Tall and blonde, Daniel Sexton Gurney was born April 13, 1931, in Port Jefferson, Long Island, to John Gurney, a Metropolitan Opera star, and his wife Roma Sexton. After high school he became a Californian, and wouldn’t ya’ know it, his father decided to move the family to Riverside, California. This was before the once famous racetrack was built, so Gurney practiced race driving around the orange trees. After graduation from a junior college he served in the Korean War for two years in an artillery unit. He began racing in the year 1955 driving a Triumph TR2.
Gurney was in on the early days of dry lakes racing. At age 19, he built and raced a car that went 138 miles per hour (mph) at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Ironically, one of the other hot rodders there was Phil Remington, who later worked for Shelby and finally finished his career at Gurney’s, working until his late 80s.
One of Gurney’s most memorable early races was at Riverside in 1960, where he raced against an older Texan named Carroll Shelby. Gurney was in a Ferrari 375 owned by a wealthy builder named Tony Parravano. Gurney finished second to Shelby, who was in his last year of racing as a driver. Young Gurney made quite a good first impression on Shelby that day. Little did he know it, but roughly seven years later he and A.J. Foyt would win the 24 Hours of LeMans in a Ford GT40 MkIV for Ford and the Shelby American Racing Team.
His talent was soon recognized and various sponsors began supplying him with Ferraris, and other exotic cars. He was one of several Yanks, including Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, and Masten Gregory who went to Europe trying to win that elusive “factory ride.” He lucked out big time, becoming a race driver for Ferrari, running four races for Enzo, but left when he clashed with their management style. He eventually worked his way to Formula 2 where he was a factory driver for Porsche, winning the French Grand Prix.
Then it was to BRM. If you look up the race records, he raced against Stirling Moss, Jimmy Clark, John Surtees, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles and others. He remains the only U.S. citizen to win a Grand Prix in a car of his own construction in the 100-year history of F1 racing. The car was the Gurney-Eagle. It was while racing with Shelby American that he became enamored of the sports car group, because he also drove NASCAR races in the Motor Trend 500 and in GP. He was a favorite among NASCAR fans since he was one of the few road-racing pros in NASCAR racing. He loved to slide those big Fords sideways through the turns.
He reportedly consulted on the Cobra when it was first being developed and went to Nassau with a Cobra in 1962. That was way early in terms of Cobra racing development.
When Carroll Shelby decided to contend for the FIA World Championship of GT cars in 1964, Shelby developed a Cobra race car specifically to run in Europe. The chassis numbers were CSX2259, CSX2260. CSX2301, CSX2323, and CSX2345. Gurney and Jerry Grant ran the Targa in a 289 Cobra. Gurney set the lap record, but it was a real battle. The roads had been built by the Romans thousands of years before and were too much in disrepair for the Cobra suspension. But the duo finished eighth overall and second in the GT class. Of course next the Cobra Daytona was developed. Designed by young engineer and designer Peter Brock, the first one was built in the U.S. Shelby , always looking for a deal, sent the remaining five chassis to Modena, Italy for the coupe’s streamline aluminum body construction. They botched up the roofline on the next car and it was thought that it would be slower. When it was sent to LeMans, Gurney and co-driver Bob Bondurant raced it faster. Gurney drove the car he fitted in best, which is the outsize “tall one.”
You might say Dan Gurney helped Ford get started on the Ford GT. When Gurney was courting Lotus head Colin Chapman to come and race in America , he paid Chapman’s ticket to come to Detroit and meet with Ford. The result was the Lotus-Ford Indy car. It didn’t win the first year it competed due to bad pit signals. The following year it left the front engined cars in its dust.
Chapman then thought he had an inside track to getting a contract to develop the Ford LeMans racer, but the dapper Englishman had stepped on too many toes when he took most of the credit for the Lotus-Ford Indy car and got locked out of the LeMans effort. Ford developed the Ford GT to run the year 1964 without Shelby, who was already on the payroll to race Cobras. Big mistake. They later brought Shelby into the Ford GT program and Gurney was able to race the MkII but hit his stride in the big block MkIV. When paired with A.J. Foyt at LeMans, the two won the race in 1967.
Gurney also drove in Trans Am. According to one report, Dan Gurney won only once in Trans Am as a driver. That win was in 1967 at Green Valley, TX. He also switched to Chrysler and in 1970 ran a Barracuda Trans Am team. In Can-AM he had three wins as a driver, one in 1966 and two others in 1970. The 1970 wins came when he was driving for McLaren Cars. Denis Holme hired Dan to replace Bruce McLaren who was killed testing his Can-Am car. But Dan couldn’t complete the season.
