Dan Gurney in 2016. Images courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum.
Over the past six decades, Dan Gurney has earned remarkable success as a driver, team owner and constructor, but his ideas and designs have also helped to shape modern racing, making it safer and more competitive. On Saturday, October 22, his efforts were honored by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which presented Dan with its Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award at the institution’s 22nd-annual gala.
A young Dan Gurney and friends, on their way to Bonneville.
Born in Port Jefferson, New York, in April of 1931, Dan didn’t begin his racing career until 1948, after the family had relocated to California. With three uncles and a grandfather trained as engineers, mechanical things were second nature to Dan, and at age 19 he built his first racing car to compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Drag racing and sports car racing followed, as did a stint as a mechanic in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
In 1957, Dan was asked to drive the Arciero Special, a Maserati-powered sports racer renowned for its evil handling, at the inaugural Riverside Grand Prix. To everyone’s surprise (possibly even his own), Dan finished second to Carroll Shelby, besting established stars of the day like Walt Hansgen and Phil Hill. His ability behind the wheel caught the eye of Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti, and suddenly Dan found himself with a ride for the 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Driving the “McLeagle” Can-Am car, a joint project between McLaren and AAR.
His performance at Le Mans earned him a test behind the wheel of a Ferrari F1 car, and in 1959 the affable Californian signed on with Scuderia Ferrari. The team’s buttoned-up style was not to his liking, and after just four races (in which he scored a pair of podium finishes), Dan departed to drive for BRM in 1960.
His F1 driving career would also see him spend time with Porsche, Lotus, and Brabham, but the same period would also see him race sports cars, Indy Cars and even stock cars in NASCAR. Realizing that F1 and Indy Car constructors also put their pants on one leg at a time, Dan decided to give this as go as well, and in 1965 founded All American Racers with partner Carroll Shelby. In F1, his Anglo American Racers would debut during the 1966 season, and in 1967 Gurney scored a win at the Belgian Grand Prix, making him the first (and at this point, only) American F1 driver to score a win in a car of his own construction.
An Olsonite Eagle Indy Car.
Dan is also the first driver (of any nationality) to post wins in F1, Indy Car, NASCAR, and sports car racing, a feat since duplicated by Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya. Out of the 312 races started by Dan throughout his career, he posted wins in 51 and podium finishes in an additional 47, meaning that in any race he entered, the odds of him placing third or better were roughly one-in-three. As one of the drivers who popularized the full-face helmet, Dan helped to make racing safer for drivers of open cockpit cars, and after winning Le Mans in 1967, he invented the champagne shower (much to the dismay of photographers everywhere).
Of the award, which was presented to Dan by Barry Meguiar and shown to the gala attendees via video, Petersen Automotive Museum executive director Terry Karges said:
I was at Dan Gurney’s first race at Torrey Pines in 1955, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Given all he has done as a driver and a builder, I have always called Dan ‘il commendatore.’ He is more than a race car driver, team owner or inventor, he’s a true American icon and a hero to many. Nobody has done as much, as successfully, as Dan throughout his career and he embodies the spirit of the Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award.
Upon being presented with the honor, Dan said in a statement:
I feel lucky to have been able to enjoy such a long and fruitful career. I’ve been privileged to take part in some of racing’s greatest moments and I am humbled to receive this award from the Petersen Museum. I knew Bob Petersen and the spirit that he possessed and the work he did made a real difference in the automotive world. Thank you to the museum for this honor, and thank you to my wife, Evi, and my family for their support all these years.
Past recipients of the award include Art Chrisman, Carroll Shelby, George Barris, Andy Granatelli, The Ford Family, Vic Edelbrock, Jack Roush, Ed “Isky” Iskenderian, “Speedy” Bill Smith, Alex Xydias, Wally Parks and Ed Pink.