By Dean Larson

Motorsport icon Daniel Sexton Gurney passed away on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018 in Newport Beach, California, due to complications from pneumonia. Gurney was born on April 13, 1931; he was 86 years old.

Dan Gurney was not stitched together from the same material as you and I. At nearly 6 foot 4 inches tall with a constant handsome grin, he was physically impressive, but it was really the content of Gurney’s character, both on and off the track, that enshrined him as the hero of American motorsport. Such was Gurney's reputation that the sensational phrase "Dan Gurney for President" gathered mass support from race fans and media, despite Gurney being too young at the time to actually qualify for office. It seems that Gurney left behind a winning record, die-hard fans and an unmatched respect from rivals in every form of motorsport he tried his hand at.

Gurney was born in Port Jefferson, New York, but it was the hot-rodding culture of the West Coast that hooked him after his family moved to Riverside, California. By age 19, Gurney had already made his way to hot-rod mecca, the Bonneville Salt Flats, and hit 138 mph in a roadster he built himself. In the following years, Gurney would hone his driving skills as an amateur sports car and drag racer, and even served two years in the U.S. Army as an artillery mechanic during the Korean War.

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Gurney’s competitive racing career spanned from 1955 to 1970 across many different racing disciplines. He was naturally competitive in just about every form of racing, and scored notable victories in Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, Can-Am, and Trans-Am. In fact, Gurney was the first to ever achieve victories in all four major forms of auto racing, (Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR and sports cars) a feat only matched since by Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.

His driving style was like a double-edged sword because it could cut in one of two ways. For the most part, Gurney was noted for being extremely fluid and precise on the track. He also used his brakes more sparingly than other competitors, which paid off during longer races. Gurney also avoided risky moves like blocking, which he saw as unsportsmanlike, even though it cost him a victory in the 1961 French Grand Prix.

“He was always very clean. He would have won more races if he had been a little dirty, but Dan was not a dirty race car driver. He was very good at what he did.” — A.J. Foyt

But when Gurney experienced mechanical issues or was far behind, he was known to adopt a much more aggressive driving style. Some would call these instances the best driving of his career, and a come-from-behind victory in the 1967 Rex Mays 300 after a two-lap deficit seems to prove the point.

With seven victories in each, it’s fair to say that Formula One and IndyCar racing were Gurney’s forte. After mastering the sport behind the wheel for BRM, Porsche and Brabham, Gurney entered into a manufacturer partnership, forming the All American Racers team with Carroll Shelby and Goodyear. British engine manufacturer Weslake came on board for Formula One under the Anglo American Racers name, and the effort precipitated the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix victory. Gurney’s victory in the American-made Eagle Mk 1 still stands as the only victory for an American made car with an all-American driver.

But this is not to say that F1 and IndyCar were his sole focus at the time. The ’67 Belgian victory came just one week after the (somewhat unlikely) team of Gurney and frequent-rival A.J. Foyt raced the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Critics and fellow team members bet that the two competitors would tear their red MkIV GT40 to bits in an effort to outdo one another. But it was Gurney and Foyt who had the silent satisfaction of proving the critics wrong by taking home the victory. When handed a bottle of Champagne after the race, Gurney spontaneously shook the bottle and sprayed everyone in the winner’s circle while wearing the biggest childlike grin. While the tradition has since been honored hundreds, maybe thousands, of times since, none did it quite like Gurney.

As long as the sport involved four wheels and an engine, Gurney was competitive. In NASCAR racing, Gurney racked up five wins at Riverside International Raceway and several other top finishes at events like the Daytona 500 and stock car events. With the All American Racers, Gurney also fielded a team of Plymouth Barracudas for SCCA Trans-Am racing.

Beyond his skill at the wheel, Gurney brought about a handful of innovations in the racing community. The now iconic Gurney bubble, punched into the roof of his GT40s, is a revered tidbit for racing fans and useful addition for any racers of Gurney's height. The Gurney flap (these must have been named by the same people) was a small piece of right-angle stock fastened to the trailing edge of the vehicle that dramatically increased downforce. When competitors asked about the flap, Gurney joked that it made the wing stronger and helped the pit crews push the car. To this day, the Gurney flap is still seen as an effective aerodynamic tweak. Gurney is also one of the first racers to popularize full-face helmets for their improved protection and aerodynamics.

Dan Gurney formally retired from racing in 1970 and devoted himself to running the All American Racers team where he continued to win titles and innovate. ARR won a total of 78 races and eight championships, and had great success with Toyota in IMSA racing. Gurney operated ARR as the chairman and CEO until 2011, when his son Justin assumed the title of CEO.

After complications with pneumonia, Dan Gurney passed away Sunday, Jan. 14. He is survived by his wife, Evi, and his sons Alex, Justin, Danny and Dan Jr.

“With one last smile on his handsome face, Dan drove off into the unknown just before noon today.” — Evi Gurney
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Historic images:

“Jack Brabham | Jim Clark | Dan Gurney (Italy 1963)” by F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/d5hr7p9.

“Dan Gurney (Belgium 1967)” by F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/d6bx62l.

“Dan Gurney (Germany 1968)” by F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/d6ewg1m.

“Dan Gurney (Belgium 1966)” by F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/da72q17.

“Dan Gurney (Monaco 1968)” by F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/d6bx2rn.

“Dan Gurney (Germany 1968)” by F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/d5pjqzn.

“Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Le Mans, France, June 1967” by The Henry Ford licensed under CC BY 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/thehenryford/4930149594.

“Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt, Le Mans, France, June 1967” by The Henry Ford licensed under CC BY 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/thehenryford/4929608687.

“Jack Brabham | Dan Gurney (Netherlands 1964)” F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/d6gf9cu.

“Dan Gurney on his way to winning the 1965 Motor Trend 500” by Dave Friedman licensed under CC BY 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/racinginamerica/4615805280/.

“Dan Gurney driving Plymouth Barracuda race car in Trans-Am Race” by Jack Brady licensed under CC BY 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/racinginamerica/4644415651.

“Dan Gurney (Monaco 1960)” by F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/d5g2gym.

“Dan Gurney (Netherlands 1970)” by F1-History licensed under CC BY 3.0. http://fav.me/d6gv4fl.