IMAGES OF A LEGEND -- DAN GURNEY
Sliding sideways in an aluminum time bomb full of gasoline, Dan Gurney became a legend in a era that demanded the ultimate sacrifice from most of its heroes. That he lived is testament to the power of luck -- and a talent big enough to make room for both victory and survival. Some few of his contemporaries managed to survive, and continued to drive long past the point at which he retired in 1970. For the most part it was a mistake for them to continue, their talent diminishing with the baggage of years, their legends eroding away day by day, race by race, like a statue left too long in the rain.
Note: This story originally appeared in the January 24, 1994 issue of AutoWeek
Gurney was the one who had the sense, and the strength, to step from the stage at the top of his form, like a rocket frozen magically in mid-flight, leaving in the hearts and minds of fans worldwide the indelible image of a star ascending, an American hero at the height of his powers.
Nor did those powers diminish over time, though their focus has been re-directed several times. Gurney, son of an opera singer and arguably one of the most intelligent men in auto racing, pirouetted gracefully, though not without a talent for brinksmanship -- and the occasional moment of drama – from the cockpit to the corporate suite and the helm of a racing enterprise that has added luster to his legend with successes as a car builder and team manager.
Lending credence to the credo that "When an eagle bends to make its nest, such nests are built as only eagles may inhabit," Gurney's mastery of technology and tactics produced several Indy 500 winners. And, in 1992, his team won the IMSP GTP driver and manufacturer championships driving Toyota-funded, Toyota-powered cars driven by a new generation of legends; P.J. Jones Jr., son of Parnelli Jones, and Juan Manuel Fangio II, nephew of the five-time world champion. In recent years, he has focused his energies on an innovative new motorcycle of his own design, called the Alligator, and on the racing career of his son, Alex, who won the 2007 and 2009 Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype championship.
So history marches on, leaving its black-and-white footprints on the walls of the long hallway that connects the front door of Gurney's All-American Racers facility in Santa Ana, California with the shop where his Toyota Eagle racing cars were built... a hundred-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling art gallery covered with frozen moments of time, framed and hung, their very numbers prohibiting more than passing interest by the frequent, awed visitors.
If, as they say, the eyes are windows to the soul, then surely photographs are doorways to the past and on one afternoon that will live forever in memory, Dan Gurney unlocked a few of the most special of those doors, and allowed us to walk through. On the pages that follow is what we found on the other side.
Legends have to start somewhere, and Gurney's started on a warm evening in the summer of his 19th year. It was 1950, a time of slow cars and streets so straight and empty they called to a generation of post-war speed demons the way the Wild West called to their grandfathers. But while racing between stoplights and sliding sideways on back roads slick with sap and orange blossoms was enough for some, to Gurney it was high school -- and this is his graduation photo. It's midnight, in the parking lot of Ruby's Drive-In in Riverside, California. He and his velocity-struck, bleary-eyed cohorts are on their way to the University of Bonneville, flat-towing their science project; a twenty-year-old Model A that, appearances to the contrary, would graduate on the far side of 130 miles an hour. Gurney is the grease-covered scarecrow in the T-shirt and ten-gallon hat; already head and shoulders above his peers, not merely unafraid of his future, but waving to get its attention.
Gurney fought a career-long battle with forces, both mechanical and human, that conspired to prevent him from achieving the full measure of greatness for which he was so clearly destined. And he transcended them all with huge laughter and a smile that reached down to some well of sunlight at the core of his being. The great American novel that is his face is opened here to a page on which is written victory in the 1968 Rex Mays 300 at Riverside International Raceway, a race and a track both now lost in the mists of legend. He won despite the looming presence of a security guard nicknamed "Deputy Dawg" by the team. Gurney's face is easy to read, but what does the ethereal figure in hat and badge want? To arrest the laughter? Incarcerate the legend? Whatever it was, he didn't succeed.
