For as long as there has been a Dan Gurney, which is 49 years and change, there has been a Gurney grin. It was often disguised by a half-grimace during Gurney's race-driving years, from 1955 to 1970—his intense-young-man period—but it was undeniably there. As he mellowed over the last decade, the grin became quick, broad and irrepressible. Today it is often accompanied by a short laugh. The grin expresses optimism.
But even as Gurney grins he says things like, "The picture's not bright, but we have hope." He uses the grin with expressions like "whistling in the graveyard." Curious. Lately people have been beginning to wonder, "Why is that man smiling?"
Good question. This has not been an easy month for Gurney. While his competitors were busy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway practicing for this Sunday's 500, Gurney was 2,000 miles away at his shop in Santa Ana, Calif., up to his elbows in camshafts and piston rings. His mission was to save the 500 for his team, All American Racers. They were at the Brickyard getting Mike Mosley qualified for the event in a radically new Gurney Eagle car whose stock-block Chevy engine was not yet the powerhouse Gurney believes it can be. So he was working night and day at Santa Ana, building what he hoped would be a breakthrough engine for the race: the Chevy refined for glory. It was a formidable task. The standard Indy engine is the turbocharged English Cosworth V-8, which has powered the last 17 winners of Indy-car races. With a Cosworth pushing, Johnny Rutherford won the pole for this year's race at a speed of 192.256 mph. Despite an oil leak, Mosley got into the field last Sunday in 26th position, at 183.449 mph.
Gurney is taking an enormous gamble with this Eagle-Chevy, for if the car fails, All American Racers could go down with it. The problem is economics. At about $42,000 per copy, the Cosworth is extremely expensive; the Chevy, at $14,000, is more like it. Other teams would like to reduce their expenses, too, but Gurney is the first contender with the courage—or the need—to turn away from the dominant Cosworth.
May 25, 1980
Few have been as faithful to Indy-car racing over the last 15 years as Gurney, and if its demands should claim All American Racers, it would be a sad irony and a major loss. Gurney twice finished second at Indy as a driver, won in 1975 as an owner with Bobby Unser driving, and last year came in third as an owner with Mosley driving. He contributed significantly to the takeover of the 500 by lightweight rear-engined cars when, in 1963, he helped persuade Ford and the Lotus works in England to build the Lotus-Ford. His 1972 Eagle was so good that 20 of the 33 starters in the 1973 race drove Eagles.
In addition to accomplishing so much at Indy, Gurney built the AAR Formula I Eagles and drove one to victory in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix. That was the first time an American car had won a world championship race in 46 years. Gurney, the Eagle and All American Racers have been an all-American success story. Why is that man smiling? He has his reasons.
One of the things that has made Gurney a winner is his willingness, almost eagerness, to take risks. "You're either a dummy for trying or a star if you pull it off," he says with a laugh. "So big deal if we end up dummies. It's more fun trying to stay a jump ahead."
The Gurney method of staying a jump ahead has often been considered eccentric, and it has brought failure as well as success. But it has never been anything less than true to the man. In his 16 years at the wheel, he established himself as one of the greatest American drivers of all time, with victories in Grand Prix, sports car, endurance, stock car, Indy car, Can-Am and sedan racing. He was America's best road racer in the '60s, a horsepower-crazy era that is gone but not forgotten.
It is a time etched in the memories of those who were part of the culture so greatly influenced by Gurney. Says H. Allan Seymour II, 36, who watched Gurney win the first of his five Riverside 500 stock-car races, "Growing up here in Southern California and driving over the twisty Ortega highway toward Riverside to watch Dan Gurney was a rite of fall, really. We used to go in this old '47 Chevy sedan with a sofa tied to the roof, playing Beach Boys songs on the radio the whole way over: 409, Little Deuce Coupe, Four on the Floor. I remember the first stock-car race there in 1963, Gurney against the Southern drivers. We parked by the Esses and watched them all go through: Joe Weatherly, wearing an Aloha shirt—really, it was yellow with red hibiscus flowers on it—wrestling his Pontiac Catalina with one hand on the steering wheel and the other grabbing the window wing; A.J. Foyt wearing a red bandanna over his face and just punching it through the turns like he was driving a sprint car. And there was Gurney: his black helmet, light blue racing uniform, sitting upright in his seat with his arms outstretched and holding the steering wheel at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock in the classic Formula I driving position, just gliding his Galaxie through the Esses like a hot knife through butter. No one drove through the Esses like Dan Gurney. It was something to see."
