Motorsports has been littered with men and women who possessed the talent to drive any kind of vehicle, but there are very few who have been able to do it consistently and win.
Dan Gurney was one of those who did.
It didn’t matter if he was driving the wheels off a bulky stock car at Riverside for the Wood Brothers of NASCAR fame or a sleek Ford GT40 Mark IV sports car developed by Carroll Shelby at Le Mans, Gurney knew what it took to go fast and end up in Victory Lane.
Trying to properly explain the impact Gurney, who passed away yesterday at the age of 86, had on motorsports is difficult because his accomplishments across all forms is so great.
He played an instrumental role in creating one of the most iconic moments in Ford Motor Company’s racing history and in the wake of that started a tradition which continues to this day when he and A.J. Foyt became part of the first, and to this day the only, all-American team to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1967.
The visual of Gurney hopping on the hood after Foyt crossed the finish line to give Ford its second straight victory in the iconic endurance race was only surpassed by the precedent of becoming the first person to spray champagne on the winner’s podium.
All of that came about as Gurney, who became the first driver to win at least one race in Formula One, NASCAR, Indy Car and Sports Cars, was hop-scotching around the globe competing in various forms of racing.
He gained his first Formula One victory in the Grand Prix of France in 1962 and the following year began a streak of four straight wins in the yearly NASCAR road course race at Riverside, driving for Holman-Moody (1963) and the Wood Brothers (1964-66). In 1967, he captured his first IndyCar event at the Riverside, Calif., road course before winning his fifth and final NASCAR event at the same place in 1968.
“Dan was one of the best road racers I’ve ever seen,” said Leonard Wood, a NASCAR Hall of Famer who worked with Gurney during those winning years. “If I was sitting up in the stands by the esses at Riverside and you put 10 different drivers in the car, I could tell you which one was Dan. He would always take the right approach to the turn, and I can’t say enough about how good he was. We had so much fun with him. If you got the car equal to anybody else, you were just home free.
“Everybody told him he looked like he was on a Sunday evening drive out there,” continued Wood. “But he said, ‘You don’t know how hard it is to make it look like that. You’ve got to discipline yourself to back off at the right places.’”
Through the years he became associated with Ford through many different high-profile programs.
He served as the first test driver of the Mustang I concept car and made the initial laps with the prototype at the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International in 1962.
Shortly thereafter, he became the last person to drive 999, which was the second race car built by Ford Motor Company Founder Henry Ford in 1902. Gurney took the car, which was raced competitively by Barney Oldfield in the early 1900s, around the Ford Dearborn test track in 1963 for a few laps before it was retired for good.
And Gurney was also responsible for bringing Colin Chapman and Jim Clark to Ford to help produce the first rear engine IndyCar that led to the manufacturer’s first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1965.
But Gurney’s expertise in racing didn’t just pertain to the driver’s seat, he was an innovator who designed and built cars as well. He is the only American to win a Formula One race in a car he built by himself (1967 Belgian Grand Prix) and was instrumental in designing the closed-faced helmet. In addition, he invented what became known as the Gurney flap, which is a small piece of metal that is attached to the rear wing of a car, increasing downforce.
In recognition of those achievements and others, Gurney was presented with the prestigious Edison-Ford Medal for Innovation by The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich., on Oct. 29, 2014.
That is just one of the many honors Gurney received during his lifetime. He is a member of just about every motorsports hall of fame in the world, and was presented the Spirit of Ford Award in 1999, which is the highest racing honor the company can bestow.
"Dan Gurney epitomized the best of American auto racing,” said Edsel B. Ford II, a member of Ford Motor Company’s board of directors and a close friend of Gurney. “All of us involved in the Ford racing program mourn the loss of this great legend. Dan was a renowned driver and team owner. He was also a celebrated innovator who received the Thomas Edison-Henry Ford Medal for Innovation from the Trustees of The Henry Ford.
“We will always remember his 1967 Le Mans win in the Ford Mark IV, his early testing of the Mustang I prototype, the Ford NASCAR wins with teams like the Wood Brothers and his vision for a Ford Indy car program that brought Colin Chapman and Jim Clark together.
"Dan represented himself and his country with class and dignity in racing events around the world. More importantly, we'll remember that infectious smile, that twinkle in his eye when he told a great story and the love he had for Evi and his sons, Justin, Alex, Dan Jr., Jimmy and Danny. We didn't just lose a motorsport icon, we lost a friend. There may never be another one like him."
Bill Ford, Executive Chairman, Ford Motor Company, echoed that sentiment. “We are deeply saddened about the passing of Dan Gurney,” he said. “His legacy as a racer and innovator may be unmatched in the history of the sport. We are honored that so much of that legacy, including the All American Le Mans victory in 1967, came with Ford. He was a great friend to Ford and respected around the world. We offer our condolences to his wife, Evi, and his family.”
Ford Performance PR