Dan’s All-American Racers, (a firm he started in partnership with Shelby but later bought him out) also built cars for the Can-Am series. They were modified McLaren Cars, called McLeagles. By the time he retired from active driving in 1970, according to his AAR website, Gurney had raced in 312 events in 20 countries, driving 51 different makes of cars and winning 51 races and finishing on the podium an additional 47 times! Among his most important victories: 7 Formula One races (four Grand Prix World Championship events), 7 Indy Car races, 5 NASCAR Winston Cup stockcar races (all 500 mile races in Riverside , California ), and two second place finishes at the “Indy 500”. Additionally, he captured wins in Trans-Am, Can-Am and sports car races including the endurance classics at the Nurburgring, Daytona, Sebring and LeMans .
He claimed 42 career pole positions and started on the front row of the grid an additional and astonishing 58 times! The many “races that got away”, i.e. those that Dan was leading – often by a considerable margin – but could not finish due to mechanical problems, made him almost as famous and popular as the wins. Gurney’s record of winning in Grand Prix, Indy Car, NASCAR and Sports Car categories has been matched only by Mario Andretti.
All American Racing’s records show Gurney winning 8 Championships and capturing 78 victories and 83 pole positions, including the Indy 500 and the 12 hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Daytona. They report 66 drivers from around the globe have been employed at AAR between the years 1965 and 2000, the last one being Dan’s son Alexander, who raced in the Atlantic Series. They were once a strong force at Indy, winning the Indy 500 twice with Bobby Unser in1968 and Gordon Johncock in 1973, plus 3 Championships in Indy Cars and Formula A. Gurney is an inventor. In 1971, he developed the “Gurney Flap” (wickerbill), an invention that has been adopted by the automobile racing and aviation industries throughout the world. Early on, when other drivers were still wearing helmets that looked like football helmets, he introduced a full-face helmet to Indy Car racing as well as Grand Prix racing. He was instrumental in getting Toyota started in U.S. racing in 1982, when Dan was hired by them to do TV commercials for the introduction of the Supra. This relationship eventually resulted in three Drivers and three Manufacturers Championships for the automaker.
I said earlier Gurney is Hollywood handsome. It makes sense that he would appear in movies at one time or another. A member of the Screen Actors Guild since 1965, Gurney appeared in such motor racing films as Winning, A Man and a Woman, and Grand Prix.
An avid reader of political and military history, Gurney has many passions, including old movies, opera, cigars, traveling to historical places and riding motorcycles. He has even developed his own motorcycle. Gurney met his current wife, Evi, while she was a junior executive in the public relations/press department of Porsche in Stuttgart. They have two grown sons. Dan also has four grown children from his first marriage and five grandchildren. The Gurneys reside in Newport Beach, California .
One of the most fun things about Gurney is his sense of humor. In 1971, he raced in an event called the Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea memorial rally. He and Brock Yates, a Car & Driver staff editor, crossed the country in a Ferrari Daytona at something like 30-plus hours.
Then there was LeMans in 1967. Presented with a giant bottle of champagne, he shook it up and sprayed the crowd with it. Though his patrons, Mr. & Mrs. Henry Ford II, were clearly not amused, race drivers the world over started doing the same when they reached the podium, and have been doing it ever since.
The author became a fine artist in 2007 after a portrait of Shelby that he made to promote his book SHELBY The Man The Cars The Legend resulted in requests for prints, and he was soon off and running on an art career.
“I chose to show Gurney in 1967 at LeMans because he is famous in Europe for winning that race, along with Texan A.J. Foyt. I show him with the bottle of Moet et Chandon champagne with which he showered everybody on the stage when accepting the prize.”
“I could have selected him at an earlier age but when I looked at early pictures, he looks like a teenager, so I chose to show him at the height of his powers so to speak.”
“Gurney took racing so seriously, it was tough to find reference material photographs where he was smiling. Maybe he smiled at the end of the race, but during the races he always had an expression of dead seriousness.”
The original oil painting measures approx. 22” x 30” and the artist intends to put the painting in the Mecum auctionat Monterey, which is scheduled for the Monterey Hotel and Spa on Del Monte Golf Course, 1 Old Golf Course Road . Monterey, CA 93940 Aug. 13th. The memorabilia go off first when the auction starts, so interested parties will have to be there at 9 a.m.