Gurney looked pure Southern Californian then, and he does now. Maybe it is the comfortable way he dresses in corduroy slacks and V-neck sweaters and sneakers. Maybe it is the Gary Cooperesque profile and 6'2", 210-pound physique—25 pounds more than in his racing days, but still looking lean. Maybe it is the blue eyes and blondish hair and smooth face, lacking both whiskers and wrinkles. Maybe it is even that quick grin. But in fact he grew up on Long Island. Gurney's father was a leading bass-baritone in the New York Metropolitan Opera, and his mother hoped her only son would become a doctor or lawyer. An urge to design and talent to construct is something Gurney may have inherited from his father, who is also a superb cabinet maker. His father designed machinery and invented a ball bearing that bore the Gurney name. What did he get from Mom? Well, says she, a petite, warm woman in her 70s, "When I was 11 years old and out for a drive in my father's car, I would always sit next to him and say, 'Faster! Faster!' "
For Gurney the urge to go faster! faster! came even earlier. At six, when his parents drove past the old Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, he would roll down a window and listen from the back seat to the sounds of the racing cars inside the stadium. "I still remember that," Gurney says. "Listening to those exotic sounds coming from the stadium, crazy to go in there and feel it all. I guess something was tugging at me even then."
When Gurney was 17, his father decided he had had enough of the opera, and he packed up his family and moved to Riverside, Calif., where he bought an orange grove. Gurney's next few years were like a lot of young men's. He attended two junior colleges, was excited about neither and worked at various jobs.
Riverside at this time was little more than a town with a Spanish mission surrounded by orange groves. On dark summer nights the 19-year-old Gurney would slip behind the wheel of his five-window Deuce coupe, whose roof was chopped so low his crewcut scrubbed the head-liner. He would head for the city limits and the groves, which were connected by dirt roads. Gurney and his buddies would set up detour signs in strategic locations in order to deflect traffic, and build road circuits that meandered between the sweet-smelling trees. They would race around till dawn, kicking up lingering trails of dust illuminated in the night by wedges of light from the headlights of their hot rods.
"We'd gather beforehand at Ruby's drive-in hamburger stand," Gurney recalls. "Guys would drive up with cars that had secret camshafts and carburetors and cylinder heads and fuels and stuff, and they'd all park around the corner until the challenges were made. Mickey Thompson, who was just starting on his hot rod career, was one of them. He was sort of the 'Pigpen' of the group, just hell-bent for leather and coated with grease. Then there were the guys we called the Bean Bandits. They were like a family, a group of Mexicans that really went fast. Dyno Don Nicholson came to Ruby's with his brother in a '34 Ford that was like Swiss cheese, it had so many holes in it to make it lighter. It was a fabulous era with tremendous mystique to it, and it was really exciting to me."
Soon came a girl, a marriage and the draft. He spent 18 months in the Army, 16 of them in Korea, and when he returned to Riverside he tried to settle down in a job at an aluminum plant. But that thing tugging at him prevented him from settling down very far, despite the fact that he had two children now (there would eventually be four in this marriage). After three restless years he was fired because his boss wanted him to make a commitment to aluminum and Gurney only wanted to commit himself to cars.
By 1957 Gurney had five or six sports-car races under his belt, and had managed to promote himself a Ferrari, no less, for a race that fall at Riverside. It would be the first major event at the new road circuit. Though he was unknown, Gurney got the ride in the Ferrari: no one else cared to tangle with the car because its reputation was so nasty. The rich field boasted some of the biggest names of the day—Carroll Shelby, Paul O'Shea, Walt Hansgen, Masten Gregory—in some of the best cars: Maserati, Mercedes, Jaguar, Aston-Martin. After the race, at a roisterous victory celebration, the winner, Shelby, said of the novice he had barely beaten, "Dan Gurney is a potential world champion."
