Dan Gurney died Sunday at age 86, and to say that he lived a full life would be an enormous understatement. He wasn’t just one of the world’s most prolific racing drivers, or the namesake of the Gurney flap and the Gurney bubble. He even started the tradition of spraying champagne on the podium. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here are the incredible things Gurney did that revolutionized the sport itself.
Gurney wasn’t just an incredible racing talent, as the first racer to win in NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCar. (And, by the way, only one of three people to do that, ever.) He also started the All American Racers team, whose recent contributions to vehicular history include the bizarre but deeply fascinating DeltaWing and GT-R LM Nismo endurance race cars and the legs of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
While Gurney left as head of AAR in 2011, starting a race shop that’s now helping humans explore space is not a bad legacy to leave behind. Here are all of the the other major reasons we’re glad this incredible achievement-bot of a racer was around for 86 fruitful years.
All American Racers started in 1966, but one of their earliest projects was one of their most legendary.
After Enzo Ferrari refused to relinquish control of his racing team to Ford in a possible company sale, Ford was out to “beat his ass” (reportedly an actual quote by Henry Ford II) by besting Ferrari on Ferrari’s home turf: Le Mans. So, that’s what they did with the GT40, nabbing a 1-2-3 podium finish in 1966.
But that wasn’t enough. Dan Gurney’s All American Racers team was brought in to run the car in 1967. AAR helped refine the still-rough Ford GT40 into the Mark IV variant, which Gurney and A.J. Foyt drove in 1967. To date, these Le Mans runs are some of the most famous and storied moments in all of American racing.
One problem: Gurney’s helmeted 6'4" body didn’t quite fit in the car, and thus, the Gurney bubble was invented to allow space around his head. The smooth bubble fit over the driver’s head to allow Gurney enough headroom to race.
Gurney and A.J. Foyt took the new Ford GT40—bubble and all—to victory at both the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year. It was part of a four-year streak of GT40 dominance at Le Mans, and four years in a row of winning the World Sportscar Championship. Gurney and Foyt’s run was also the first time an American driver and car combination won at Le Mans.
It’s always fascinating to learn who popularized different post-race celebrations. Long before we had donuts and shoeys, Dan Gurney started the now-ubiquitous habit of spraying anyone with reach of the podium with celebratory champagne.
After winning Le Mans in 1967, Gurney was handed a magnum of champagne and just couldn’t help himself. Gurney explained, as quoted on the All American Racers website:
I was so stoked that when they handed me the Magnum of Moët et Chandon, I shook the bottle and began spraying at the photographers, drivers, Henry Ford II, Carroll Shelby and their wives. It was a very special moment at the time, I was not aware that I had started a tradition that continues in winner’s circles all over the world to this day.
The bottle was initially given to Life photographer Flip Schulke, who captured the madness before ducking from the spray and proudly displayed it in his home for many years. But given how the champagne spray went viral long before “going viral” was a thing, Schulke eventually gave it back to Gurney and the All American Racers shop.
Dan Gurney also did something no other American driver in an American-built race car has done outside of the Indianapolis 500: win a Formula One race. Gurney’s team was the Anglo-American Racers for his F1 run due to the British Weslake V12 they used, but the Eagle Mk. 1 car itself was built in America, as Gurney’s team’s own design.
Shortly after winning Le Mans, Gurney won the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix at the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. Of course he did the thing with the champagne again.
1967 was a pretty good year for America, thanks in no small part of Gurney’s racing. American-based Team Penske later won an F1 race in 1976, but with a British-built car. Of course, we’re still waiting for the more recent American F1 entrants at Haas to beat Gurney’s lone win at Spa with an American behind the wheel. Ahem.
Do you like not getting a face full of soot, rocks, bugs and who knows what else when you’re racing? And not having your nose charred if your car catches fire? Yet again: thank Dan Gurney.
Gurney wasn’t the first person to wear a full-faced helmet in a race car—that went to Swede Savage, who also raced motorcycles. But Gurney wasn’t far behind, as he told Motorsport Magazine of a rock that became his last straw for an open face:
I was in Frank Arciero’s 4.9-litre Ferrari and I was trying to overtake a car ahead of me which fired a stone from under a rear tyre. It went right through the windscreen. It was more akin to a bullet than a pebble. I thought, “That would’ve really smarted!”
Gurney originally fashioned an impromptu leather mouth guard to help with this, but soon adopted the full-face helmet when he saw dirt-track motorcycle racers using them in Southern California. Bell made the new full-face helmets, which had a fixed visor in place of the goggles auto racers typically wore at the time.
Gurney debuted his full-face helmet at the 1968 Indianapolis 500, and continued to wear it in F1 and at the Nürburgring. While Gurney’s height made him a magnet for flying debris that meant he instantly fell in love with the new technology, it took a while for other racers to catch on—but they did. Now it’s the industry standard for wheel-to-wheel racing, and we’re looking for ways to even go above and beyond the full-face helmet in protecting open-wheel drivers’ heads. Progress!
Gurney’s other namesake contribution to motorsports was as simple as bolting some aluminum right-angle to the trailing edge of a race car’s rear wing, yet it changed the game for aerodynamics.
Driver Bobby Unser complained that AAR’s 1971 USAC car was too slow, per a write-up of the Gurney flap in Motorsport Magazine reprinted on AAR’s website. USAC stood for the United States Auto Club—a governing body which is still operational today but whose main National Championship series in 1971 was the precursor to modern-day IndyCar. Within 45 minutes of Unser’s complaint, Gurney tacked on a little flap to the back of the rear wing, which had been inspired by some experiementation Ferrari had been doing with spoilers.
