Doug Nye: RIP Dan Gurney – top-class driver, top-class man

17th January 2018
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

There are some tasks one confronts with the utmost reluctance. It’s as if writing an obituary or a tribute to an old friend who has died somehow converts the blunt news – which part of one file in a drawer marked “I don’t have to believe it” – into an uncomfortable reality and sets the unwelcome, the sense of loss, in stone.


Dan Gurney – who died on Sunday in California aged 86 – was first and foremost a very fine man, a gentleman. From 1958-1970 he had also been a truly great topline world-class racing driver, one of the top three or four most talented racing drivers of his generation, and arguably – with Jim Clark, or maybe Jackie Stewart – one of the top two. 

He was also a good engineer, and a fine lateral thinker – and the list of innovations and projects that Dan sparked promoted and followed through to fruition seems to get longer whenever I pause to reflect upon it.

I first met him around 1964, got to know him in 1966 and we kept in touch – on and off – throughout all the long years since. Blow-by-blow listings of his racing achievements fill column inches and web postings elsewhere, but I will always remember Dan with immense respect and real affection within our Goodwood context.

When we first began discussing the possibility of creating what became the Festival of Speed, back in 1992, the present Duke – then Lord March – asked me to compile a list of those we should invite and feature. Dan’s name was right up there near the top of the list. It took all of a split-second’s thought to put it there. Tall, smiling, handsome Dan had matched every Brit’s image of a lanky, crew-cut American GI when he first appeared in European and British racing in 1958-59.

He was the Korean War veteran who had grown up as a car-mad kid, son of a Metropolitan opera singer who had retired to California. Dan’s self-declared hero when he was at college was local star driver Phil Hill, building his own racing career through the early 1950s, eventually to join the Ferrari factory team in world-class racing in 1955-56. Eventually, Dan hand-wrote a four-page letter to Phil, seeking friendly advice on how to climb that slippery ladder – to build an International racing career. And Phil assisted where and when he could. The pair became great rivals, but always remained great friends, and their firm relationship became life-long until Phil passed away, in 2008.


Back in the 1960s, I became Associate Editor of ‘Motor Racing’ magazine, and also of its model-making-world sister publication ‘Miniature Auto’. Slot car racing was very much the rage at that time, and we had a competition winner who built an Eagle Formula 1 slot car modelled after Dan’s own creation, fresh from leaving the Brabham team at the end of 1965. 

He had learned much from wily old Jack Brabham – double-World Champion Driver with Cooper Cars who had embarked upon building his own racing cars under his own name in 1961-62. Bruce McLaren had followed Jack’s car-constructing lead into 1964-65, and then Dan did so – in partnership with Carroll Shelby and backed by the Goodyear tyre company, into 1966. We arranged for a hand-over presentation of the slot car to Dan in the paddock at Goodwood where he was testing his new AAR Eagle car. 

At that time lofty Dan had a reputation for saying hardly a word – a trait developed (and indeed perfected) from Jack Brabham’s taciturn example. “If you mind what you say – you never give anything anyway”. Within their super-competitive world, they were as good as their carefully chosen word. But the Dan I saw that day was just delighted that some real enthusiast had judged his new Eagle worthy of replication, and he was full of it – showing it off to his team guys there, and later writing, I believe, to the model-maker concerned. 

In 1967 I vividly remember Dan’s delight at scoring his first Formula 1 win in his own Eagle-Weslake at the Brands Hatch Race of Champions, and he was even more delighted that his old friend and team-mate Richie Ginther should have finished third behind him in Heat 1 there – then 2nd in an Eagle team 1-2 in Heat 2. Richie hit problems in the Final, but Dan saw the chequered flag from his Eagle cockpit three times that day – winning both the 10-lap preliminary Heats and the 40-lap Final. Boy oh boy – the Californian grin was a mile wide that day.

Of course even better followed that year, as Dan won the Belgian Grand Prix for his maiden World Championship-qualifying F1 win in a car of his own construction – just a week after having shared victory in the Le Mans 24-Hour race – co-driving the Ford GT Mark IV with A.J. Foyt.


It was on the podium after that memorable win that Dan spotted Benson Ford – the Ford family heir – in the scrum around them and he tried to spray him with a shower of energetically bottle-shaken Champagne. It wasn’t really a first, but it was on TV, it became much-celebrated, and Dan’s public image ever after was to be as the racing driver who ‘invented’ the top-level motor-racing podium Champagne-showering celebration which has been such fun (or so yobbishly tedious) ever since. Dan was happy to have made others happy – but privately he would say he was a little embarrassed about the image it struck, and in particular there were many other things for which he would far rather be remembered…

And what a list they would make.