Gurney's performance in that infamous and ill-handling Ferrari attracted the attention of none other than Enzo Ferrari, and Gurney was invited to try out for the Ferrari factory team.
"Alone and frightened," as he recalls, he went to Italy, where he was met by Phil Hill, a fellow Californian who would win the world driving championship in a Ferrari in 1961. Hill was already a member of the Ferrari team and his assistance to and acceptance of Gurney marked the beginning of a friendship that remains close today. Gurney was booked into a hotel near the Modena circuit and told he would be called when he was wanted. For the next three days no one said boo. Ferrari was notorious for playing on the doubts of his drivers, and Gurney was as ripe as they came. At long last, on the third evening, he was told, "Be at the autodrome at eight o'clock tomorrow morning."
"It was winter, so when I got to the track it was still pretty dark," Gurney recalls. "It was a heavy, damp, overcast kind of morning; a lot of people were just sort of standing around with their hands in their pockets. I couldn't talk to anyone because they didn't speak English. There were all these engineers and officials, and Enzo himself, all wearing big old black overcoats with black fedoras and smoking French cigarettes down to a quarter inch. It looked like the Mafia was waiting for me.
"Then out of the gloom comes this bloody transporter. It's got three racing cars on it, and I'm the only driver within sight. I remember thinking, 'This is the real McCoy.' "
The test was a success, and Gurney became a Ferrari team driver in endurance races, competing impressively in 1958 at Le Mans and on the Nürburgring, which, because of its difficulty, became his favorite circuit.
The next year Ferrari tested Gurney again at Modena, this time in the latest Formula I car.
"To this day I don't know whether I rolled that car over or not," he says. "I made an error in judgment and spun out, but after that I don't know what happened. I got kind of disoriented. But when the dust settled there was a bunch of grass in the car, and I know that grass didn't come from inside the car."
Before he spun, Gurney had equaled the lap record; still, he considered it a poor test because the car was badly damaged. So he went back to California figuring he had blown it. But his maturity and talent had impressed Ferrari, who offered Gurney a car for the upcoming French Grand Prix. He didn't finish that race, but in the next one, in Germany, he came in second between the other Ferrari team drivers. In two more races that year he finished third and fourth. "I am staggered by his fantastically quick rise," said Britain's Stirling Moss. The great Argentinian driver Juan Fangio said young Gurney was as good as they come. The press hailed him as the discovery of the year. "There is no visible arrogance in him, nor any mock modesty, either," wrote one reporter.
"I was young and serious and dedicated," says Gurney. "I was willing to go through almost anything for the opportunities. I was hell-bent on going all the way. There wasn't any doubt in my mind what I wanted by then."
Gurney's parents have huge scrap-books chronicling their son's career and they contain portions of a diary he kept during 1959. One page reads, "Plan each day. Accomplish everything. Do not be late. Be strong. Maintain edge, stay alert. Toughen hands. Will power over all. Be true to self and true to others."
This determined idealism endeared Gurney to Enzo Ferrari, who called him "my big Marine." Ferrari's fondness for Gurney did not, however, encompass enriching him. Ferrari believed that a driver should be thankful for the privilege of racing one of his cars, period. Gurney was given one round-trip ticket to Europe for the 1959 season and was paid $163 per month, plus half his prize money. He had his wife and two children with him, and they lived on a shoestring, traveling between races and countries in a Volkswagen. (Gurney recalls awakening in a cheap hotel in Rouen, France, one night to see bats flying in and out of the open window.)
When Ferrari wouldn't give him a raise in 1960, Gurney signed with the British BRM team. They had offered him $14,000 a year in advance, and he needed the money. The new BRM was innovative—it was one of the earliest rear-engined designs—and that also attracted Gurney. Ferrari warned Gurney the BRM would never work because the horse should pull the cart, not vice versa, but he let his big Marine go.
Leaving Ferrari would be the first of many unfortunate career decisions. The BRM was an abject failure; out of 27 starts that year, the team had three finishes. "The Ferrari was a much stronger car than I ever gave it credit for," says Gurney. "It was the kind of car you could jump in and just drive your absolute head off. The BRM was liable to fall apart on the starting line. I had thought 1960 would be my year, but I didn't score a single championship point. It was a tremendous disappointment, a bitter pill to swallow. It was just a result of more of my great judgment."
