Daniel Sexton Gurney, who died yesterday at age 86, was motor racing’s soul.
Its most celebrated star of the 1960s, its defining voice and mind for all the decades that followed, his personal contributions to the sport as a driver, innovator, employer, and founder of All American Racers have never been surpassed.
He was our compass in the sport, it’s fiercest defender and most respected critic. Dan was our first phone call when a new concept or significant rule change was announced; his thoughts on the topic mattered more than those who came up with the idea.
Well into his 80s, Dan remained a visionary without peer, the unreachable standard for those who dream of emulating his life and career.
All of this in one man.
For many like myself who worshipped the Big Eagle, he was simply referred to as ‘our hero.’ No confusion with any of the other greats he raced, no need to mention his name; ‘our hero’ was the designation reserved exclusively for Dan.
To his eternal embarrassment, it was Dan’s gravitational pull that left billionaires, Indy 500 winners and world champions standing in awe.
There was Dan, racing’s humble giant, and the rest who basked in his shadow.
We cherish Dan’s Le Mans victory, Formula 1 wins, IndyCar wins, Can-Am wins, and NASCAR wins like they were our own. As a constructor with AAR, it was the Indy 500 victories along with the open-wheel and IMSA wins and championships in GTO and GTP that made us beam with pride. More recently, it was the original DeltaWing, created in the same Santa Ana shop where the late Phil Remington shaped metal and produced cars with his knowing hands.
And it’s the other projects, many kept quiet, barring AAR’s acknowledged role in manufacturing the legs for Elon Musk’s reusable Space X rockets, that kept the company at the forefront of technology. How fitting. Musk, today’s great transportation pioneer, looked to Dan—his personal blueprint—for a solution to deliver the impossible.
Set among his fellow legends, the Andrettis, Foyts, Unsers and more will readily admit Dan was the center of our solar system. He was the best of us, brighter than the rest, his curiosity kept sharp by constant searching for something lighter, faster, or more efficient. Long after most his age lost the spark, Dan kept his engine alight.
Among his many admirable convictions, Dan’s commitment to equality served as a beacon during an era where nationality or the color of a man's skin could lead to exclusion from the sport. The late Hardy Allen, a richly hued African-American mechanic, refueler, and parts specialist, was hired by Dan while the fight for civil rights raged throughout the country. The message sent by Dan, at a time when men like Allen weren’t welcome in racing’s garages and pit lanes, was clear and spoke to his immense character. The two became great friends, with Dan professing his admiration for Hardy and all ways the Allen family enriched his world.
Of the team members, engineers, designers, and drivers who represented AAR, every conceivable ethnicity and country of origin was represented. We remember Dan for his vehicular achievements, but taking a stand for what’s right—going against the racist grain—deserves more praise than it’s received.
His Hollywood looks, that grand and giving smile. And that basso laugh, always at the ready, the perfect punctuation added into so many conversations. Who else will keep us in check, pointed in the right direction, and seal it with that trademark smile?
It’s time to grab a bottle of champagne, shake it with vigor, and point it towards the sky as a salute to the Big Eagle on his final flight.
Farewell to our hero.