In 1967, the Le Mans 24 Hour race was won by Americans Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt. On the podium Gurney was so overjoyed at taking an unexpected victory that he spontaneously started to spray his bottle of champagne around, starting a tradition that is still with us today. The following year he was responsible for another innovation, though this time of much more practical importance as he became the first driver to wear a full face helmet at the German Grand Prix.
Dan Gurney was born in 1931, the son of John Gurney, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. When his father retired, the family moved to Riverside, California, where a teenaged Dan became involved in the local hot-rod culture, including building a car at the age of 19 which reached 138 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. From there he moved into amateur drag racing and sports car racing.
Things had to be put on hold as he served in the US Army during the Korean War, but afterwards he returned to racing and a lucky break followed when he was invited to drive a difficult, but fast 4.9 litre Ferrari in the inaugural Riverside Grand Prix in 1957. He finished second, despite his lack of experience and this led to him driving for Ferrari at Le Mans in 1958, where he took the car up to fifth place before handing over to his co-driver, Bruce Kessler, who was then unfortunately caught up in an accident. Gurney had done enough to impress the Scuderia who signed him to drive for the F1 team in 1959.
He took part in four races for Ferrari, with two podium finishes, before his frustration with the team’s management style lead him to race for the Owen Racing Organisation the following season, where he had a disappointing season, made even worse by an accident caused by a brake system failure on a poorly prepared car which killed a young spectator at Zandvoort. This led to a lifelong distrust of engineers on Gurney’s part and also caused him to change his driving style, making him much easier on the brakes. Gurney was renowned for his smooth driving style, but he could also turn in an aggressive performance, when he felt he had nothing to lose by doing so.
The next two seasons saw him driving for the Porsche team, where he was more successful, finishing 4th and 5th in the Drivers’ Championships in 1961 and 1962 respectively, including notching up Porsche’s only F1 win at Rouen-Les-Essarts in 1962. He then became the first driver to be signed to drive with Jack Brabham in his new team, where he stayed until the end of the 1965 season. During his time with Brabham he achieved a total of ten podium finishes, including the first win for the Brabham team, once again at Rouen in France.
In 1966 Gurney finally achieved something he had been dreaming about for years, when he entered his own team in Formula One, Anglo-American Racing, racing the American built Eagle T1G. This became the first American-built car to win an F1 race when Gurney won the 1967 Spa GP, and it is widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful racing cars ever. Unfortunately, it was also one of the least reliable: after the victory in Belgium it only completed two more races and at the end of the 1968 season Gurney raced a McLaren M7A for the final three races. The following season he did not take part in Formula One, but he returned briefly in 1970, when he competed in three races for the McLaren team, and his final F1 race was for McLaren at Brands Hatch that year.
Apart from Formula One, Gurney was also a successful driver in Indy Car, NASCAR, Can-Am and the Trans-Am series, and he is one of only three drivers to have won races in sports cars, F1, NASCAR and Indy Car, the other two being Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.
His overall statistics for his F1 career, with 86 starts, 19 podiums and 4 wins (the second most for an American driver, after Andretti’s 12) are not as impressive as he deserves, largely a result of the mechanical problems he had with his American Eagle. Perhaps, however, the real indication of Gurney’s skills as a driver is that at Jim Clark’s funeral, his father took Gurney to one side and told him that he was the only driver that Clark had feared on the track.
So, next time you are watching a driver spraying champagne around the podium, remember they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t for Dan Gurney.