Unfortunately, there are few people any of us can say we truly admire during our lifetimes. Thankfully, the same was not true 40 years ago. True, it was the year Lorenzo Bandini was fatally injured at Monaco, and a year before the legendary Jim Clark died in a meaningless race in Germany. America was in Vietnam, but the spin and recrimination surrounding the pivotal Tet Offensive was in the future, and the ashes of Apollo 1 were sifted and sorted and the moon shot program moved on. Yet, in the midst of this maelstrom sat 36-year-old American Daniel Sexton Gurney. He was a race driver and team owner who never doubted America’s ability to compete, or his country’s basic goodness. In 1967, he was a beacon for all that could happen—if you tried.
Five years before, Gurney had brought Lotus founder Colin Chapman to Indianapolis to watch the 500, made the introduction of Lotus to Ford in the U.S., and watched as the “rear-engine revolution” he helped start swept through the dusty corners of the Brickyard. Come 1965, in partnership with Carroll Shelby and with backing from Goodyear, he established All American Racers in Santa Ana, California, and set out to conquer the worlds of Formula 1 and USAC’s championship for Indy cars. It was a bold, if not brazen move, especially considering the shoestring budget and power from his bespoke Gurney-Weslake V12 engine that fought against Ferrari and what would become the all-conquering Ford-Cosworth V8. Yet Gurney pushed forward, and—in 1967—he did something no other driver has: win a Formula 1 championship race in a vehicle of his own construction. This feat—accomplished at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, a dauntingly fast circuit through the Ardennes region that had few guardrails at the time—came just one week after he and A.J. Foyt gave Ford its second overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race where Gurney established the now common ritual of spraying champagne after a victory. It would be the last Grand Prix win for Gurney – his fourth—though he would lead the German Grand Prix at the legendary Nurburgring that August by 42 seconds in the same car until its suspension broke with two laps remaining.
Throughout his career, and throughout that magic season, he earned a reputation as a tough but fair racer who not only understood motor racing was dangerous—most drivers didn’t just “walk away” from major accidents, they were carried out on stretchers—but that a victory that was less than sportsmanlike was no victory at all. It is a concept foreign to racing nowadays, especially in that roller derby they call NASCAR. Yet Gurney lived by these rules because they were right, and because they expressed what he knew were the better angels of the American spirit. Even when “drafted” by the editors of Car and Driver in a comedic “Dan Gurney for President” campaign, Dan didn’t take the opportunity to let the world know how he felt about the topics of the day. He smiled, thanked everyone who supported him, got along with his job, and left the grandstanding for others.
I had the opportunity to meet him years later, ironically on the launch for the second-generation Toyota MR2. It was long after Dearborn had thrown him—and Shelby—aside for not being European, and Gurney’s cars were taking the fight to all-comers in IMSA. He was there to lend credibility to the claim that the MR2 was a world-class sports car, though I was too awestruck to hear the hype. Later, on the drive route, he sat in the passenger seat of the white MR2 I swapped into; a force of anger sitting in that seat, as the previous driver had decided to show his skills to the only driver whose talent Jim Clark ever feared. Inquiring as to whether I thought myself a race car driver, “because your predecessor sure wasn’t,” he fixed me with a glare I still remember. It was then that I told him mine was a religious family filled with car nuts, and we believed that if Christ and Dan Gurney had their second coming at the same time on the same day, we believed only one person would show up. My faith was crushed later when, during a particularly interesting conversation, he got us lost.
Despite his purely human status, Gurney still represents the essential truths of the American spirit. Tall, handsome, quiet, and blessed with a mischievous sense of humor, the 76-year-old still is central casting’s prototype for an All-American hero. In that light, let’s raise a glass to that magic 1967 season, remember the things we have lost, and toast the man who still makes me proud to be an American.