Dan Gurney obituary

World-class racing driver and team owner who was the first to spray champagne in celebration

The American racing driver Dan Gurney, who has died aged 86, was said to be the rival most feared by the great Jim Clark. He was at the start of the most remarkable week of his career in the cockpit when, on a Sunday afternoon in June 1967, he mounted the podium at Le Mans alongside AJ Foyt, with whom he had shared the winning Ford GT40 Mk IV in the famous 24-hour race. Gurney was handed the victors’ usual bottle of champagne but, instead of drinking it, gave it a shake before aiming a spray of foaming liquid at the spectators gathered to acclaim his triumph, thus inaugurating a style of celebration that became universally adopted.

It was not Gurney’s only lasting innovation. In 1968, he became the first driver to use a full-face helmet in a grand prix. And when the application of aerodynamic theory was still in its infancy among designers of racing cars, he created a raised edge of metal fixed along a car’s rear wing, increasing the available downforce without incurring a significant penalty in terms of drag. It was effective enough to become known as the “Gurney flap”.

Seven days after his success at Le Mans, Gurney drove an Eagle Weslake, built by his own British-based team, initially called Anglo American Racers, to victory in the Belgian Grand Prix on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, making him the first American to win a world championship grand prix at the wheel of a car he had built. It was one of four grands prix he won in a Formula One career encompassing 86 races between 1959 and 1970, beginning with Ferrari and taking in the works teams of BRM, Porsche, Brabham and McLaren. In 1960 he and Stirling Moss won the Nürburgring 1000 km in a “Birdcage” Maserati.

At home he entered the Indianapolis 500 several times, finishing second in 1968 and 1969 at the wheel of his Eagle Ford, and third in 1970. He was also successful in the Nascar series for modified production saloons, winning five races between 1962 and 1972. His team, retitled All American Racers, went on to win many races and championships under his supervision, including the Indy 500 three times in the hands of Bobby Unser (twice) and Gordon Johncock, as well as the Sebring 12 Hours and the Daytona 24 Hours.

His exploits on both sides of the Atlantic were not just rewarded with trophies. A tall, handsome figure, he was so greatly admired and widely liked that in 1964 the US magazine Car and Driver attempted to nominate him for the US presidential elections, only to discover that he was too young to challenge Lyndon B Johnson and Barry Goldwater (candidates have to be 35 or older). The idea was regularly revived during subsequent election years.

Gurney was born in Port Jefferson, Long Island, the first of the two children of John Gurney, a star bass baritone singer with the Metropolitan Opera whose own father, FW Gurney, had invented a type of ball bearing to which he gave his name, and Roma Sexton, a former art student. After Dan had graduated from high school the family moved to Riverside, southern California, and he studied at Menlo junior college. At the age of 19, he built a car that he raced on Bonneville Salt Flats, but a budding career in motor sport was interrupted when he spent two years in the US army, serving as an artillery mechanic in the Korean war.

On his return, he made his racing debut at Torrey Pines, San Diego, in a Triumph TR2 before driving the Maserati-engined Arciero Special to second place at the first Riverside Grand Prix, the inaugural meeting of the Riverside International Raceway, behind Carroll Shelby but ahead of Masten Gregory, Walt Hansgen and Phil Hill. By the end of the decade Shelby, Gregory, Hill and Gurney would all have made their way to Europe, where they competed in Formula One and sports cars.

Through Luigi Chinetti, Ferrari’s Italian distributor and a good talent scout, Gurney drove one of Enzo Ferrari’s cars at Le Mans for the first time in 1958 and was given a seat in the grand prix team the following year, finishing second to his teammate Tony Brooks in the German Grand Prix, held on the high-speed AVUS track in Berlin.

After disagreements with the team management, but with his talent already widely recognised, he joined BRM for 1960, but six retirements and a 10th place in seven grands prix – and a crash in which a spectator was killed at Zandvoort – had him looking elsewhere and joining Porsche’s new Formula One team. A single victory in two seasons – at Rouen in 1962 – led to Porsche’s withdrawal and Gurney’s move to Jack Brabham’s new team, where he stayed for three years, winning at Rouen again in 1964 and in Mexico in the same year.

Then came two seasons with the F1 Eagle Weslake, its chassis and body designed in California and built in England and its V12 engine created by the British designer Aubrey Woods and built in East Sussex by the Weslake company. Development of the complex engine was frustratingly gradual and in 1967, the team’s second season, the triumph at Spa, ahead of Jackie Stewart’s BRM and Chris Amon’s Ferrari, and a third place in Canada were the only finishes for Gurney to set alongside nine retirements.

Halfway through the following season he switched to McLaren, before sitting out the 1969 season. In 1970, after Bruce McLaren had been killed in a testing accident at Goodwood, Gurney, then 39, returned to the team for three races, boosting their spirits by finishing sixth at Clermont-Ferrand. He also took McLaren’s place at the wheel of a giant CanAm sports car at Mosport in Ontario and won the race.

If his grand prix statistics never quite lived up to his initial promise, his career in US motor sport, particularly as a team owner, was one of enormous distinction in several series, including the IMSA GTP class, in which his Toyota Eagles won 17 races in a row in 1992-93, capturing the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in both seasons. In 2011 he handed the chief executive’s role to his son Justin. At his 85th birthday party in April 2016, his sons presented him with the Eagle in which he had beaten Clark to win the Rex Mays 300 at Riverside in 1967, now meticulously restored.

He is survived by his second wife, Evi Butz, a former Porsche public relations executive, whom he married in 1969, and by their two sons, Justin and Alex; by three sons, Daniel Jr, John and James, and a daughter, Lyndee, from his first marriage, to Arleo Bodie; and by eight grandchildren.

Daniel Sexton Gurney, racing driver, racing car constructor and team owner, born 13 April 1931; died 14 January 2018


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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