Gurney, Dan(iel) Sexton

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GURNEY, Dan(iel) Sexton

(b. 13 April 1931 in Port Jefferson, Long Island, New York), outstanding multifaceted auto driver who had an equally illustrious second career as a race car manufacturer and team owner.

Gurney is the son of John Gurney, a Metropolitan Opera star with a bravura singing style who shaped his son's larger-than-life personality, and Roma Sexton, who enjoyed entertaining and traveling. Gurney attended high school on Long Island, New York, and following his graduation his family relocated to Riverside, California. There he developed his racing skills by twisting, turning, and "gunning" his way through the orange groves of Southern California. Gurney attended and graduated from Menlo Junior College. Establishing his competitive persona, he successfully drag raced in California during his college years. After graduation he served for two years, 1952–1954, with the U.S. Army, spending much of that time in Korea. Gurney began his racing career at the relatively advanced age of twenty-four. As befits someone who was buoyed by racing internationally, his first official road-racing vehicle (1955) was not an American racer but a quintessentially British roadster produced by Triumph in England known as the TR2. Following his initial U.S. race victory in 1958, Gurney signed a contract to drive sports cars for the famous Italian race firm Ferrari. He then joined the giant German automobile manufacturer Porsche and enjoyed a sensational 1961 season. He was runner-up in the 1961 World Driver's Championship. The following year Gurney again drove for Porsche. While it was a disappointing season for Porsche, the company's solitary shining moment was Gurney's victory in the French Grand Prix.

In the 1960s Gurney finished in the top five in the World Driving Championship on four occasions. However, the fact that he drove himself and his engines in an unforgiving manner undoubtedly caused engines to blow up, and mechanical problems plagued his career. He alternately sparkled and struggled in European Formula One racing, and his Indianapolis 500 resumé from 1962 to 1970 experienced similar vicissitudes. In 1968, 1969, and 1970 he finished second, second, and third at Indy. However, on five other occasions, he failed to finish the race.

Even during this period, the 1960s and the early 1970s, Gurney had a considerable impact on auto racing's technical side. His competitive Indianapolis 500 finishes were in racing cars he designed. His conviction that rear-engine automobiles could and would win at Indy inspired Ford Motor Company to invest heavily in developing the then radical and controversial rear-engine Lotus Fords. As a result of Gurney's vigor and vision, these same Lotus Fords, sadly not driven by Gurney, won the big race five times between 1965 and 1973.

Not content with establishing himself as America's best-known Formula One driver, Gurney returned to Riverside and took up stock car racing. He had a nearly perfect sequence of Motor Trend 500 race triumphs from 1963 to 1968. The year 1967 was especially memorable for Gurney. He designed his own race car, the Eagle. He won the Race of Champions, the Belgian Grand Prix (driving his Eagle), and the Le Mans twenty-four-hour race with the legendary A. J. Foyt, and Gurney triumphed in his initial U.S. Automobile Club (USAC) championship race. G. N. Georgano, the editor of Encyclopedia of Motor Sport (1971), underscored Gurney's astonishing versatility when he wrote that Gurney was the "first driver to win championship races in all four major categories: Formula One, Sports cars, Stock cars and Indianapolis cars."

By the time Gurney retired from active racing in 1970, the depth and range of his racing achievements marked him as one of America's greatest auto racers. The Michigan Motorsport Hall of Fame celebrates a driver with a fifteen-year career who "raced in 303 events in 20 countries with 25 different makes of cars, winning 48 races and finishing on the podium an additional 41 times! … He claimed 32 career poles and started on the front row of the grid an additional and astonishing 58 times!"

Ralph Hickok, in A Who ' s Who of Sporting Champions (1995), described Gurney as "a sort of renaissance man of American auto racing." In 1964 Gurney entered the world of auto racing design and management when he and Carroll Shelby founded All-American Racers. Gurney became sole owner in 1967, and a year later Gurney's Eagle racing cars were first, second, and fourth in the Indianapolis 500. Gurney was one of the original founders of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), and he coined the acronym. At Le Mans in 1967 he became the first winning driver to shake a champagne bottle and spray spectators and fellow drivers with "victory fizz." In 1971 he invented the Gurney Flap, a wickerbill, and he pioneered the use of a full-face helmet for Indy and Grand Prix driving. He was a cofounder of the Long Beach Grand Prix in California in 1974, and he served on its board of directors for twenty-four years.

An avid reader of political and military history, Gurney also delights in opera, good cigars, and old movies. He had four children in his first marriage. In 1970 he married Evi. They had two children and settled in Newport Beach, California. Gurney was inducted into the Indianapolis Speed-way Hall of Fame. Traditionally stellar American drivers have stayed within the borders of the United States. Gurney's passion for racing made him unequivocally at the time America's most cosmopolitan driver. He loved to race both in the United States and overseas. The international racetrack was his home. Gurney was lionized for his gregarious personality, his driving persona, and his racing style that took cars to their technical limits.

The Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi is an excellent source of updated Web pages and other publicity source materials concerning Dan Gurney; one of the best websites is <>. John L. Evers contributed a meticulous entry on Gurney in David L. Porter, Biographical Dictionary of American Sports (1988). G. N. Georgano, Encyclopedia of Motor Sport (1971), includes a thorough accounting of Gurney's driving career. Shorter pieces on Gurney are in John Arlott, Oxford Companion to World Sports and Games (1975); Sporting News, The Chronicle of Twentieth Century Sport (1992); and Ralph Hickock, A Who ' s Who of Sporting Champions (1995). A photograph of Gurney shaking a bottle of Moët et Chandon at the 1967 Le Mans is in Sports Illustrated (25 June 2001).

Scott A. G. M. Crawford