In the week since he died, many glowing tributes have appeared from all over the world, and rightly so.
I first heard Dan Gurney’s name in the early 60’s, when ABC’s Wide World of Sports began showing Grand Prix races and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Gurney’s good looks and relaxed demeanor in interviews made him instantly appealing, and I began using my allowance to buy Road and Track and Sports Car Graphic at my local drug store, so I could keep up with his racing career.
The one race that everyone in the US paid attention to at the time was the Indianapolis 500, and Dan had his first try there in 1962, in a car built and entered by Mickey Thompson, but the next year, when he and Jim Clark raced there in identical Lotus-Fords, with Clark finishing second, and Gurney seventh, that caught everyone’s attention, and rang the death knell for the front-engined roadsters.
A month or two after the race a model kit of the Lotus-Ford came out, and I happily bought and built the model. It came in the colors of Jim Clark’s car, green with yellow stripes and trim, and I loved Jim Clark, but Gurney was my hero, so I painted the car like Gurney’s, white, with blue stripes and trim. Fortunately, the kit came with decals for both cars.
I continued to follow Dan’s career as he won races in Cobras, GT-40’s, NASCAR, and Indycar. Riverside Raceway was his home track, and he was all but invincible there, winning in sports cars, NASCAR 5 times in a row, Indycar, and Can-Am.
June of 1967 was a banner month for Gurney, winning Le Mans with A. J. Foyt, then winning the Belgian GP in the Eagle that he designed himself, an achievement still unmatched by any other American driver/builder.
Gurney’s Eagles found their greatest success in Indycar, winning many races, including the Indy 500. After retiring from driving in 1970, he continued as a constructor and team leader, and it was in that capacity that I finally got to meet him during the Daytona 24 Hours in 1985. Dan’s All-American racing team was competing in the GTU class with a pair of Toyota Celicas.
About 8 hours into the race, at about 11pm, I was planning to leave the track and get some sleep before sunrise. As I was walking through the paddock, I saw one of Gurney’s cars having some major repairs, and Dan himself was holding a light as they changed the transmission. I approached him, excused myself for interrupting, and asked if I could shake his hand. He handed the light to another crewman, and said, “Hold this for a few minutes. I need to talk to this man.” For the next 5 minutes we talked, about my being a fan, about his career, and about racing in general.
He was, as has been described by everyone who met him, gracious, charming, friendly, exactly the way you always hope your heroes will act, yet so few do.
His active, inquisitive engineer’s mind kept him busy innovating his entire life, and we are all better off for having shared the earth with him.