Dan Gurney the Champagne Racer

black and white photo of Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham
Gurney (right) with Jack Brabham – photo by Harry Pot

Dan Gurney is best known as being the first racer to spray champagne after winning a race. Wait, no, that wasn’t it. He’s best known for being the first racing driver to wear a full-face helmet. No, that’s not it either. Maybe he’s best known for inventing the Gurney Flap, or being the tallest professional racing driver (6’ 4”). Dan Gurney is known for a lot of things. He’s one of only three drivers to win in Sports Cars, Formula One, Indy Car, and NASCAR. The other two are Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya. He was also a successful team owner winning over 78 races. But just who is Dan Gurney? He comes from Port Jefferson, NY, but his history is woven in and out with several well-established and better-known veterans. 

Catching Ferrari’s Eye

a grainy black and white photo of the start of the 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans
The start of the 1958 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans – photo from https://live.staticflickr.com/4356/36419241582_3202ea9284_b.jpg

Gurney started earning his reputation by testing a car that both Carol Shelby and Ken Miles had trouble controlling. The Maserati powered Ferrari was a handful to drive. Yet, Gurney finished second behind Shelby at the inaugural 1957 Riverside Grand Prix, catching the eye of Ferrari, who offered Gurney a Ferrari 250 TR for the 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans. Gurney got the #18 3 liter V12 up to fifth overall, but his co-driver wrecked on lap 65, ending their bid. You can see the start of the race here. Despite their DNF, Ferrari would offer Gurney a seat with Scuderia Ferrari in Formula 1.

Going to Formula 1

Dan after a fatal accident at the 1960 Dutch GP – photo by Harry Pot / Anefo – http://proxy.handle.net/10648/a9b11050-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84

Gurney joined Ferrari for the 1959 season but only raced in four races that season. A radiator failure led to a DNF on lap 12 of his first race at the French Grand Prix. He rebounded by getting podiums in his next two races (a 2nd and 3rd) as well as a 4th place finish at Ferrari’s home race in Monza. After disagreements with team management, Gurney joined BRM alongside Graham Hill for the 1960 season. Unfortunately, it was a dismal season with only one finish; a 10th place finish at Silverstone. Gurney later joined Porsche for the 1961 F1 season finishing every race that year, including three 2nd place finishes at France, Monza, and Watkins Glen. He ended the season tied for third in the driver’s championship with 21 points alongside Stirling Moss.

a silver 1961 Porsche 718 F1 car
A 1961 Porsche 718 F1 car – photo by OlliFoolish

Porsche Leaves F1

Gurney returned to Porsche for the 1962 season scoring their first and only win in F1 at the French Grand Prix. Porsche would later leave F1 due to rising expenses. Gurney followed his first F1 win up with a 3rd place podium at the Nurburgring but would fall to 5th in the Drivers Championship. Dan joined the Brabham Racing Organisation racing alongside Jack Brabham for the 1963 season. The team saw modest success finishing third in the Constructors Championship with Gurney racking up three podium finishes and 19 points. Gurney returned with Brabham for the 1964 season, collecting two more wins, one in France again, and one in Mexico. Gurney had his best season to date with Brabham in 1965, getting on the podium in the final five races of the season and collecting 25 points.

a black and white photo of the 1963 Dutch GP
The 1963 Dutch GP where Gurney finished 2nd – photo by Harry Pot

Here Come the Americans

a blue Eagle MK1 F1 car
The Eagle MK1 – photo by John Chapman (Pyrope)

Gurney left Brabham for the 1966 season joining the All American Racers or Anglo American Racers that he and Carrol Shelby created a year earlier. Unfortunately, their debut season didn’t go well, but Gurney still managed a pair of 5th place finishes in France and Mexico. He collected the team’s first victory the following year, winning at Spa. Gurney also finished 3rd in Canada; unfortunately, those are the only two races he finished that year.

