Dan Gurney, 1931-2018: An American Hero

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Dan Gurney getting some air in the Eagle Gurney-Weslake V12 at Nürburgring, 1967.
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Team Montesa: Dan Gurney partnered with the U.S. Montesa distributors in the late 1960s.

American heroes aren’t supposed to die, but they do. Like many race fans from my generation, my American hero was Dan Gurney, one of America’s greatest race car drivers of all time. He passed away Jan. 14, at the age of 86.

Gurney’s high-water mark occurred in a single week in 1967 when, after teaming with A.J. Foyt in Ford’s Mk IV to win the LeMans 24-hour endurance race, Gurney piloted his Eagle Gurney-Weslake to victory at the Belgium Grand Prix. After he retired as a driver, Gurney’s Eagle race cars won several Indianapolis 500s, and his All American Racers team accounted for numerous other championships, as well.

Gurney was also a bike guy, and he loved riding. In their early 20s, Gurney and his best friend, Skip Hudson, rode their motorcycles over the freshly graded dirt that became Riverside International Raceway in 1957. In coming years, Gurney won countless races there and it became known as his home track.

In 1959, almost on a whim, Gurney entered the Big Bear Run, a grueling enduro where he and his Triumph TR6 finished 21st out of 872 entries. That same year Ferrari hired him to race in Formula 1. Yet Gurney took pride in that single Big Bear outing, touting it as one of his “major accomplishments.”

His reach into the motorcycle community grew when he signed Yamaha to sponsor his Lotus-Ford entry — the Yamaha Special — for the 1965 Indianapolis 500. Buoyed by his success in auto racing, Gurney partnered with Kim Kimball and actor Steve McQueen as U.S. distributors for Montesa motorcycles. He appeared in several Montesa advertisements, and in 1971 his notoriety helped raise funds for a group of aspiring young American motocross racers in Europe. Gurney also sponsored AMA Expert racer Chuck Palmgren’s flat track racing program, and they worked together developing the Alligator motorcycle concept that championed a chassis design to lower a bike’s center of gravity for improved handling.

Gurney was an innovator. In 1968, he was the first race car driver to wear Bell Helmets’ new Bell Star full-coverage helmet, favored by motorcycle racers that same year. His race teams helped pioneer exotic materials such as titanium and carbon fiber to reduce weight, and the “Gurney Flap” concept is still used today on most race cars to improve aerodynamics. Gurney was also responsible for a lasting moto-journalism career by a young and rather impressionable college student — me. I first met Gurney at Orange County International Raceway’s Turn 9, where I boldly introduced myself to the American hero while he was spectating at a local motorcycle club race. I was there to complete a photo assignment for a journalism class, and during our talk Gurney inquired about the camera dangling precipitously from my neck. I explained my situation, but quickly recovered to say that I actually wanted to be a race car driver.

Looking back, I realize my naivety, but Gurney showed no reaction to my whimsical behavior. He said simply: “You know, our sport could use a few good journalists, too.” His exact words, and though they seemed trite and meaningless — after all, I was going to be America’s next F1 star — they etched themselves in my mind. I won my first car race (fittingly, at Riverside), but then racing became one spinout after another until my checkbook ended up in the marbles. Down but not defeated, I retreated to motorcycle racing, where I once again enjoyed life’s pleasures. A few years later I committed myself to journalism, and throughout my career I have often recalled Gurney’s words to me during that cool autumn day at Turn 9. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. That’s the sort of impact American heroes have on us. — Dain Gingerelli

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