DAN GUR­NEY

An Amer­i­can Life

Cycle World - - Contents - By KEVIN CAMERON

Re­mem­ber­ing a hero and fel­low rider

Dan Gur­ney—cham­pion race­car driver, ve­hi­cle en­gi­neer, mo­tor­cy­clist, and rac­ing-car builder—died this year at age 86. He came to great­ness at a time when Amer­i­can in­dus­try, in­no­va­tion, and power were peak­ing. His fa­ther, re­tir­ing from New York City’s Metropoli­tan Opera in 1947, moved the fam­ily to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The gi­gan­tic U.S. air­craft in­dus­try—much of it lo­cated in that state—had just pro­duced 302,000 mil­i­tary air­craft and 810,000 air­craft en­gines for World War II, and the plants, tool­ing, and peo­ple who ac­com­plished that mir­a­cle re­mained ac­tive. Sur­plus out­lets were burst­ing with rolling bear­ings, hy­draulics, elec­tron­ics, and more. A brand-new twin-en­gine P-38 fighter with full gas tanks was $1,200. Men got rich re­cov­er­ing the plat­inum elec­trodes from hun­dreds of thou­sands of sur­plus air­craft spark plugs. Tech­nol­ogy in 1947 was al­most free. Want trick alu­minum or steel al­loys? It was ev­ery­where.

Amer­i­cans had ac­quired a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion as in­nately in­no­va­tive and cre­ative, mainly be­cause U.S. in­dus­try had in­ci­den­tally put tech­nol­ogy and in­for­ma­tion within the reach of ev­ery in­ter­ested Amer­i­can young­ster. Chil­dren grew up in a rich en­vi­ron­ment, tak­ing apart and putting to­gether clocks, build­ing and fly­ing model air­planes, ex­per­i­ment­ing with Erec­tor and chem­istry sets, and then go­ing on to weld and fab­ri­cate hot-rod cars—or cre­at­ing an in­dus­try. For Amer­i­cans, play could be a highly so­phis­ti­cated ac­tiv­ity.

Teenage Dan Gur­ney im­mersed him­self in the hot-rod cul­ture: build­ing cars, tak­ing them to the dry lakes, and then branch­ing into other forms of rac­ing. He could drive, but he could also build, and the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the two ac­tiv­i­ties would in­form his whole life.

Mo­tor­cy­cle en­thu­si­asts know that Gur­ney also loved bikes. In re­cent decades, he could be found at speed on Socal’s “racer roads,” en­joy­ing the se­ries of ever-im­prov­ing feet-first bikes his shop en­gi­neered and built un­der the name Al­li­ga­tor.

“I had a Mon­tesa,” Gur­ney said to me once. “A good bike—it would do 100 mph. But I was never quite com­fort­able. I’m tall!” Worst was go­ing down­hill on dirt: “I al­ways felt as if I were go­ing to tip over for­ward! I did, a cou­ple of times.”

OP­PO­SITE: Dur­ing the 1968 South African Grand Prix, Gur­ney takes a seat on Mike Hail­wood’s Honda 250cc Six.

So in 1976 he built some­thing that did fit him, the ul­tralow Al­li­ga­tor A1, with a Honda 350 en­gine up front. Sin­gles were com­pact, but he came to want more power than would fit into a one-cylin­der space. Some beau­ti­ful CNC parts went into those sin­gles all the same.

Gur­ney’s ac­com­plish­ments are burned into our col­lec­tive mo­tor­sports cul­ture. With Mario An­dretti, he was one of just two Amer­i­cans to win races in the four ma­jor rac­ing cat­e­gories: For­mula One, Champ cars, the FIA sports-car cham­pi­onship, and NASCAR.

How? It came nat­u­rally, and it came by ac­ci­dent. Rac­ing and win­ning ex­panded as spon­sors, see­ing his en­ergy, ex­panded his op­por­tu­ni­ties. The big­gest of all was truly an ac­ci­dent. Goodyear, want­ing to break the Fire­stone race-tire mo­nop­oly, came knock­ing at Indianapolis only to have all their spon­sored driv­ers switch tires. Re­mem­ber, this wasn’t now, where ev­ery­thing has to be PC and cer­ti­fied per­fectly safe. You could pro­mote cars and tires and gaso­line based on glam­orous suc­cess in rac­ing. Goodyear de­cided it needed its own cars. Who could build them?

