I'll go ahead and admit my bias right up front. Like most kids in America, I grew up with a healthy dose of hero worship for stick-and-ball players. It was Willie Stargell, Dr. J, David Thompson, Lynn Swan and a few others that captured my imagination in the late 1970s.
I worshipped what they did, the things they accomplished in their respective sports. As motor racing started to overtake my sensibilities in the latter portion of the 70s, new heroes emerged.
Mario Andretti was the first. His Formula One World Championship in 1978 was celebrated in the Pruett household like we'd won the lottery, and as my father taught me more about the legends who came before Mario, more heroes were added to my list.
Jim Clark was my dad's hero, as was Carroll Shelby. It's a bit predictable, but they soon became my favorites, too. He also spoke with reverie for Dan Gurney, but not to the same lengths as Clark and Shelby, and I'm guessing something about that slight inequality piqued my interest.
If my passion for Clark, Shelby and Andretti was a byproduct of a son marveling at the men his father worshipped, Gurney was my own.
As I asked more about him and read whatever I could find, he and his band of demi-gods at All American Racers took center stage on my personal list of greats. And as Daniel Sexton Gurney turns 82 years old today, I don't mind gushing about one of my American heroes.
He was a peerless driver, with wins in everything from F1 to NASCAR to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He made his F1 debut in 1959, driving for Enzo Ferrari. Then he won Porsche's one and only Grand Prix as a constructor in 1962. That would be enough for most people in one lifetime, but Gurney was only getting started. As an engineer and designer, his creations won in F1, multiple Indy 500s, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and sports car championships in addition to delivering an endless list of other accomplishments and innovations.
His 1972 Eagle Indy car made the biggest single leap in speed in Indianapolis history—17 mph faster than the previous best.
Gurney's history and accomplishments at the Indy 500:
He's even credited with uncorking and spraying the first celebratory bottle of champagne on the podium during his win at the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he drove a Ford GT40 with none other than A.J. Foyt.
Most of Gurney's entries into the history books concluded by the late 1990s, but his AAR outfit, which keeps itself busy today with production of Alligator Motorcycles, not to mention a few defense contracts, sent a quiet reminder in 2012 that it was still at the cutting edge of racecar design and manufacturing.
Despite the fanfare and marketing claims made by Nissan, it was Gurney's southern California shop that turned Ben Bowlby's DeltaWing from a concept into the actual car that raced at Le Mans. Plenty took credit for funding it or powering it, but the car came to life on the same shop floor that's delivered countless motorized marvels.
Driver, designer, engineer, team owner and entrant. Few have reached the top of a single profession or discipline, yet Gurney ticks the box in all five categories.
It's easy to admire a driver for his singular excellence behind the steering wheel, but for me, the likes of a Dan Gurney, who could win a car of his own design, that he engineered, owned and entered, moves the bar beyond reach.
Gurney's achievements are well known and often celebrated, including his famous win at the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix in his Eagle-Weslake, but his character—the man behind the name and reputation—has always been more impressive.
As much as Gurney put his brilliant mind to work on his cars and creations, he was inclusive in his hiring practices at a time when the Civil Rights movement polarized the country. Jochen Rindt's qualifying photo for the 1967 Indy 500 shows the future F1 world champion, Gurney and the AAR team, including crew member Hardy Allen, whose dark hue held no significance to his boss but was a rarity on pit lane.
Gurney worked with British designers and engineers in the early days, and years later, the 1989 Eagle IMSA GTP car bore the initials 'HF89' in deference to its primary designers—the 'F' was taken from the last name of Hiro Fujimori.
One of the HF89's drivers, Willy T. Ribbs, was a longtime AAR driver who won numerous races for Gurney in the fearsome turbo Toyota Celica and would go on to break Indy's color barrier in 1991, becoming the first African-American driver to compete in the great race.
All American Racers was just as its name implied—a melting pot of American talent and ideals.
To my continual and utter amazement, I've become friends with Dan Gurney. They say you should never meet your heroes, and I'll admit that I feel like a 5-year-old staring up at Santa Claus whenever we speak, but he's never disappointed.
He's sent the nicest cards thanking me for articles he felt I got right, and chided me when I've gotten them wrong. His level of honesty is remarkable, positive or negative, and you always know where you stand.
If there's a perpetual gift Gurney continues to give, it's that he's maintained his optimism and curiosity in a sport where both start to decline in men half his age. He continues to wave the American flag with pride and does so in a tranquil, dignified manner. He also continues to inspire those of us who gravitate towards the Big Eagle for wisdom and perspective.
If you're looking for a new racing hero with substance, style, smarts and humility, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than DSG, who, coincidentally, .
Happy 82nd, Dan.