A true titan of 20th-century motorsport, Dan Gurney has passed away at the age of 86. Considered by many to be the greatest American racing driver in history, Gurney’s contributions to the world of auto racing as a driver, engineer and businessman are so considerable that a single tribute seems inadequate to fully capture the magnitude of his success.
A childhood transplant to California, Gurney became a part of his new home state’s burgeoning hot rod scene in the late 1940s. Following a stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he returned to California and quickly found work as a driver for privateer sports car teams.
His success on the West Coast rapidly opened doors in the international racing community, where his enormous talent would earn him drives with the Formula 1 teams of Ferrari, BRM, Porsche (for whom he would claim the company’s first-ever F1 win in 1962) and Brabham.
Concurrently, Gurney also carved out a prolific career in practically every other form of motor racing imaginable. He scored a class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Shelby in 1964, claimed second place at the Indianapolis 500 in 1968 and 1969, and won five 500-mile NASCAR races at Riverside between 1963 and 1968. Along the way, he found time to compete successfully in Can-Am, Trans-Am and even in saloon cars in England.
The pinnacle year of Gurney’s racing career was 1967, when he and co-driver A.J. Foyt would claim a stunning victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford Mk IV, following a decade-defining battle with the full might of the Ferrari factory team (and inadvertently creating one of racing’s signature traditions during the podium ceremony, when Gurney spontaneously began spraying champagne on the crowd).
Only seven days later, Gurney would become the first American driver in Formula 1 to win a race in a car of his own design, taking his Gurney-Weslake V12 to victory in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps.
Retiring from race driving in 1970 (though famously finding time the following year to partner with Brock Yates to win the inaugural Cannonball Run in a Ferrari Daytona) Gurney would next find success as a car constructor and team owner, devoting all of his efforts to the All-American Racers team he founded in 1967.
AAR’s Eagles would dominate the world of Indy Car racing in the late 60s and early 70s, with Bobby Unser winning the Indy 500 for the team in 1968 and 1975, and with AAR taking series titles in 1968 and 1974. Always an innovator, Gurney’s contributions to the sport during the 1970s included the addition of a downforce-generating trailing-edge lip to Indy Car wings (nicknamed, appropriately, the “Gurney Flap” and now a ubiquitous aerodynamic component).
He was also the main force behind the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (or CART) in 1979, following publication of his “white letter” calling for teams to wrest power from the USAC monopoly that had controlled open-wheel racing in the United States for decades.
AAR would also become one of the most successful constructors of sports car racers in the 1980s and 90s in partnership with Toyota. Beginning in 1983, Gurney and AAR would come to dominate the middle of the decade — first with production-based Celicas in the IMSA GTU category, then with full tube-frame Celica silhouettes in GTO (which would bring AAR and Toyota the series title in 1987).
The partnership’s crowning glory, however, would come after making the jump to IMSA’s mighty GTP class, with the iconic AAR-Toyota Eagle Mk III. Powered by a 2.1-liter, turbocharged engine, the Eagle Mk. III was an 800-horsepower masterpiece that rendered all other competition in the GTP category obsolete almost overnight.
In the hands of drivers such as PJ Jones and Juan Manuel Fangio II, the Eagle Mk III would claim back-to-back IMSA GTP championships in 1992 and 1993, winning 17 races total over the two seasons — and proving so dominant that archrivals Nissan and Jaguar withdrew from IMSA competition altogether, bringing the GTP era to an end after the 1993 season.
Following the dissolution of GTP, Gurney’s AAR team would continue to partner with Toyota to develop open-wheel racers for CART through the end of the 1990s. Afterward, Gurney would continue to lead All American Racers as a top-level race car engineering firm well into his 80s.
Dan Gurney’s legacy in motorsport extends beyond individual race wins or championships. He was an innovator in the fields of aerodynamics, safety and team management. He was unafraid to walk away from plum opportunities for easy victories to pursue success on his own terms, as when he left Ferrari at the dawn of the mid-engine era in 1960, or when he quit Brabham in 1966 to build his own cars (a move that no doubt cost him the 1966 and 1967 F1 drivers championships, but also would lead to decades of success at AAR).
He was known as an inexhaustible optimist, one for whom no racing challenge was beyond his grasp. In the modern racing world, where corporate money, faceless technology and individual specialization rule the day, it is unlikely that we will see the likes of a true renaissance man like Dan Gurney again.