Inarguably one of the most superfluous, unnecessary introductions in history, the tall man with the bemused look stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Dan Gurney.”
Which would have been on par with a large, furry animal sticking out his paw and saying, “Hi, I’m Smokey the Bear.” Yes, of course you are. Who else would you be?
Gurney died Sunday at age 86 from pneumonia. He will be honored in dozens of obituaries, some written by people who no doubt knew him better and longer than we did. But given the fact he retired formally from being a race car driver 48 years ago, there are multiple generations of automotive enthusiasts who are long removed from Gurney’s triumphs.
So it’s worth a real-time reminder of some of the reasons why Dan Gurney was, and is, such a big deal. Here are 10 of them:
1. Gurney was born in a time when the path to becoming a Formula 1 driver wasn’t nearly so restrictive and complicated as it is now. You didn’t have to be half of a two-car team, committed to running the whole season. You could actually show up for a partial season, make a name for yourself, and launch into a respectable career. Then, as now, F1 was populated by mostly European and South American drivers, and Gurney, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Mario Andretti, and a handful of others proved that racers from the U.S. could compete successfully with drivers who had exotic names like Giuseppe Farina and Alberto Ascari. Gurney entered 86 Grands Prix and won four; of domestic drivers, only Andretti won more.
2. Just as important is the fact that Gurney remains the only American to win an F1 race in a car designed and built in America, at his All American Racers shop in Southern California. He and his Eagle won in Belgium in 1967.
3. That win came shortly after he and teammate A.J. Foyt took the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the Ford GT40.
4. Gurney was a pioneer and an inventor in many areas. He worked with fabricator Phil Remington to develop the “Gurney Bubble,” a raised roof for the GT40 that made room for the tall Gurney and his helmet, and he invented the “Gurney Flap,” a small wickerbill on the trailing edge of a race car’s rear wing that helps manage downforce. He was the first F1 and Indy-car driver to use a full-face helmet. Perhaps most important, he was the first to spray champagne in victory lane.
5. Gurney won five times in NASCAR, impressive since he only competed in 16 races. Most of the wins came with the legendary Wood Brothers and occurred at his home track of Riverside International Raceway, the long-extinct California road course. He also won in Trans Am, Can Am and Indy cars; the Indianapolis 500 eluded him, but he finished second there twice.
6. After winning the Cannonball Run in 1971, co-driving with event founder Brock Yates in a Ferrari Daytona that crossed the country in 35 hours and 54 minutes, Gurney reassured those concerned about the safety of the event, which took place on public roads, with one of the greatest quotes ever uttered in the automotive kingdom: “At no time did we exceed 175 mph.”
7. In the 1970s, Indy-car racing was largely controlled by USAC, which seemed far more intent on staging a successful Indianapolis 500 each year than actually formulating a plan for a healthy series that could run a whole season. In 1978, Gurney formulated what is now called his “White Paper,” outlining the need and the structure for a new series, which Gurney even named: CART, short for Championship Auto Racing Teams.
8. When sports car racing fans talk about dominating performances, invariably the topic arises of the All American Racers Toyota Eagle MKIII, and its 1992 and 1993 seasons that won Juan Fangio II dual Camel GT titles. Powered by a comparatively tiny 2.1-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, the car won 21 of the 27 races it entered, including 14 straight with drivers Fangio and P.J. Jones. Among those wins was the car’s final Rolex 24 at Daytona.
9. Due to his height—about six feet, four inches—Gurney was seldom comfortable on motorcycles, so he set out to develop one that differed radically with what was commercially available. He worked on the Alligator for years—tinkering, more than actual serious development—mostly for his own enjoyment, figuring out ways to keep the center of gravity far lower than normal. In 2002 he cranked out a limited-edition run of just 36, because that was his car number in the F1 days. They are genuine collectors’ items today.
10. Quietly, All American Racers undertook some serious engineering and prototyping jobs over the years for a variety of clients, including the U.S. government. One of the highest-profile was the assignment to develop and build the DeltaWing, the bizarre sports car racer with the ultra-narrow front end that no one believed would succeed, except for designer Ben Bowlby, who was working for Chip Ganassi Racing at the time. Though the project is identified with Bowlby and its financier, American Le Mans Series founder Don Panoz, it was Gurney, his sons, and their staff at AAR who actually built the first DeltaWing, proved its concept, and raced it at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.