Formula One, Le Mans and Indycar colossus dies aged 86
Prepare to take your barn finds to Birmingham for the Restoration Show
Dan Gurney, the American motor sport icon whose career spanned driving, engineering and management roles across all forms of top-level racing, has died aged 86. Gurney engineered, built and raced his first car aged 19 in 1950, and competed at amateur level before a drive for Frank Arciero in the 1957 Riverside Grand Prix in which he finished second to Carroll Shelby. His performance drew the attention of Luigi Chinetti, who secured him a Nart-ferrari Le Mans drive for 1958, and a few Formula One races in 1959.
His time at Ferrari wasn’t fruitful, but he enjoyed success at Porsche in 1961-2, then Brabham for 1963-4, bringing the new teams their first F1 wins. Throughout the Sixties he juggled F1, NASCAR and Indycar, and drove Cobras for Shelby.
In 1965 a plan Gurney originally hatched during his F1 debut year finally came to fruition. As Shelby later recalled, ‘Dan just came up and said “let’s build a Grand Prix car. It could dominate the scene. It won’t be easy, but [we] can’t do it if [we] don’t try”.’ With Goodyear financial backing, All American Racers (AAR) was born, and with it the dynasty of elegant Gurney-designed Eagle single-seaters with which he contested both F1 and Indycar races.
While visits to the podium were regular, the Eagle only won twice – the 1967 Race of Champions and the Belgian Grand Prix – but Jim Clark once privately admitted to his father that Gurney was the only driver he considered a threat on track.
That year was to mark Gurney’s zenith as a driver. In 1967, along with AJ Foyt, he won the Le Mans 24 Hours with the Ford GT40. As fierce Indycar rivals, the American press had predicted disaster for the supposedly antagonistic Gurney/foyt pairing. In playful revenge, Gurney sprayed his winners’ champagne at the journalists beneath the podium. Drivers have copied him ever since.
Gurney’s innovations on the track were far more serious. He introduced the full-face helmet to F1 the following year. After retiring in 1970 to run AAR full-time, Gurney drew upon Douglas aerodynamic research and fitted a vertical metal strip inspired by aeroplane wing trims to the rear of the car to increase downforce, and in doing so invented the spoiler.
Throughout the Seventies AAR contested the USAC Indycar series, but Gurney became disgruntled with the poor levels of promotion by USAC management. In 1978 Gurney led a consortium of team owners to form a rival series, CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams). Within a few seasons CART effectively replaced USAC Indycar.
In the Eighties, Gurney ran Toyota’s works team in the IMSA championship, engineering the firm’s racing Celicas and later developing its Group C cars under the Eagle banner. This culminated in the MKIII, a car so powerful it’s credited with the demise of IMSA’S Group C era. Following this, Gurney introduced Toyota to single-seater racing via CART in 1996. Gurney also served as test-driver for the MR2.
Racer, pioneer, engineer, campaigner – in every role, Gurney’s contributions were all milestones.
Dan Gurney (right) with AJ Foyt, Le Mans 1967. Watch out below!