The Gurney flap worked so well that Unser then complained of too much understeer from the extra downforce at the rear, forcing Gurney’s team to modify the front of the car to match. Later, McDonnell-Douglas utilized the concept for lift on aircraft, and other race teams started to copy it.
What it does is simple: airflow behind the flap forms a pair of vortices that deflect air going over the wing-and-flap combo downwards, creating precious downforce that sucks the rear of the car to the ground and allows for faster cornering speeds if the front aerodynamics are a good match.
Adding a Gurney flap is still a simple, inexpensive aerodynamic tweak used by racers today.
In the seventies, the series that predated what is now known as IndyCar was run by the United States Auto Club (USAC), based in Speedway, Indiana, and had an all too familiar problem, as Gurney explained, as quoted by Gordon Kirby:
Indy was the hub around which the USAC championship revolved. The tradition at Indy was to have one race a year and it was a big one that paid a great purse and had tremendous history. It was just a great event. At the time it was far and away the biggest in the world of racing. Maybe Le Mans came close, but Indy was the big one.
USAC was a child of the Speedway. USAC was there to run the month of May and it also was allowed to have its own additional other races that made up the national championship series. That was fine, not a problem, but the rest of the championship series was bogged down. It didn’t have any leadership and was more or less derelict.
There was not much linkage between all the other races and the Indy 500. The rest of the races were sort of orphans that nobody paid attention to. Nor had anybody heard the word marketing. The waters were stagnant.
You can’t run the business of a racing team with just one big race a year and the rest of them are a bunch of losers, unless you’re doing it as a hobby and not as a real business.
USAC—much like IndyCar today—desperately needed some love and attention for its non-Indy 500 races. The USAC National Championship series lacked a television contract, a bigger purse and a series sponsor—some of the most basic elements that help a modern-day racing series attract quality teams and function at the most basic levels.
So, Gurney called for the formation of a separate entity to take over the season operations as a whole—one whose focus wouldn’t be primarily May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gurney’s famous 1978 “white paper” laid the foundation for a complete shake-up of American open-wheel racing.
You can read Gurney’s paper in full here, but it called for the formation of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (or CART, for short) group, inspired somewhat by the Formula One Constructors Association that helped raise F1 to prominence.
CART worked with the USAC sanctioning body starting in 1979, and was better able to lobby on behalf of top-level American open-wheel teams for car and engine rules as well as a financial package that kept teams happy. It helped—for a while.
Sadly, CART never quite lived up to Gurney’s expectations, however, as Gordon Kirby notes that Gurney believed that the original TV package CART got in 1979 wasn’t up to par. The relationship between CART and IndyCar later deteriorated to the point where the two entities split in the mid-1990s, fragmenting the American open-wheel audience. Even after merging back into IndyCar, the damage had been done.
So, here we are again with the same issue Gurney railed against in his 1978 white paper. IndyCar is once again based in and focused squarely on Speedway, Indiana. The series does May in Indiana really, really well but the rest of the season seems to fly under the radar.
Perhaps we need another Dan Gurney to shake things up again with a radical idea and get the full schedule of American open-wheel racing the respect and attention it deserves.
As a team owner, Gurney’s AAR drivers came up with one of the most dominant cars in IMSA history: the Toyota Eagle Mark III. The Eagle Mark III was powered by a Toyota 2.1-liter turbo four cylinder engine that made over 750 horsepower in race trim.
AAR’s IMSA GTP cars had evolved out of one of Porsche’s ultra-dominant Le Mans cars, per Mulsanne’s Corner. Yet in 1990, it was clear that they could do so much more by starting from a clean sheet, and the Eagle Mark III was born. It was the team’s first carbon fiber monocoque—something that sounds standard today but was cutting-edge in the early nineties.
Its dramatically different aerodynamics were initially criticized by other IMSA competitors until they helped the car lay waste to them all. Gurney told Racer:
They said our air inlets on the front were too big. They didn’t realize what it was doing. Just generally they were negative about it. Most of the “experts” didn’t realize what we were doing aerodynamically and still don’t. If he had realized, and saw what happened even in that first race, it was the beginning of the end for the rest of those guys.
Those big air inlets were a major part of the car’s cooling system, feeding into the side-mounted radiators, Fox Sports notes. Yet that huge intake also doubled as a front wing, adding crucial downforce to the front of the car. Gigantic under-body ground-effect tunnels provided the car with even more downforce at speed.
Its record speaks to just how revolutionary the Eagle Mark III was. It won the drivers’ and constructors’ championships in both 1992 and 1993, thanks in part to an incredible winning streak of 17 races in a row.
While this is perhaps something Car and Driver gave Gurney more so than something he himself brought to the world, there’s no doubt that the “Dan Gurney for President” stickers were a hit.
Then-Car & Driver Editor-in-Chief David E. Davis made a compelling case for letting Gurney represent all of car-kind in their May 1964 issue, as reprinted on AAR’s website:
Who could possibly be better suited to champion our cause than Daniel Sexton Gurney? He goes like the wind. He can drive anything better than most anybody. He has the enduring love of 300,000 fans at Indianapolis. His name inspires countless stock car partisans in the Southeast. He is the patron saint, of American sports car racing. European GP aficionados speak his name in the most reverent tones imaginable. He has become a legend in his own time.
At that point, Gurney had already won two F1 grands prix for Porsche and the first two races of the five he won at Riverside International Raceway in NASCAR. His tendency to race whatever he could get his hands on won respect from racing fans of many different genres, so the campaign stuck.
Let’s be honest: he probably would’ve been better than Nixon.