In those days, big cor­po­ra­tions had no idea about rac­ing, so they had to find and trust those who did. It was a time of sharp cul­ture shock, such as stock-car-builder Smoky Yu­nick get­ting a call to get to the air­port where a cor­po­rate jet waited to whisk him—dirty shop pants and all—to Detroit to tell the boys with big en­gi­neer­ing de­grees how to win races.

So in 1965, with Car­roll Shelby and Goodyear fund­ing, Gur­ney started the race­car pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity that

1. Gur­ney at the flow­bench. 2. Slacks, loafers, and no hel­met dur­ing his time as Mon­tesa im­porter. The ad ap­peared in Cy­cle World. 3. Fly­ing a Porsche 1600 Speed­ster in River­side, Cal­i­for­nia, 1956. Gur­ney gave Porsche its only F1 suc­cess with his French GP win in 1962. 4. Al­ways ready with a smile, par­tic­u­larly af­ter one of his NASCAR vic­to­ries.

“Dan Gur­ney’s life tells us that it’s es­sen­tial to have many in­ter­ests and the en­ergy to pur­sue them.”

would soon be named All-amer­i­can Rac­ers. AAR to­day oc­cu­pies 75,000 square feet in Santa Ana, Cal­i­for­nia.

While Gur­ney was rac­ing in just about ev­ery se­ries he could find dur­ing a driv­ing ca­reer run­ning from 1957 to 1970, he was also be­gin­ning to build 158 rac­ing cars un­der the name Ea­gle. AAR is the only builder in the U.S. to have de­signed and built a win­ning F1 car, win­ning Champ cars, and win­ning FIA sports cars.

When it came time to look for an out­fit to build a 3.0-liter V-12 to power Gur­ney’s F1 car, he knew that English air­flow spe­cial­ist Harry Wes­lake had done a promis­ing high-rpm project for Shell. Im­ple­mented as first a 375cc and then a 500cc four-valve-per-cylin­der twin, and with a nearly flat com­bus­tion cham­ber thanks to nar­row valve an­gle and steep ports, the 500 gave 76 hp at just over 10,000 rpm. Sound fa­mil­iar? It was very close in con­cept to what Keith Duck­worth would un­leash in 1967 in the Cos­worth DFV F1 V-8. Six of those 500 twins, built in V-12 form, could add up to over 400 hp! That would be­come the en­gine in Gur­ney’s Ea­gle F1 car, which he drove to vic­tory at the 1967 Bel­gian GP at Spa, av­er­ag­ing more than 145 mph.

A few days pre­vi­ously he had won the Le Mans 24-hour Sports Car Cham­pi­onship race in France, where in­stead of swig­ging the cham­pagne pre­sented to him on the podium, he put a thumb over the mouth of the bot­tle, gave it a shake, and shot cel­e­bra­tory foam over ev­ery­one in reach. It be­came in­stant tra­di­tion, con­tin­u­ing on podi­ums to this day.

When Yvon Duhamel’s Team Hansen race tuner Steve White­lock saw Indy cars with drilled brake discs, he saw them as a fix for Kawasaki’s hefty brakes. He drove over to Gur­ney’s shop where the staff en­thu­si­as­ti­cally worked up a pat­tern of half-inch holes. When peo­ple saw Yvon’s “ho­ley ro­tors” at AMA road races, they be­came an in­stant must-have.

TOP: Ea­gle F1 cars and other prod­ucts from AAR were in­no­vated and of­ten dom­i­nant. ABOVE RIGHT: Gur­ney de­scribed life­long pas­sion for motorcycles as his “mal­ady.”

Gur­ney built a big, nar­row-an­gle V-twin to power his lat­est Al­li­ga­tor mo­tor­cy­cle but was of­fended by its heavy nat­u­ral vi­bra­tion—some­thing that re­quires bal­ance shafts to quell. He said of it, “My ex­pe­ri­ence is that things vi­brate for a while, then fa­tigue, and fall off or fall apart.”