In 1960-61 he occasionally drove Mrs Louise Bryden-Brown’s single-seat Lotus 18, and also the Arciero Brothers’ Lotus 19 sports car. He was always bothered about his extra height putting him at a disadvantage in these iddy-biddy rear-engined cars, because he towered so far out of their cockpits compared to his rivals. He tried removing the seat, lying back on foam rubber instead. While testing one day at Silverstone – I think – Colin Chapman of Lotus came over and asked him if he thought he really could drive lying back as he was instead of sitting up? Dan had tried it, and yes he could. The Lotus 21 emerged with a lay-back ‘hammock’ seat, everyone followed suit, but Dan’s height and his concern to compensate for it had sparked the change. 

With the works BRM F1 team in 1960 he had always been intrigued and entranced by ongoing technical development. And in the Arciero Lotus-Ford 19 in the 1962 Daytona 3-Hour race he led until the last lap when the V8 engine let go. But his lead had been so big he limped the car over the finish line using the starter motor for power. He’d always laugh to recall that laurel – the first FIA World Championship race ever to be won by an ‘electric-powered’ car…

He always took a lateral view of racing and identified the age-old Jaguar dominance of British saloon car racing into the 1960s as being something vulnerable. In 1961 he shipped over a 409 cubic inch – 6.7-litre — Chevrolet Impala V8, and took the Jaguars’ trousers down at Silverstone – running way clear, until an over-stressed steel wheel pulled off over its retaining studs… 

And his fertile imagination went further. As a works BRM driver in 1960, then for Porsche in 1961-62 (when the French GP saw his first F1 World title-qualifying race win) – Dan became super-impressed by Colin Chapman’s grasp of chassis and suspension design. At that time the richest prize in worldwide racing was offered by America’s Indianapolis 500 Miles speedway classic.


Dan had driven at Indy, in John Zink’s Lotus 21-derived special powered by a gas turbine engine – how far out was that? He told me the turbine went like gangbusters in the final third of the long straights, but took too long to wind-up out of each turn – so the traditional old Offy-engined roadster cars ‘buried’ him round the total lap.

Yet Dan couldn’t believe how antiquated the front-engined dinosaur Indy roadsters then seemed, and was fascinated by Jack Brabham’s run in the 1961 ‘500’ with an F1-style Cooper-Climax. But its 2.7-litre engine against the 4.2-litre Offies could not compete properly. 

Dan conceived instead a Lotus-style rear-engined monocoque chassis and suspension set, with a big American V8 engine in the back. Colin Chapman was interested and Dan paid for the Lotus principal to fly out for the 1962 ‘500’ and study the scene. Dan then made introductions to the Ford Motor Company, and in 1963 he and Jimmy Clark would drive a pair of low-slung, lightweight, rear-engined Lotus-powered-by-Ford cars in the ‘500’ – Jimmy finishing 2nd and darned nearly winning, and Dan 7th. Back again in 1964, the Clark/Gurney/Lotus-Ford foray was foiled by inadequate Dunlop tyres, but in 1965 Jimmy finally won in the Gurney-inspired Lotus-Fords. That year Dan ran his own, but had his engine’s timing gears strip just before quarter-distance.

His first All-American Racing Team entries ran in USAC speedway competition that year, and the Len Terry-designed Eagle Formula 1 and Indy cars followed in 1966. Dan was intensely patriotic, and the Eagle in its metallic blue and white US livery and with its sublime eagle-beak nose treatment became almost every enthusiast’s best-looking world-class racing car.

As a driver Dan showed stupendous versatility. He would make 30 starts in Indy car races, winning seven and twice finishing second in the pinnacle Indy ‘500’. He won five FIA Sports Car World Championship races, including the Sebring 12-Hours and the Nurburgring 1,000Kms in addition to Le Mans in ’67. In NASCAR stock sedans he won no fewer than five consecutive ‘Motor Trend 500’ races at his home Riverside track in California – 1963-68 – and in CanAm sports cars he won three times, twice in the Gulf-McLarens as replacement for poor, lost Bruce McLaren, in 1970.


