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Judge Gurney at the Concours

[Written for 2008 Pebble Beach magazine] Dan Gurney was on my judging team at the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours. Along with veteran judges Miles Collier (of the Miles Collier Museum, Naples FL.) and Ed Welburn (head designer at General Motors.) The cars we were to judge were scattered widely among the neatly ordered classes, as they usually are for us Honorary Judges.

Armed with the list of eight or so cars we were assigned to judge that Sunday morning, a layout of the field so we could find them and our business-bright clipboards we had made a quick visit near the water for a glance at one car and then wheeled to stride off farther down field.

“Waitwaitwait!” Dan called out.

Dan Gurney at LeMans, photo by Denise McCluggage.I turned to him. He was peering over his glasses at me, amused and serious at the same time. Dan looks to me like a senior in a high school play aged to perform the role of a professor at a small women’s college. Most likely because Dan will never look older to me than when we first met at Sebring in 1958.

But his “waitwaiwait” had signaled that he was more professor than high school senior. Or young racing driver. Even if he were less experienced at this judging thing than the others he wanted to know every step of what was going on. Without elision.

I smiled inwardly. Reminding myself that the Dan of a far away Sebring was now the Dan of vast experience and serious accomplishment. His exploits in the world of racing and race cars were many and often record-setting. But it was clear he was not at Pebble Beach for a celebrity stroll among lovely people and handsome cars; he was here to pass judgment on those cars and with seriousness equal to what he had brought to making racing history and building race cars.

I apologized. I wasn’t treating him, or this car, lightly. We were just, in effect, locating it before heading to the far end of the field away from the Lodge, the most distant point, and from there we would zig-zag our way back spending serious time with each car on our list. Including this one we had just located. The familiar grin widened. And we went about our task with understanding. And care.

A half-century ago Phil Hill, a Ferrari team member, had driven a 1939 Packard to Sebring from California. With him were two young California racing drivers looking to broaden their horizons. It was not uncommon then to arrive at a race without a race car, stand about looking useful and available and perhaps get offered a seat in a race car. Hired on the spot as it were. And thus did hopefuls Skip Hudson and Dan Gurney find themselves sharing Phil’s posh but elderly machine across the southern tier of states to the site of a famed 12-hour race.

Somehow Dan was a true son of Southern California even though his family had not resettled in Riverside from New York until he was a teenager. He took to the car mania of the left coast as if born to it. But maybe the low rumblings of a racing engine shared a kinship with the basso of his father, John Gurney, a Metropolitan Opera star. Dan’s mother, Roma Sexton, had given her son her last name as well. Daniel Sexton Gurney. You could do a lot with a name like that. Even play a professor.

I remember both senior Gurneys as tall with a confident bearing. Still I must admit that on the few times I met this dignified pair I wondered if the speed-obsessed blond hunk they called son had not been found, fully grown, in the back seat of their car after a dinner out. But then there was that shared chiseling of profile ...

Dan’s taste for speed was first fed at Bonneville with hot rods and Salt Flat racers. That was interrupted by a stint in the army and Korean War experience before road racing drew his attention. His first race car of many was a Triumph TR2. When vineyard-owner Frank Arciero put Dan in a 4.9 Ferrari the young driver’s talent blossomed and the buzz began about this kid on the coast. Just before the Packard journey to Sebring Dan had won a Riverside race beating Masten Gregory, one of the few Americans who could boast European experience at that early date.

At Sebring a racing rule required all competitors to have five laps of practice. The Ferrari pits were in their usual creative turmoil and it seemed unlikely Dan could score those laps with that team. So I signed him on as a third driver on the car I was racing and sent him out to rack up his required time.

My car was actually Briggs Cunningham’s double-bubble Fiat-Abarth that I was sharing with Ruth Levy, another Southern California driver. It took some ingenious contortion to get Dan’s near 6’3” length into the driver’s seat. Good thing the roof had those bubbles. (A bulge in the top, by the way, Dan was to add in modified form on other mounts in later years to provide head room.)