Things wouldn’t get much better for the 1968 season as Gurney failed to get on the podium but had a 4th place finish at the US GP. Gurney skipped the 1969 season and joined McLaren for a few races in 1970, notching a 6th place finish in France. His 86 Grand Prix starts ranks third for American F1 drivers, and his four wins are second among American drivers behind only Andretti.

Endurance Racing

Gurney Drives for Europe

As mentioned above, Gurney gained international attention by getting his Ferrari 250 TR to 5th place in the 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans before his co-driver binned it after 7 hours. He returned to Le Mans for Ferrari in 1959, setting the quickest laps in practice. Gurney opened up a 40 second lead over Stirling Moss before the Ferrari experienced engine troubles dropping back to second. The engine eventually went ending their bid at 10 hours. That same year, Dan Gurney won the 1959 12 Hours of Sebring with co-driver Phill Hill in the same Ferrari 250 TR. 

For the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, Dan joined Jaguar piloting their modified E-Type. Again he was fastest in practice, but a head gasket failure led to a 10th-hour retirement. For the 1960 12 Hours of Sebring, he raced a Maserati Tipo 61 alongside Sterling Moss. However, engine failure led to them dropping out before the race even began. In the 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans, Gurney joined Porsche behind the wheel of a 1961 Porsche RS61 Coupe. Gurney got the Porsche up to 5th place but again experienced engine failure, this time at hour 23. He experienced similar failures at Sebring, but this time a clutch failure ended his race.

a red 1962 Ferrari 330 LMB
1962 Ferrari 330 LMB – photo by Mr.choppers

Gurney Goes Back to Ferrari

In 1962, Dan Gurney went back to Ferrari again, piloting a Ferrari 250 TR. This time, he only made it four hours into Le Mans before gearbox issues forced his retirement. Gurney would see some success that year winning the inaugural 3 Hours of Daytona (before it became a 24-hour race) behind the wheel of a Lotus 19 Climax. He also piloted a Porsche 356 Carerra Abarth GTL to a 7th overall finish at Sebring and 1st in his class. Gurney again drove a Ferrari in the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans, but this time, it was a Ferrari 330 LMB, and it was with the North American Racing Team. Unfortunately, it was the same result, a broken gearbox on hour 10 resulted in a DNF after getting up to 3rd. 

Gurney Joins Forces with Carrol Shelby

a blue 1964 Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe with white stripes
A 1964 Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe – photo by User:Jaydec

Dan Gurney teamed up with Carrol Shelby in 1963 to go endurance racing. In February of that year, Gurney drove an AC Cobra at Daytona but experienced ignition issues resulting in a DNF. He drove a Shelby Cobra in March at Sebring finishing 29th overall and 5th in his class. 1964 would prove to be a pivotal year for both Carrol Shelby and Dan Gurney. Gurney improved at Daytona that year (now a 2,000 km race), finishing 4th in a Shelby Cobra. He also had a better finish at Sebring placing 10th overall and 5th in his class. Shelby unveiled the Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe that year, and Gurney finally finished a race at Le Mans in that car. Gurney and Bob Bondurant finished the race in 4th place but 1st in their class ahead of a gaggle of Ferraris and Porsches.

In 1965, Ken Miles drove the new Ford GT40 at Sebring and Daytona, leaving Gurney in a Lotus 19J Ford. Both times engine failure and oil pump failure ended his race. At the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans, Gurney was again behind the wheel of the Daytona Coupe, but a crankshaft failure led to a DNF at hour 16. Gurney would get his shot in the GT40 with the MKII. His first shot was at the 1966 24 hour race at Daytona, where he finished second behind Ken Miles. At Sebring, Gurney out qualified Miles, and they had a great battle back and forth all race. Unfortunately, Gurney experienced engine failure on the last lap, leading to a Miles victory and a disqualification for Gurney, who attempted to push his car with no lights across the finish line.

