 2010 concept was an IndyCar, designed by Bowlby when he was the head of research and development at Chip Ganassi Racing. Bowlby applied to the Delta Wing the BLAT (Boundary Layer Adhesion Technology) principles first pioneered by AAR thirty years before with the 1981 Eagle-Chevy IndyCar, designed by Trevor Harris, John Ward and Gurney (a car that was soon banned by CART). IndyCar rejected the design, so the design was adjusted to a sports car prototype. Construction began in the summer of 2011 at AAR, and was entered at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans as a Garage 56 entry by Highcroft Racing. Don Panoz took over the Delta Wing project to compete in the ALMS in 2013; its best finish in four years of competing in the ALMS was fourth in the 2014 Petit Le Mans.

Dan Gurney had alway been one to follow his own path and defy convention. An interview with Gordon Kirby in 2011 summed up the essence of his spirit:

“I feel that there’s a joy in being unconventional or questioning conventional wisdom. Why are things the way they happen to be and what’s the history of how it evolved? There’s a huge, gratifying feeling on the rare occasions that any of us come up with an inspiration to do something innovative. The personal rewards, and just the feeling, is enormously good. Part of what gave us the ability to be creative is the old thing–necessity is the mother of invention–and the passion and curiosity about why things work. It’s about the ability to picture what’s going on and discuss things with other people who have thought about it longer than you have, or have a different approach.”

 

Sources:

The Speed Journal

Racer Magazine

Diecast Magazine

Racing Sports Cars

Racing Reference

Gordon Kirby archives

NARaceCar Old School GTP

 

About the author

Doug

Doug Schneider (@Race4caster) has two roles with NASportscar – Official Meteorologist and Racing Historian. On race weekends you’ll enjoy, and be very thankful for, his weather forecasts (that happens to be his day job) and also his look back into the past of motorsport’s glory days. You can follow his forecasts at RacecastWeather.com.

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