As it happened Ferrari didn’t need Dan’s services that Sebring but Luigi Chinetti’s fine eye for talent had the young Californian in sight and just three months later Luigi put Dan in a NART (North American Racing Team) Ferrari at LeMans. That was followed by a trip to Modena and a sort of test with Ferrari. (See “By Beetle with Hill and Gurney”.)  All much more casual in those days.

Looking back over years fore-shortened by time Dan’s career seemed to track from one high point to another, but in fact there were enough setbacks and sheer bad luck to put most people in a permanent funk. Yes, Dan made the Ferrari Formula 1 team but defected in a year to BMW. Nonetheless I assured my Competition Press readers Dan Gurney would sooner rather than later be World Champion.

Alas, I was wrong. Sometimes when that chase is joined to find the right car, the right team the stars get knocked out of alignment and never get properly realigned. So it was with Dan’s stars – they never lined up to light a way to the championship. He quickly exited BMW for Porsche and that company’s tentative entry into F1. The results were mixed but history was made at the French Grand Prix: Dan won his first F1 race. And it was, more conclusively, Porsche’s first and only GP victory. They quit F1 and Dan went to Brabham, another new team with problems.

The best of Dan’s luck at Porsche was to find the lovely bright Evi in the p.r. department. She was to become his second wife. And a perfect rounder-outer for Dan as Alma was for Phil Hill. Both drivers were victors in that department.

What made Dan Gurney special as a driver, apart from extreme competitiveness (which, truth be told, extended to civilian roadways) was his versatility. And he was a contender in everything he tried: Indy, NASCAR, sports cars etc. If they could have implanted a V8 in a turtle he would have earned a podium.

Four F1 victories. At Indy Dan was third once and second twice. With NASCAR he won four of five times at Riverside and took the pole at Daytona to prove he could do roundy-bouts, too. His best sports car triumph had to be winning LeMans with A.J. Foyt in a Ford GT. All-American indeed.

All-American was a concept Dan liked though he was at first reluctant to name his race team that. Patriotic he was, but chauvinistic he was not. And the name did need some explaining when he was fielding Toyotas. Nonetheless running a racing team was the Dan career among all of them that garnered the most laurels. Indy, LeMans, Daytona. On and on.

Another intertwined career was building his own racing cars. Eagle, he called them. In a combined Anglo-American affair (Weslake provided the engine) Dan set another never-before (or since) mark. In June of 1967 Dan won in his Eagle at the fast and testing Spa circuit to become the only U.S. citizen to score a Grand Prix victory in a car of his own making.

That shining success was a gem in the dross of nine retirements for the Eagle that season and one lone third. Actually a rather typical string of Dan disappointments washing at the base of achievement. Did those setbacks teach him the steady calmness of demeanor he exhibits now or did that demeanor permit him to endure?

Either way the laurels fit well, maybe under that misshapen hat he is wearing as we judge at Pebble Beach. I glance sideways at him. The twinkle in his eyes, the smile ready to broaden into a grin, the chuckle like a small stream. Dan came rather late (at least later than Phil Hill) to the appreciation of old cars, but now it is clearly real. His appreciation of design is not a surprise. After seeing the attenuated faux delicacy of the Eagle F1 how could one doubt a commitment to design?

I check to see if Dan’s California white socks have gone with time. Those and a crew cut were standard equipment back in the day. I let the years since that first Sebring collapse around me. I realize that Dan — as I have spent time with him and Evi infrequently but happily over that time—has been living life as it should be. Absorbing both the frustrations and the triumphs – ever consolidating, ever broadening, ever deepening.

And now he has begun a new career – watching his youngest son Eric do well in his racing career. Ah “waitwaitwait” indeed.

05/05/11 • 03:04 PM • Miscellany • (2) Comments


Love your writing style! You make the reader feel the experience as if they were standing in the pits with you…

Thanks, Richard

Posted by Richard Carr on 07/02/12 at 07:32 AM

Do not puzzle over it!

Posted by joilincannalk on 01/18/13 at 05:06 AM


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