Sometimes omens are hard to read. Here, dangling prophetically like a hanged man, Gurney's innovative stock block-engined B.L.A.T. (boundary layer aerodynamic‚ technology) Indy car is actually on its way to a gala sponsor party in Grand Ballroom of the Queen Mary prior to the 1980 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. During its too-short life, the car won on the oval at Milwaukee, and qualified on the middle of the front row of the Indy 500 before it was legislated into oblivion by the very racing organization Gurney helped form with the idea of doing away with capricious rulemaking. Next to the roar of a racing engine, the most common noise on the soundtrack of Dan Gurney's life is the sound of a giant stumbling over small men.
An exuberant moment, of the sort that only victory can produce, captured in mid-air, frozen in time. The occasion is Gurney's first win as head of the Toyota factory racing team, an event marked also by the death of Porsche driver Rolf Stommelen. His obvious joy in the face of disaster does not make him a monster, it marks him as a survivor from a era in racing when mortality and joy all too often shared the same few golden, violent hours; when drivers were required to hold the extravagant conceit that velocity conveyed immortality, the ability to defy the laws of both gravity and death. With this single gesture, Gurney here celebrates success and salutes a ghostly army of fellow worshippers at the altar of speed who forgot for that one critical moment they were supposed to live forever.
Yes, that's Jimmy Clark doing a handstand on the wheel of Dan Gurney's car, and no, Gurney is not open-mouthed in awe at his teammate's acrobatic skills; he's yawning, a lion before the hunt, momentarily bored before going back out on the track to risk his life in a fast, fragile car built of used parts. At the heart of a convoluted story full of machinations both mechanical and Machiavellian, a story he's too big a man to tell, Dan Gurney was the reason Colin Chapman brought his English-built, mid-engined marvels to a Brickyard still married to front-engined, all-American monsters. The year is 1963, when a 140 mph lap was pushing the envelope and you had to brake into the turns. It was not an auspicious race for Gurney, who crashed during the last morning of practice, and DNFd in the race, proving that even a legend-in-the-making can have a bad day. Now Clark is gone, Champman is gone and Lotus is a shadow of its former self. What remains is a survivor's memory of a driver... no, a racer, who he respected above all others.
The child that, to this day lives on inside the man, never could resist sticking his tongue out at the camera. And on this particular day, flanked here by Johnny Rutherford and Lloyd Ruby, Gurney had good reason. The year is 1970, the place is the Ontario Motor Speedway, the occasion is his last oval-track Indy car race as a driver, and he's walking on air because he took a chance and hit the jackpot. Pre-race practice was a disaster, so, while waiting in line to qualify, Gurney made a major change to the setup, and wound up in the middle of the front row. Fate, as it so often did to him, responded with its own brand of humor by granting him the fastest car in the race, and then hitting him in the face with a pie disguised as a blown engine that put him into the wall.
It was a time characterized in memory by fog and rain, by hours spent waiting, praying, for your car to come howling out of the mist. No place so defined an era full of anxious afternoons and waiting in wet shoes as the Nürburgring -- seventeen miles of sudden storms and men throwing aluminum lightning into the dark. It was the fountainhead for "moments," those rare and indelible instants, frozen forever in the mind's eye, that can only be created by surviving a life and death situation. Gurney had such a moment at this place. Strapped into some tinfoil Formula One car, in hot pursuit of a legend he had no idea he was creating, he deliberately drove into a wall of falling water at a hundred and eighty miles an hour. Instantly blind, hydroplaning through a curve bounded on one side by a hard place and on the other by a long way down; it was a leap of faith. Faith in his talent, faith in destiny, faith in the feeling that although any one of these moments might be the final one, it would not be this one.