Gurney's "great judgment" probably cost him the world championship. Ferrari won the year after he quit them for BRM. He left BRM for Porsche in 1961 and BRM won the 1962 championship, while Porsche withdrew from Formula I. He went to Brabham for three years and the year he left a Brabham won the world championship. Yet despite his predilection for moving away from winning cars, despite driving inferior equipment, Gurney won four Grand Prix races and led many more. But often he was the victim of a freak mechanical failure while leading near the finish. It happened so often that any bad luck in Formula I came to be referred to as "Gurney luck." "It's remarkable really, the way writers and fans recognize me," Gurney said at that time, "but I wouldn't blame them if one of these days they woke up and said, 'All right, I love the guy, but when in the hell is the s.o.b. going to win something?' "
Nineteen sixty-six was the year of the birth of All American Racers and the Grand Prix Eagle. Five thousand fans paid $15 each to join the All American Racers Eagle Club, which gave the project a truly democratic foundation. The car was built in Gurney's shop in California with American materials, but because the designer was English and the crew included an Australian, a Mexican, and a couple of Frenchmen, Gurney named the team Anglo American Racers. "This land is a melting pot of people who came over here to the American way, and our car has that same melting-pot approach," he would say.
In June of 1967 Gurney drove the Eagle to victory in the Belgian Grand Prix, beating Jackie Stewart by 63 seconds. He averaged 145.67 mph, at the time the fastest Formula I race ever. It was the first Grand Prix victory for an American car since 1921.
"The essence of life is to go as fast as you can without getting killed," Gurney has said. During the 16 years he raced, he had only two crashes of significance, neither his fault and neither resulting in serious injury to him. That remarkable safety record is a result of Gurney's awareness of where the fine line between too fast and too slow was. He would investigate other drivers' accidents and often found them to be the result of driver error. He would remember that error and resolve never to make the same one. And unlike many drivers, he would not deny his own fear.
"Once I was coming at this blind turn at 170 miles an hour," he says. "The track was dry at that spot, but it had been raining unpredictably in other places on the course—this was at Spa, a long, hilly circuit in Belgium. So for all I knew it could have been raining around the turn, and if I went in there with it floored, gambling that it was going to be dry, it would be like taking a pistol with a bullet and—click. Well, that's what I did anyhow. It was dry. But it was such a close call. Afterward I didn't think what I had done was all that bright. Just because it turned out to be dry didn't make it the right decision."
The essence of life is to go as fast as you can without getting killed. "When I was driving, pushing life that far," he says, "I would get up on the morning of a race and I could hear sounds of the household, maybe the kids doing something, sounds I would never notice if it weren't for that race. Maybe I'd smell the coffee in a way I hadn't before, or hear the rain, just humdrum things of that sort I would appreciate more. I guess that's one of the benefits of being scared stiff." Gurney chuckles.
Despite the maturity that kept him alive on the track, Gurney admits to lapses of maturity on the highway. That is a trait of the deep-rooted race driver: he simply can't stand to be passed.
Says Gurney, "When you're driving, what you're doing is controlled fury. Every good driver has a mean streak. For instance, if I'm sitting at a stoplight and someone gives me a look and I can tell we're going to have it out, I mean it's like drinking a gallon of adrenaline. All of a sudden it...just...that sort of thing occurs."
Gurney's recognition of this thing keeps him from buying fast street cars. "You own a fast car and you just can't resist the temptation to stretch its legs," he says. "Sooner or later there's going to be a cop around the corner." (This from the man who once held the New York-to-Los Angeles record of 35 hours and 54 minutes, co-driving a Ferrari Daytona. When asked how fast he drove, he replied with the Gurney grin, "We never exceeded 175 miles an hour.")
Gurney has never owned an exotic car. He often drives the old white AAR van; his family cars are a Mustang plagued by rust in the cooling system and a Honda Accord that plagues its occupants with an intermittent honk from the short-circuited seatbelt signal. Dan's second wife, Evi, whom he met when he was driving for Porsche and she worked for the manager of the racing team, says, "About three months after we moved into our house our neighbor, a lawyer with a Cadillac and a Mercedes, came over and introduced himself because he wasn't sure we were really the Dan Gurneys. He couldn't figure out why the driveway wasn't always full of racy cars. I'm afraid we disappointed him terribly."
