Pneumonia claims racing legend Dan Gurney at 86

Dan Gurney

American racing hero Dan Gurney is dead at the age of 86, a result of complications from pneumonia.

Gurney was a giant in American motorsport. Racer, constructor, and team owner, he racked up wins in Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, Can Am, and Trans Am in style and with the full respect of the other competitors. He was known as a very fast and clean racer, and, according to Jim Clark’s father, he was the only driver Clark ever feared.

Gurney is best known as a brilliant competitor and gentleman, whether in the car or on the pit wall. He was born in Port Jefferson, New York, and graduated from Manhasset High School before his father, retired opera singer Jack Gurney, moved the family to Riverside, California. He also served in the U.S. Military during the Korean war.

As a young man in Southern California, Gurney soon became immersed in the local hot rod culture, building his own car and running it at Bonneville. He also tried his hand at drag racing before finding a type of racing in which he could excel: sports cars. He was soon (after only 28 races) recognized by Luigi Chinetti, the American Ferrari importer and owner of the North American Racing Team (NART) and given a factory Ferrari ride at Le Mans in 1958. Gurney’s strong showing earned him a place on the Ferrari Formula 1 Team for 1959. He later drove for BRM, Porsche, Lotus, Brabham, his own AAR Eagle team, and McLaren.

Although Gurney only garnered four Formula 1 wins, when he finished first at Spa in his beautiful dark blue Eagle, he became the only American to ever win a Grand Prix in a car of his own construction. Just a week later he shared a win at Le Mans with A.J. Foyt in one of the brutal Ford GT40 Mk IV sports cars. To further prove his versatility, he won the final IndyCar race of the season, the Rex May 300 at home in Riverside, even though he only ran two races in the series that year.

In Champ racing, Gurney only started 28 races but won seven of them, although he never conquered Indy as a driver. He had five NASCAR wins, with four of them coming at Riverside.

Immensely popular, Car and Driver pushed the idea of Gurney running for president in 1964, and buttons or bumper stickers pushing the unofficial candidate are still out there. Gurney received further notoriety when he and Car and Driver editor Brock Yates won the first competitive Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, by driving from New York City to Redondo Beach, California, in 35 hours and 54 minutes. He is famously quoted as having said, “At no time did we exceed 175 mph.”

As a team owner, in addition to contesting Formula 1 and the USAC Champ Car series (later moving to CART), Gurney was a team owner in the Trans Am series and in the IMSA GTP and Formula Atlantic series. Among other venues, Gurney’s wins came at Indianapolis, Sebring, and Daytona. AAR collected three Champ Car titles and another two in GTP.

In addition to his racing activity, in the early 2000s Gurney designed the Alligator motorcycle, which featured a low riding position. Production was limited to 36 units.

Gurney is survived by his wife, Evi, and sons Justin, Alex, Dan Jr., and Jimmy.