Dan Gurney, whose storied career as a racecar driver included numerous firsts, and who went on to become equally successful as a team owner and car builder, died on Sunday in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 86.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his company, All American Racers, said in a statement.
When Gurney began driving, only a few Americans competed in the worldwide Grand Prix races in Formula One roadsters. He became one of the most successful.
In 1959, he started driving Grand Prix cars for the Ferrari factory of Italy for $130 a week plus half of his prize and starting money. He earned $7,500 that year. By 1970, when he retired after 15 years of racing, he had won Grand Prix races in France, Mexico and Belgium.
In all, according to All American Racers, Gurney drove in 312 races in 20 countries in 51 makes of cars. He won 51 races, including seven in Indy cars and five in Nascar Winston Cup stock cars (all five in 500-mile races in Riverside, Calif.). He twice finished second in the Indianapolis 500.
Gurney was the first driver to win races in all four of the major motor sports categories: Grand Prix, Indy car, Nascar and sports cars. Only two other drivers, Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya, have achieved that feat since he did.
He was a crowd favorite everywhere. Good-looking and charismatic, he was, Sports Illustrated once said, “the living assurance to every worried mom that hot-rodders do not all grow up bad.”
One measure of his popularity was the “Dan Gurney for President” campaign, begun by Car and Driver magazine in 1964. The campaign was not exactly serious — at 33, Gurney was not yet legally old enough to be president — but it was periodically revived in later election years.
In a profile of Gurney in 1967, The New York Times said: “In the cockpit of his royal blue roadster, wearing a gleaming black helmet and white fireproof racing suit, he looks like a Hollywood version of a Grand Prix driver: handsome, slick, terribly sophisticated. Then he steps out of his car, wearing blue tennis sneakers that are torn, dirty and tired.”
Perhaps the high point of Gurney’s career came that year. In June, alternating with his fellow American driver A. J. Foyt, he won the 24 Hours of LeMans in France in a Ford prototype. It was the first time in that race’s 45-year history that it had been won by an American driver in an American car.
A week after that, Gurney won the Grand Prix of Belgium in a 416-horsepower American Eagle, a car he had designed and built himself. He was the first American in 46 years to win a world championship race in an American car.
Daniel Sexton Gurney was born on April 13, 1931, in Port Jefferson, N.Y., on Long Island, to John Gurney, who sang with the Metropolitan Opera (and who would later sing the national anthem at many races in which Dan competed), and the former Roma Sexton. He told The Times in 2014 that he became fascinated by auto racing as a teenager, when he watched races at Freeport Stadium and became “infected with the virus.”
After he finished high school, his father moved the family to Riverside, Calif. Gurney graduated from Menlo Junior College in Atherton, Calif., and served two years in the Army during the Korean War. He began his racing career shortly after his discharge.
In 1965, Gurney and the driver and designer Carroll Shelby founded All American Racers. The company introduced the Eagle after Gurney envisioned a new Indianapolis 500 car and persuaded Ford to develop the engine and Lotus to build the body. He went on to build different types of Eagles for Indianapolis, Formula One, Formula 5000 and Can-Am races.
Eagle cars won the Indianapolis 500 twice, in 1968 and 1973. In all, cars built by All American Racers won 78 races.
Gurney was also the inventor of the Gurney flap, a performance-improving device that is used on both racecars and aircraft. In 2014 the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., gave him the Edison-Ford medal, which recognizes people who “fully leverage the creative, innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that resides in every one of us.”
Despite the high speeds at which he raced, Gurney considered himself a careful driver. “Race driving is a form of brinkmanship, I suppose,” he told The Times in 1967. “First you use your judgment to determine where the brink is. Then you use your skill to approach the brink and stay at that point.
“It’s sort of like balancing along a cliff,” he continued. “You can walk three or four feet from the cliff and have no problem, but someone closer to the edge can beat you. You need judgment to tell you where the edge of the cliff is and skill to get there and stay within a given safety margin.”
Phil Hill, a rival driver, once suggested that Gurney might have been too careful. “I don’t think he wants to win,” Hill said. “He’s a great driver, but something always goes wrong and it’s not always just mechanical.”
Gurney’s survivors include his wife, Evi; their two sons, Justin and Alex, who are both executives with All American Racers; three sons and a daughter, John, Jimmy and Danny Gurney and Lyndee Gurney-Prazak, from an earlier marriage; and eight grandchildren.
In a 1960 interview with The Times, Gurney recalled that someone had once said to him, “You don’t think about crashing, do you, Dan?”
“Don’t think about it?” he said. “I think about it all the time. That’s the essence of this, isn’t it? To go as fast as you can without getting killed.”
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