Dan Gurney: The Most Underappreciated Driver

Paige Michael-ShetleyCorrespondent IOctober 5, 2009

Jim Clark's father told Dan Gurney at his son's funeral that the two-time world champion feared no other competitor more than him.

And for good reason. 

Gurney began his career in 1959, interestingly, with the greatest name in all of Formula 1: Ferrari.

He ran four races with the team, a stint which included second, third, and fourth-place finishes—not a bad start to a Formula 1 career. Over that span, he outscored all of his Ferrari teammates, including 1961 World Champion Phil Hill. 

Ever the independent spirit, Gurney made the perhaps rash decision to leave the team after a very short stint out of dissatisfaction with its management.

Given that Ferrari would go on to win two world driving and Constructors' championships apiece during the remainder of his F1 career, the record books on the driving side likely would read very differently today if he had remained with the Prancing Horse. 

Gruney did an impressive job with the under-performing Porsche team, scoring nearly all of their points in 1961 and 1962. Along the way, he achieved his first grand prix victory in 1962 in the French Grand Prix. Interestingly, it was the last win for a Constructor with declared German nationality until Robert Kubica won the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix. 

After his stint with Porsche, Gurney joined the fledgling Brabham team. Again racing with a team that was behind the pace setters, he nonetheless scored two wins, 10 podiums, and often matched the pace and finished ahead in the championship of drivers in superior cars during the time.

Most impressively, though, he badly outperformed his teammate, three-time world champion Jack Brabham, all three seasons in which he drove for the team. 

Embarking on a dream to form and drive an American car in F1, Gurney left Brabham after the 1965 season. Having already formed the All-American Racers team with motorsports legend Carroll Shelby in 1964, the two brought the team to F1 in 1966 under the banner of Anglo American Racers.

The team entered the "Eagle" chassis, initially powered by the uncompetitive Coventry Climax engine in its debut season. 

The team received a major engine upgrade in the middle of the 1966 season, partnering with English power plant builder Westlake to run its engines in the car.

It was during this season that Gurney scored one of the most legendary victories in all of auto racing in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix, beating the likes of Jackie Stewart and spa-master Jim Clark in a straight fine. Gurney became only the second driver to win a race in a car of his own construction. 

Gurney's full-time F1 career lasted only one more season, which didn't live up to the rest of his grand prix career.

AAR ran out of money in 1968 and could no longer compete with the best teams. He scored his only points finish of the season in the U.S. Grand Prix in a customer McLaren M7A chassis. Gurney returned for a brief three-race stint in 1970 driving for McLaren, in which he scored a sixth-place finish in the French Grand Prix. 

The AAR period is that which is best remembered of Gurney's racing career, symbolized by one of the most iconic motorsport images of all time: the simply gorgeous midnight blue Eagle-Westlake T1G car with the white racing stripe down the middle. This livery has since been popularized on a vast number of American production sports cars, particularly by Ford. 

Enhancing the impressiveness of Gurney's F1 accomplishments is the fact that he competed with a striking physical disadvantage for a grand prix driver: his height.

Standing at a striking 6'3", he was much taller than most grand prix drivers, which complicated issues for his teams both in fitting him in the cockpit and in compensating for his natural weight disadvantage. 

As most top racing drivers of the world did at the time, Gurney participated in a number of different categories and styles of racing aside from F1. His resume in such categories reads like one of the all time greats. 

With his AAR team, Gurney scored seven wins, nine additional podiums, and 10 poles in his 30 race career in the USAC Championship Cars series—the original form of Champ Car and IRL.

He also scored two second-place finishes and a third-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 with AAR in the last three years in which he participated in the race. 

Gurney used his road racing prowess to score five wins in the 17 races he ran in NASCAR, all of which came at Riverside International Raceway. Additionally, he scored a top five finish in the biggest stock car race of them all, the Daytona 500, in 1963. 

Capping Gurney's record are his achievements in the other top category of tarmac racing—sports cars.

Teaming with A.J. Foyt—a combination that quite frankly sentenced the rest of the field to a gloomy fate—in the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, the two won the greatest race of them all by four laps in the Ford GT40 chassis. Gurney also scored victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Nurburgring 1000km. 

Perhaps no racing driver in history has accomplished as much with so little as Daniel Sexton Gurney. There is, in fact, great justification for calling him the greatest who ever lived.

Yet, Gurney mysteriously receives so little recognition for all he accomplished. The fact he is not popularly mentioned in the same sentence as the other greats of racing history is, frankly, criminal. 

Part of the problem is, tragically, Gurney's own fault. The situation would likely be very different if he hadn't made possibly the worst decision in racing history in 1959. 


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