That Gurney did not win either the Indy 500 or the world Grand Prix championship is a more acute personal disappointment. "I always thought I was capable of winning them," he says. "I can't deny that I really wanted to win them, and it certainly bothered me that I didn't. But I had the respect of my fellow competitors, my peers. That probably sustained me." A moment that Gurney says means as much to him as any in racing occurred when Jimmy Clark's father took Gurney aside after Clark's funeral in Scotland. Mr. Clark told him that he was the only driver Jimmy ever feared.
Though he never won the 500, the revolutionary swing from front-to rear-engined cars at Indy that began nearly two decades ago was accelerated by Gurney. He had perceived rear-engined cars to be the Indy racers of the future. In 1961, when Jack Brabham, who had twice been world champion in rear-engined Cooper cars, finished ninth at Indianapolis in a Cooper despite having far less horsepower than the American Offenhausers, Gurney was convinced. He brought the Ford Motor Company and Lotus designer Colin Chapman together to make reality out of his idea: a rear-engined Lotus-Ford V-8. In 1963 Chapman entered two of them at Indianapolis, with Jimmy Clark (who would win the world championship that year) and Gurney as drivers. But because Clark was Chapman's regular Lotus driver, Gurney became the No. 2 driver, his Lotus the No. 2 car and their needs the No. 2 priority. He ended up starting the race with a broken valve spring. Clark came in second; Gurney, who feels he had been naive about assuring himself more equitable treatment in the Lotus effort, finished seventh.
Gurney took consolation in the fact that the success of the Lotus-Ford endeavor meant about $180,000 to him. It remains his big killing in the sport, though it is a relatively modest one.
Gurney has had a series of business setbacks over the years, and' the cause has been the same each time: overestimating someone. More of his "great judgment," as he would say. More than simply "Gurney luck." Maybe even a result of being so unwaveringly "true to self and true to others."
"I've always had enough money to satisfy me, and that has probably lulled me into a false sense of security," he says. "There were years where I paid 70% taxes when I never should have; I thought I had the right tax advice at the time. I had an auto-supply business called Checkpoint America started, but my partners never really got it off the ground. I went into an oil deal, All America oil—it was a good product and could have been worth something—but my partner in that got shot by a disgruntled employee he had fired. That brought that thing to a halt. I got into the wheel business, Dan Gurney Industries, but it was too late with too little capital; and my general manager couldn't handle it anyhow. We're still trying to pay that whole thing off. I got involved in a bicycle-building business with a guy who was a friend of a guy who worked for me, but he wasn't up to it."
Gurney's thoughts turn to another ex-driver, Roger Penske, who has become a wealthy man. "If I were to pick the single thing I admire most about Roger, who's a bright guy anyway, it's that he's figured out how to pluck the right guys out of a pool of nice, aggressive, competent young men and then get the most out of them. I think that has been the reason for my failures."
Penske has gained fame through racing, but his fortune has come from related ventures; Penske racing is subsidized by other Penske enterprises. AAR has no such subsidy; their sponsorship from Theodore Yip is modest. The object of All American Racers is to build successful race cars and sell them. It is the only Indy team that operates this way. Gurney calls himself the "last of the Mohicans." Then he laughs and says, "Or maybe it's the last of the idealists." Gurney has been so much in love with racing and his love has been so pure, it may at times have been blind.
"Part of the problem is that in my idealism, or naivetè, whatever it is, I've tried to keep going in a business that isn't a business," he says. "You wonder why anyone would punish themselves that much. I don't know if our way is realistic or not. I think it's pretty remarkable that we've managed to keep going this long."