He knew some­thing bet­ter was pos­si­ble be­cause he’d de­voted his life to bet­ter and knew how to get to it. In 2015, he re­vealed AAR’S “mo­ment-can­cel­ing en­gine”—a com­pact par­al­lel-twin with two geared con­tra-ro­tat­ing crankshafts that zero out pri­mary shak­ing and leave no rock­ing mo­ment—with­out bal­ance shafts. “Big” means 110 cu­bic inches from a 5.14-by-2.65-inch bore and stroke. “Smooth” means be­ing able to reach high revs with­out shak­ing it­self to pieces. “Power” means 260 hp. With now-com­mon vari­able cam tim­ing, this en­gine will pull hard from low revs to peak. When I say “build,” I mean in-house—be­cause the shop has ev­ery­thing re­quired, in­clud­ing not only the usual ma­chine shop equip­ment but also spe­cial­ized ap­pa­ra­tus such as a large-scale au­to­clave for car­bon-fiber-re­in­forced-poly­mer struc­tures. You need one if you plan to make race­car tubs—or ad­vanced air­frame parts.

Gur­ney and his lead­ing staff would show up at Yamaha’s Mon­terey Aquar­ium Mo­togp cel­e­bra­tions, park­ing sev­eral Al­li­ga­tor ver­sions at the curb out­side. He knew ev­ery­one be­cause he had been ev­ery­where, al­ways. His of­fice is rich with mem­o­ra­bilia; when I was there in 1997, I spot­ted what I thought was a sleeve­valve cylin­der from the Cen­tau­rus en­gine of a Sea Fury-based air racer. War­plane mod­els cov­ered a long book­case. His­tory is dense in these build­ings—the Hall of Pho­tos and the Ea­gle Mu­seum’s long line of race cars. At lunch, Gur­ney and his men had end­less top­ics to dis­cuss; on and on we went, hop­ping from sub­ject to fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject. These men were in­ter­ested in mist lu­bri­ca­tion of gears and rolling bear­ings, sup­ply­ing just enough oil to lubri­cate and cool, not enough to lose power to churn­ing. It was clear they were read­ing ev­ery­thing. I felt se­ri­ously priv­i­leged to be there.

You might think such a busy man, de­sign­ing and build­ing a se­ries of unique motorcycles while de­sign­ing, build­ing, and driv­ing race cars, would be the clas­sic, driven Type-a male whose fam­ily is an af­ter­thought and whose ris­ing blood pres­sure puts an end to it all at age 60. No such thing. Type-a’s com­pete with their chil­dren, but Dan passed con­trol of his com­pany to son Justin in

ABOVE LEFT: Aboard the Honda-pow­ered Al­li­ga­tor at All Amer­i­can Rac­ers. ABOVE RIGHT: Line draw­ing of the “mo­ment­cancel­ing” twin to power the next Al­li­ga­tor.

2002, then him­self car­ried on to age 86. The at­trac­tive con­clu­sion that for Gur­ney, life was not a com­pul­sion but a plea­sure. A feast.

Dan Gur­ney’s life tells us that it’s es­sen­tial to have many in­ter­ests and the en­ergy to pur­sue them.

AAR has taken on much be­sides rac­ing in re­cent years. Cal­i­for­nia was long a cen­ter of U.S. air­craft pro­duc­tion, with mile­long plants sur­rounded by con­cen­tric rings of sub­con­trac­tors and job shops. As that has ceased to be the case, or­ga­ni­za­tions such as AAR, which can lit­er­ally take on any project, have be­come less com­mon and more valu­able. Gur­ney said, “Justin saved the com­pany”—mean­ing that by tak­ing on spe­cial­ized avi­a­tion projects, AAR and its peo­ple have re­mained busy.

Dan Gur­ney’s ca­reer has been a long se­ries of suc­cesses that have un­locked fur­ther op­por­tu­nity. He saw his mo­ment-can­cel­ing en­gine as another such key— as he put it, “One more chance to make an im­pres­sion.” As if it were needed.

On the podium at the 1962 French Grand Prix af­ter his vic­tory in the eight-cylin­der Porsche.

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