Dan Gurney Was Everything Great About America

The Big Eagle was so much more than a racing driver.

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It means almost too much that Dan Gurney is dead. I was in California when I heard, which is fitting. Dan represented the place. The way California represents—or, depending on who you ask, maybe used to represent, or will forever represent—one of the best parts of the American dream. That enormous and knee-buckling coast, a collection of beauties both astonishing individually and somehow greater than their sum. That raw sense of possibility, chased by virtually everyone who moves there from somewhere else. Like all good places, the state holds a magic that seems to exist outside the rules governing the rest of the world.

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Like Dan. His company, All American Racers, built race cars called Eagles, in Santa Ana. They also engineered countless other gems, from BMX bicycles to government aerospace projects and the revolutionary DeltaWing. The Eagles looked like birds on purpose, their noses feminine and sharp, because Dan figured that race cars should be pretty. (If you have the chance to make something beautiful,” he once told me, “and you don’t, well, what does that say about you?”) He was more than six feet tall, and so friends took to calling him the Big Eagle, as if he were a head of state with a Secret Service code name. At 33, years before the peak of his powers, when racing was a legitimate cultural force, Car and Driver printed bumper stickers putting him up for president.

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Fittingly, Gurney’s tale is as American as it gets. At 19, from ordinary roots and lacking any real resources, he built a car that went 138 mph at Bonneville. A few years later, he found his way to California’s burgeoning road-race scene and sparked off like a Roman candle. Europe beckoned. By the late 1960s, he had ridden a geyser of talent to Formula 1, Le Mans, and the top of the sport. As a driver, he won for Porsche (1962, the marque’s only win to date as a chassis manufacturer) but also himself. The latter, at Spa in 1967, came in a car he helped design and build. It was a feat accomplished by no American before or since. A week later, he won Le Mans in a Ford, sharing the car with A.J. Foyt.

Gurney (R) with AJ Foyt
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The rest of his story has filled books. Gurney was one of the rare fireballs to win in everything he tried, from NASCAR and sports cars to Trans-Am and Can-Am. AAR built groundbreaking Indy cars that helped redefine the possible, guttering yesterday’s genius simply by refusing to believe that conventional wisdom was a stopping point. Dan was the first man to wear a full-face helmet in Formula 1. He drove Cobra Daytona Coupes and developed Toyota GTP cars in the 1990s that made more aerodynamic downforce than any current Indy or F1 car. The 1979 white paper he wrote, on the problems of Indy racing, led to the formation of CART and one of the greatest eras in the sport’s history. To say nothing of a rare moment of sanity in a shortsighted, arrogant industry seemingly bent on shooting itself in the foot. (That paper’s central point: Motorsport exists for the fans, and so people can see gladiators wrestling barely tamed beasts. Produce the beasts and make the wrestling obvious, fans flock. It still seems relevant.) You can burn whole days googling almost every word in the man’s Wikipedia entry and still get only a fraction of the picture.

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But that’s all statistics. On paper, they suggest little more than a competent businessman, a talented engineer, a great driver and manager. History has no shortage of those and a massive shortage of Big Eagles. After that Le Mans win, he invented that bit where drivers spray Champagne on the podium at the end of a race, dousing themselves in joy. You might not know what Le Mans is, but you can imagine how European drivers had politely sipped the stuff for years. You can also imagine how one American decided, in the moment, that joyful sipping was ridiculous.

The distaste for convention seemed boundless. When an idea didn't work—and there were many that didn’t—he kept moving, aiming at the new. He was a relevant, sharp-eyed player in motorsport for almost 50 years. A 1971 Indy invention, the Gurney Flap, bled into the aerospace industry, and he wrote an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics paper, and then they stuck his name on it. In the 1990s, he built and sold a motorcycle that you lie down on, for Pete’s sake. It was called the Alligator. The few people I know who have ridden one say it was great, because of course it was, because why wouldn't that work and who says motorcycles have to be a certain shape anyway?

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There is a vintage poster on my garage wall commemorating that first F1 win; it holds a painting of the car in question but also the man’s beaming face, mouth open, eyes up. I bought it years ago and hung it as a reminder that optimism is like oxygen. There are few photographs of the man when he is not smiling, grin big as Texas, or deep under lowered eyebrows, trying to outthink some stuck problem or moment. Usually while standing next to Phil Remington or Carroll Shelby or some other titan of this country's motorsport diaspora. If you’re going to have a camera pointed at you, there are worse ways to do it.

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Like Shelby, Gurney’s legacy rotates around a razor eye for talent, hiring the best possible people and treating them like family, which meant they stayed in his employ for decades. People like Remington—the engineer who helped develop Shelby’s Cobras and those GT40s—and Len Terry, the designer behind that winning F1 Eagle. Their work all seemed to chase the future almost reflexively, as if to announce that the past is a known quantity, and how dull is that, when we have no idea what could happen tomorrow? Like Gurney’s life, the machines they produced were broad and varied and deeply American, the product of curiosity and optimism about the unknown. From one end of it to the other, he represented the possibility and cheer and raw spark I've always loved about this country. To say nothing of the kindness.

Gurney (R) with Jim Hall
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My friend Jacques Dresang, a Gurney historian, texted me yesterday. “That’s what made AAR successful for so long,” he wrote. “Sure, they had gods crafting cars, but the figurehead was the guy next door who might buy you a bike if you mowed his lawn.”

My friend Mark Hoyer, the editor of Cycle World, came next. “He once brought his lunch to our office,” he said. “A sack of In-N-Out. Always wanted to talk motorcycles and what was next. He was gracious and accommodating and wrote me letters. He laughed every time I talked to him.”

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I made some brief comment to Mark about how this country has a tendency to brew its own royalty from talent. And how the best of those people lack airs, like the early astronauts. Fame gone down-home. There was a pause.

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“There was nothing crass about him. Nothing. I miss that about Americanism.”

Such was Dan’s appeal—a legend for a select group, but never a household name like Mario or Foyt—that, in 2018, you either have zero idea why any of that is stirring, or you hear all of it and want to go find an empty glass just to fill and raise it.

The day he died, AAR sent around a press release. The image was a painting of Dan in the sixties, broad and loose strokes, a flowered wreath around his neck. He looks down, with tousled hair and the kind of soft smile you give someone when you say thanks.

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I found that picture by checking Instagram, on my phone, while riding in a car a short drive north of L.A. It was 3:22 on a Sunday afternoon, a few hours after his death. I had just left a test weekend at Buttonwillow Raceway, where it had been cloudy for three days, and cold—fog, a misting rain, chilly enough that the paddock was a sea of hats and jackets.

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Typical funeral weather. But as we slid onto the Interstate, climbing into the Tehachapi mountains, the sun broke. The sky filtered into that crystalline California blue, big and loud, yellow light crackling over the hills. One of those moments that reminds you how different the place is from everywhere else. It felt warm and heartbreaking and welcoming and bright, like anything was possible. Probably because it was.

Gurney and wife Evi at the Goodwood Revival
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