Over the weekend the world tragically lost a legend in American Motorsport. Dan Gurney passed away on Sunday due to complications from pneumonia. He was 86.
As the saying goes “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till its gone”. I am sure there are probably more than a few people reading this and are wondering who Dan Gurney was and why was he such a big deal.
Admittedly, he didn’t quite have the same fame or fortune as someone like Mario Andretti or AJ Foyt had. Despite that, his accomplishments were just as great as theirs and then some.
So, I thought I would pay tribute to Dan by educating the uninitiated and sharing just a few of the reasons why Dan Gurney was so awesome.
He was the first driver to win races in Formula One, Indy Car, and NASCAR.
When people think of drivers who have one across the big three motorsport disciplines they tend to automatically think of Mario Andretti. However, Dan Gurney was actually the first driver to pull it off and he did it all in one decade.
The only people to do it since Gurney is the aforementioned Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.
He is the only American citizen to win a F1 race in a car he constructed himself.
Dan Gurney has won a lot of races but easily his most famous win came in 1967 at the Belgian Grand Prix.
At the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, a scary circuit, especially back then, Dan Gurney earned a win while driving the Eagle Gurney chassis with a Westlake-built V12.
No other American racer has ever done this and with the way things are now, it will probably never happen again.
He was the first driver to do the “Champaign spray celebration”.
It seems so commonplace now. Drivers win a race or get on the podium, are handed bottles of champaign and promptly pop the bottles and spray them all over their team mates and crew.
It happens so much that it would be weird if a driver didn’t do that. However, before Dan Gurney, it didn’t happen. He started the tradition after winning the 24 Hours Of Le Mans with A.J. Foyt.
The moment was captured by LIFE magazine photographer Flip Schulke. Dan autographed the bottle and gave it Schulke as a gift.
He invented the “Gurney Flap”, a major enhancement to automotive and aviation aerodynamics.
Dan Gurney was pretty much the Tony Stark of motorsports. He didn’t just drive and win; He also made several innovations that made significant contributions to racing.
One day when fellow American racing icon Bobby Unser was testing a car for Dan, Bobby was complaining about the car not handling well. Dan started experimenting with the car and after about an hour, he fabricated a right angled tab that he affixed to the trailing edge of the rear wing.
The modification added so much downforce that it actually caused the race car to understeer. Adding more downforce to the front end of the car balanced it out allowed the car to have way more traction, allowing for faster cornering speeds.
The Gurney Flap is still used to this day by major race teams all over the world.
He was the first driver to use a full-faced helmet in an F1 race.
Anyone who has studied F1 history knows that the 60s up through the early 80s were some of the most dangerous decades in the sport’s history. Most of the safety innovations that are commonly used today weren’t invented yet or just weren’t used.
Dan, being a safety advocate and a forward thinker wore a full faced helmet at the German Grand Prix in 1968. Before that Drivers wore open faced helmets with driving googles to protect their eyes.
He served two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
Anyone who serves in our military to protect our country is awesome. ‘Nuff said.
He invented a special motorcycle called the Alligator.
In addition to cars, Dan also really liked motorcycles. Though he was about 6’3″ which made it hard for him to find a comfortable seating position when riding.
This inspired him to create a special motorcycle with a low seating position which not only made it more accommodating for tall riders but also lowered the center of gravity for better handling.
He attempted to get major motorcycle OEMs to license his design but none of them bit. So he built an extremely limited run of 36 Alligator bikes. All of them sold out and are considered major collectors items.
The only time I’ve ever seen one in person was at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
He was incredibly friendly.
I could spend all day listing all of Dan’s achievements and contributions to motorsports but I think if you ask the people who knew him they would say the most awesome thing about Dan was his disposition.
I was actually lucky enough to meet him once. It was a really long time ago when I was a kid. I was at the Toyota Grand Prix Of Long Beach and I was in line at the expo for an autograph from Mario Andretti.
What I didn’t know was that Dan Gurney was also giving autographs in the same line, right next to Mario. Despite my age, I was a pretty big motorsports nerd so I knew who Dan was even though other kids in line didn’t.
When I reached him in the line he gave me an incredibly warm smile. He could tell I was excited and he gave me a firm handshake and just made me feel like I was the most important person on the planet. It was a big deal to me and to be honest, I remember that moment much more than meeting Mario Andretti shortly after.
It is amazing to think about all the other people he gave that smile to in his career and all the kids he made feel special. Thank you Dan for letting me be one of them.
Our thoughts are with Dan’s family and friends. There will never be another one like him.
If you want to learn more about Dan Gurney, visit his official website: http://allamericanracers.com/