All-American Victory

Gurney continued his strong performance by setting the fastest qualifying lap at Le Mans in 1966. He also set the fastest race lap and had a good battle with Miles. Unfortunately, Gurney pushed the car too hard, and a radiator failure led to a DNF on hour18. Gurney skipped Sebring in 1967, and he and co-driver AJ Foyt would experience connecting rod failures at Daytona leading to a DNF after 464 laps. Gurney and Foyt would rebound for the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans-winning easily in a GT40 MKIV a full four laps ahead of Ferrari. At this race, Gurney started the champagne spraying tradition. It was the only time an all-American team (driver, car, owner) has won at Le Mans, and It would be Gurney’s last endurance race.

He Goes to Indy

a photo of Dan Gurney and Jim Clark from the 1963 Indy 500
Dan Gurney (above) in the 1963 Indy 500 – photo from https://live.staticflickr.com/1357/1424220729_bf79429e23_z.jpg

Dan Gurney raced at Indianapolis every year from 1962-1970. In 1965, Gurney started 3rd but retired after only 43 laps with timing gear issues. In 1967 he started 2nd after a good qualifying duel with Andretti, who took pole. Gurney lead two laps of the race before experiencing piston failure on lap 160. He had his best finishes in 1968 and 1969, finishing 2nd both years. In 1970, Gurney finished 3rd on his last attempt. Unfortunately for Gurney, he never won at Indy as a driver.

Gurney Drives NASCAR (Sort of…)

the white #28 Holman-Moody car driven by Gurney
Gurney’s #28 Holman-Moody car – photo from https://live.staticflickr.com/455/31371887994_c8ba467f83_b.jpg

Unlike endurance racing or Formula 1, Gurney never really took NASCAR too seriously. He only raced 16 times over a decade, but he dominated at Riverside winning five times. Gurney also raced the Daytona 500 three times, placing a best 5th in 1963.

The Cannonball Run

A 1971 Sunoco blue Ferrari 365 GTB4 Daytona Coupe
A 1971 Sunoco blue Ferrari 365 GTB4 Daytona Coupe – photo from https://live.staticflickr.com/3738/9040249322_25c91d500a_b.jpg

In November 1971, Brock Yates and Dan Gurney entered the 1st (or second depending on who you ask) Cannonball Run. The race ran from New York City to Redondo Beach, CA. Gurney drove a stock 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB4 Daytona Coupe and claimed that at no time did he drive faster than 175 mph (the car’s top speed). Dan won with a time of 35 hours and 54 minutes, a record that stood until 1975.

Gurney, Team Owner

a blue Eagle-Westlake T1G #10
An Eagle-Westlake T1G – photo by Jake Archibald

Dan Gurney and Carrol Shelby found All American Racers (AAR) in 1964 and raced in CART, F1, and Sports Cars. Their Eagle T1G chassis raced in 24 F1 races winning once at Spa with Gurney driving in 1967. They also racked up 22 Indy Car wins, including the 1975 Indy 500 behind the driving of Bobby Unser. AAR also racked up 51 SportsCar Championship wins, including one manufacturer’s championship in 1987. They won the 12 Hours of Sebring two years in a row (‘92-’93) and the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1993. AAR is still the only US Constructor to win an F1 race, the Indy 500, and a SportsCar Championship race.

The Gurney Flap and the Gurney Bubble 

The Gurney Flap on a Porsche 962 rear wing
The Gurney Flap on a Porsche 962 rear wing – photo by The359

Outside of full-face helmets and champagne spraying, Gurney had two unique contributions to racing. One was the Gurney Flap, and the other is the Gurney Bubble. One was to produce downforce, and the other was to fit his 6’4” frame in the tiny GT40. Challenged by Bobby Unser to build a better handling car, Gurney added an upright 90-degree angle at the end of the spoiler. It turns out this little modification increased downforce and traction in the turns while also increasing top speed. The Gurney Bubble (seen below) was a protrusion in the roofline that allowed the 6’4″ Gurney actually to fit inside the GT40.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it, a quick rundown of Dan Gurney, an interesting character with plenty of connections. Whether driving 24 hours at Le Mans or cross country, he was fast. While he never won Indy or Daytona, he still racked up several wins and had a moderately successful F1 career. His race team was also able to find success, and two of his inventions are still in use today. He also gave us champagne spraying, a tradition that lives on.

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