How much longer he will be able to keep going depends a lot on how the new Eagle-Chevy fares this Sunday. The Eagle is easily the most innovative car in the Indy field, but that may be a dubious distinction, for the price has been a lack of development time. Not only is the engine a test-bed, but the Eagle chassis is original, unlike that of the pole-winning Chaparral, which is a close copy of the 1978 Formula I Lotus. It has a wide front track and no side pods like other ground-effect cars. Surrounding the engine behind the rear wheels is a big box, which creates a down-force that keeps the car snugly on the track. It is an odd creature, but handsome; with its forward cant toward widely spaced front wheels and its rearward bulk and slim sides, it looks something like a sphinx.
The other ground-effect cars create a vacuum under the entire car. The big drawback, however, is that the car is sucked to the straights as well as the turns, which slows it down. The theory behind the Eagle's big box is that it will give the car traction in the turns, yet free it on the straights.
"I think we've got a good car," says Gurney. "The crew feels very bullish about it. If we get this Chevy to put out the power we expect and run the distance, we'll be in pretty good shape. I think one decent performance will change the complexion of things, and we'll even get the sponsor we need. Right now we're in an awkward selling climate." He sighs. "It's hard for us to generate much faith in us at the moment." He laughs.
"It was so much simpler when I was just driving," he continues wistfully. "There were no problems with running a company or paying bills. All I had to do was concentrate on driving. I had a real excuse to dial it all out."
Maybe it was an uncontrollable urge to "dial it all out" that caused him to enter the Riverside 500 stock car race last January. "I'm a victim of my own nostalgia," Gurney said, trying to explain what he was doing there, 10 years after he had retired, racing at Riverside once more for old times' sake. "There's an excellent chance I'll get laughed out of the park, but I'm willing to take whatever comes," he said, a statement that characterized the way he has lived his life. But in his heart, he added, he felt he could run with the leaders or else he wouldn't be there.
Because of rain during practice, Gurney had gotten only about 20 minutes behind the wheel of his Monte Carlo, yet that thing still seemed to be there, tugging him to the seventh-fastest qualifying position.
On the morning of the race people in the pits and grandstands were wearing buttons that said GURNEY FOR PRESIDENT. Painted in big white letters on the track in Turn 6, in front of the grandstand that could be called Gurney's Gallery, was the encouragement GO GURNEY.
As he walked to the starting line, Gurney looked like a rich gentleman sports-car driver, as if he would stride in his springy, long-legged lope over to a silver Aston-Martin roadster, slip on kidskin gloves one finger at a time, comb his sandy hair in the rearview mirror and wink at a beautiful lady. And then he put on the famous black helmet, the result of his childhood fantasizing about being a' jousting knight in shining black armor.
Gurney used the early laps to settle into a groove. Then he began to move up, slowly, first past his teammate Dale Earnhardt, then past Bobby Allison and Darrel Waltrip when they had mechanical problems, then past Dave Marcis.
It all came back when he hooked up with Marcis. That gallon of adrenaline hit him, and it splattered the spectators all the way from the Esses to Turn 6. Gurney had been pressuring Marcis for eight laps, and Marcis finally made an error as they went into the Esses, six weaving, 100-mph turns. Marcis went straight off the track to his left in the first turn but shot back onto the track in the next, directly into Gurney's path. Instead of slowing down, Gurney drove off the track, to the right. Still not under control, Marcis drove off to the left again, and they were both off the track now, dirt billowing behind them as they raced for Turn 6. Bursting onto the track from a cloud of orange desert dust came Gurney, ahead of Marcis, who was still shaking his head as he crossed the GO GURNEY sign painted on Turn 6. "I knew Marcis would come back onto the track in front of me, so I just said, 'I'm coming through!' " Gurney commented. As the fan of the '60s had said, "No one could go through the Esses like Dan Gurney. It was something to see."
But Gurney luck would strike again, on Lap 79, with Gurney in third behind Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. It was probably the excursion into the dirt that had chipped a tooth on his gearbox, which now offered him only neutral. He coasted to a stop in Turn 6, where his gallery was still buzzing over the pass of Marcis. From the stands streamed a trail of kids who weren't even born the last time Dan Gurney drove, and they latched onto him as if he were a Pied Piper, to the bewilderment of Dan's five-year-old son Alexander, who had run down and was now swept along with them. The crowd cheered until Gurney climbed to the top of a motor home. He stood there wearing that huge, optimistic, Gurney grin as they cheered him still.