Like binary stars orbiting around some mysterious point in space and time where legends are born, Dan Gurney and Paul Newman were metaphor for the desires of a generation. Both handsome, both superstars in their respective professions, both household names around the world, they were the twin sons of different mothers, having our adventures for us, sharing the same knowing laughter and faces full of mischief. Newman moved always in golden sunlight, king of a fantasy world, a god of the theatre, a master of masks with shadows at the bottom of ice-blue eyes. Gurney was Spartacus, a single-combat warrior in the world of our darkest desires, that place where both violence and glory live, where all of us could be heroes if we only had the chance... and the courage.
Gurney had a ghost who followed him around the world, a benevolent spirit whose mission it was to paint the words "GO GURNEY" across racetracks where his hero was slated to do battle, delighting legions of fans, irking race officials and the competition. It was a uniquely mobile haunting that appeared at Formula One and sports car races in Europe, and here, in six-foot letters, right at the vanished apex of the vanished turn six at the vanished Riverside International Raceway. Auto racing in America has never been as popular or powerful as the profit motive, so that fabled curve of asphalt that once helped separate the men from the boys is now the driveway in front of some middle-income condominium. But it lives on through this particular window, one that looks out on a rainy afternoon at a parade lap for Shelby Club members prior to the start of the race. Only a few die-hard fans are in the stands, but it's likely that most of them came to root for Gurney, and that one of them is a ghost.
Giants playing with toys. The contest is slot cars, the occasion the Ed Sullivan Show. It's sometime in the mid-60s, and the participants, left to right, are: the Beatle-haired "Wee Scott," Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, doing his best to look like an American with his white belt; a conservative-appearing Dan Gurney, who, on second look, was the only one with the nerve to wear a striped shirt and psychedelic tie; and finally, the tragic champion, Stirling Moss, his prodigious talent gone missing somewhere in a three-week coma following a pre-seatbelt shunt. Gurney recalls it as an intensely competitive event, with substantial shenanigans expended beforehand on securing the fastest car, and a post-race punctuated by protests. But look at the faces: Stewart, desperate to win, clenching his controller; Hill, amused by these clever colonials and their toys; and Moss, benignly enjoying the faintest echo of the competitive spirit that once flowed like a river through his veins. He claims not to remember the victor, but it is Gurney, reflexes honed by weeks of practice against protege Swede Savage, who is holding the controller as though reading its mind, and looking not at the track, but rather inward, through that window that looks out on the special place where winning lives.
It is the prerogative of legends to stride in seven-league boots through space and time, having adventures of which mortals may only dream. And this is a legend's dream, a day spend skipping between generations, the scream of Formula One racing engines echoing off the German forests that line the circuit at Hockenheim. Here, Gurney in his traditional black helmet is at the wheel of just the sort of time bomb that claimed so many of his peers. Keeping pace, partly for the camera, partly out of respect, Marc Surer in a "modern" F1 car -- more modern at least than Gurney ever got to drive in anger. His assessment of the eras is predictable; the new car accelerates and corners so fast it's like a cog railway, with a direct mechanical link to the ground. The Porsche can be tossed sideways through a turn, and is the more fun of the two to drive -- which is the thing to remember about driver's of Gurney's generation; they balanced on the abyss of life and death every time they stepped into the cockpit, but by God, they were having fun!
This door opens on racing’s version of philosophy disguised as high comedy. Gurney was the man who introduced Goodyear to Formula One racing, and though it was a great marriage while it lasted, the first date wasn’t entirely without interesting moments. Here at the Goodwood track in England, in the days before the computers that would have precluded the problem – and before the insidious growth of the petty officialdom that would now strictly forbid such a straightforward solution, Gurney complained of ‘lumpy tires’ – and they didn’t believe him. Invoking the prerogative of champions to be proved right or wrong beyond any shadow of a doubt, you see here the solution; Gurney driving while a Goodyear engineer, perched precariously on the roll bar, collects the data that ultimately proved Gurney right. It’s a funny sight, but also a visual parable with a moral; people looking up at a hero rarely notice that he’s standing on a pedestal of technology… and here we have the reverse – the technician astride the broad shoulders of legend, clinging to a cross of his own creation, howling backwards into the future.