And there’s still more to his versatility. He won in TransAm American sedan road racing with a Mercury Cougar, and won a British Saloon Car Championship round at Oulton Park in a 7-litre Ford Galaxie – completing the job he’d started back in ’61 at Silverstone with that Chevy Impala…

But Bruce’s death deeply troubled him. As did those of Jim Clark, Mike Spence, Jo Schlesser, Piers Courage… and Jochen Rindt. And he retired from race driving for the sake of his wife Evi and his family – the competitive itch unscratched. For years he would always be up for a race, keen to drive again – to stand on it – to re-explore those performance frontiers – to defeat time. 

At Goodwood, I was part of his crew, in effect, when we ran the Belgian GP-winning Collier Collection Eagle-Weslake for him in the Festival of Speed. “What am I expected to do here?” he asked.

“Oh just take care – it’s a slippery parkland lane, with no runoffs – and believe me our crowd will just be delighted to see you cruising past, waving at them… but do take care”.

“OK”, he grinned, ‘You got it”.

So we went down to the start line. He edged up to the lights. He gave us a thumbs up. The lights flicked to green. And he gunned that V12, popped in the clutch, lit up the Eagle’s rear tyres, went off the line like an artillery shell; red-eyed, intent, totally focused, and he just tore to the top, nine-tenths – no compromise. For here, friends was an instinctive Racer.

Back in the paddock, he was bothered – “Throttle’s sticking” he frowned, but then brightened up “Hey, they’ve painted ‘Viva Gurney’ on the track up there – just like at Brands in ’67!”. He was thrilled with that – and you know why the British marshals had paid him that tribute?

Because they adored him – the tall, quiet, modest, friendly guy in the black crash helmet – who always gave it 100 per cent…

In later years, Dan’s AAR operation in Santa Ana progressed from strength to strength. The Eagles won Indy twice driven by Bobby Unser, and a third time driven by Gordon Johncock. They won 51 Champcar races overall. And on them in 1971 Dan had added a tiny lift-enhancing trailing-edge spoiler, which became famous as the ‘Gurney flap’ – and his chunky mid-‘70s Eagle Indycars became the standard-setters in that category.

A long-time AAR partnership with Toyota for IMSA GT racing later saw team driver Juan Manuel Fangio II score a first win at Portland in 1991, and through to 1993, the Eagle-Toyota Mark III won 21 of 27 races, humbling Jaguar to dominate almost totally. Poor Jaguar – ‘Gurneyed’ again…


In later years AAR with its profound experience and knowledge of advanced technology composite construction became involved with frontier-technology US defence contracts, and throughout Dan Gurney thrived as a truly revered elder statesman of the American motor sporting scene. 

For me, I‘ll always remember doing my best to teach Dan how to play cricket at an early Revival Meeting. In the match, I drove the ball towards him fielding at deep mid-on, and thought “There’s a run on here”. So I took off – chug-a-lug – then realised he had reached out a long arm, stopped the ball and then that same long arm just hurled it at the far-off wicket, baseball-style, round arm. That damned red ball streaked in like a tracer bullet – and shattered the wicket with me two yards short of safety. He’d run me out. And was I cheesed off about it. I heard myself bawling “I’m not going to be your fan anymore” as I tramped back to the pavilion. But Dan was just on it you see. This was sport and as always he was there to win; that itch again, still unscratched… 

Years later, at another Revival Meeting, I heard the familiar voice behind me in the Goodwood paddock, calling “Hey! Doug – over here!”’, and I turned to see Dan and Evi just arrived for his tribute year.

Only the previous day I’d taken a fearful whack in the eye from a cricket ball while keeping wicket in the cricket match – and I had an enormous shiner. And when I turned and he saw it, dear old Dan just about wet himself – roaring with laughter. 

“Hey Doug” he bawled again “You look like the man who said ‘No’ to Lord March!”… and he just slapped one long leg, and guffawed again.

Dan Gurney was a truly great driver, but more importantly, he was a great – and gentle – man. Here we have lost a sublime motor racing hero, and a man who embodied America at its best. When ‘Car & Driver’ magazine launched its famous ‘Gurney for President’ campaign back in the 1960s – it was a bit of fun, because it was truly inconceivable that any non-politician would stand a chance of really being elected. Haven’t times changed – but what a President Dan Gurney might have made… 

Goodwood Motorsport extends its most sincere condolences to his widow Evi, to their two sons, Justin and Alex; and to his three sons, Daniel Jr, John and James, and a daughter, Lyndee, from his first marriage, to Arleo Bodie; and to his eight grandchildren – and to all his people – for so he always regarded them – at AAR.

Photography courtesy of LAT Images and The GP Library

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