We were all born too late for something, but thank God I wasn’t born too late to meet Dan Gurney, one of my childhood heroes. In the pantheon of motorsports, Dan Gurney held high ground. Even Jim Clark, one of the greatest drivers of all time, admitted that, of all his rivals, the 6-foot-4 blonde American from Riverside was the only driver he feared.
Born in Long Island but transplanted as a teen to California, Gurney — who died in January at 86 — jumped into the revved-up, car-crazed climate of Riverside. He built and raced his own hot rod, then moved up to club races, where he caught the eye of Frank Arciero, a tough contractor from southern Italy who poured a fortune into young drivers like Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill. Arciero liked what he saw in fiery young Gurney and added him to his stable.
But Gurney wanted a crack at the international level, driving the most powerful cars of the day. Hill — who would go on to become America’s first Formula 1 World Champion — was already living the racing life Gurney sought.
He decided to write Hill for help. In 1958, Gurney handwrote, in tight, linear cursive, a respectful four-page letter peppering Hill with questions: “Phil, is there any chance of getting an audition or a tryout? Do you know of anyone looking for a driver? Or could you recommend me to someone?”
Hill’s son Derek told me his dad recognized Gurney’s burning drive and offered to take him to the 12-hour race in Sebring, Florida. “When they got to Sebring,” Derek said, “Dad introduced Dan to NART race team owner Luigi Chinetti, who told Dan, ‘Come to Le Mans in June. I’ll give you a seat.’” Three months later, Gurney was driving for Chinetti in France’s brutal 24-hour race, which Hill won for Ferrari. The following year, 1959, Gurney won Sebring with Hill and became a factory Ferrari driver before going on to other teams, including his own.
Gurney’s year for the record books was 1967. In one three-week period beginning at the end of May, he finished second at the Indianapolis 500, then joined A.J. Foyt in a Ford prototype to become the only American team to ever win Le Mans driving an American car with an American engine. Gurney capped it off the following week by winning the Belgian Grand Prix in his beautiful Eagle-Weslake — the only American in 100 years of Grand Prix racing to win a GP in a car of his own design. He wound up becoming the first American to win races in four major racing categories: Nascar, Indycar, Formula 1, and Sportscar World Championship racing.
Gurney retired in 1970, but he never let off the gas. Along with his wife Evi and sons Justin and Alex, he expanded his All American Racers into a powerful car-building and aerospace company — there were 21 Gurney-designed Eagles on the grid of the 1972 Indy 500.
As fearsome as he was on the world’s most difficult courses, at a time when car racing was an even more dangerous sport, Dan Gurney was also humble, a kind man with a whip-smart intellect, an infectious laugh and a penchant for practical jokes. His pranks once included changing the breakfast order hanging on a rival driver’s hotel room door from two omelets with toast and juice to 18 orders of everything.
The hearty Gurney laugh was an explosion of joy well-known to all of his friends and family. That ready laugh and broad grin are now precious memories. It’s fitting that the racing career launched by a letter is now celebrated by thousands of letters pouring into his family, from fans celebrating their racing hero.
Jean Jennings is a double Lifetime Achievement Award-winning automotive journalist. The former president and editor-in-chief of Automobile magazine, she is the only woman who has run a national car-enthusiast magazine.
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