Motorsport’s most graceful driver was a McLaren talisman during our most desperate hour.
Has there ever been a racing driver possessed of more grace than Daniel Sexton Gurney?
The chiselled all-American racer, who passed away on Sunday aged 86, had a supreme, unflustered style on the racetrack, and an unmatched elegance away from it.
Yet his charm belied a determination and vision that few could match. As an innovator, he constantly pushed the frontiers of motorsport, both as a hugely patriotic driver and as a proud and pioneering constructor.
And the small but pivotal role he played at McLaren arguably kept the team afloat during its most desperate hour.
Like his great contemporaries Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt, Gurney was an effortless all-rounder, his natural speed and versatility allowing him to compete successfully in a number of disciplines.
On the racetrack, he quickly earned the respect of his Formula 1 contemporaries – not least the great Jimmy Clark, who was said to revere the tall American more than all others. Gurney may have ‘only’ won four grands prix, but he deserved far more. His day of days came at Spa, in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix. It was the sole race won behind the wheel of his own car, the incomparably beautiful Eagle-Westlake T1G, which he fielded under his Anglo American Racers banner.
He raced irregularly in NASCAR, and at the Indy 500 throughout the 1960s. While victory at Indy ultimately eluded him, he nonetheless started from the front row and scored three top-three finishing positions.
At Le Mans in 1967, he partnered AJ Foyt to victory, driving one of Ford’s iconic GT40s. At the end of a race that few thought they would win, Gurney inadvertently invented the phenomenon of spraying champagne on the podium; his was a spontaneous act of exuberance following his delight at victory.
Gurney’s role in the McLaren story may have been a small one, but it was one of great consequence. It was Dan who got the call-up to jump into the Can-Am cockpit left empty by the death of Bruce McLaren in the summer of 1970. And it was Dan who wrestled that mighty M8D to victory at Mosport Park less than a fortnight later.
Coupled with the handful of grands prix in which he drove the M14A, Gurney was a talisman for the team, his stoic resolve and determination helping glue it together as it grappled to find direction in the wake of its founder’s death.
Tyler Alexander recalls the moment in his autobiography ‘A Life And Times With McLaren’:
“When we arrived in Mosport, Dan had never had a chance to drive or test the car. I guess it was qualifying that told you just how good he was and how much he liked to try new things.
“Dan asked us to put most of the selection of springs and rollbars on the car for him to try during practice. With about 10 minutes left in qualifying, I said to Dan, ‘We need to do a proper lap time. What would you like on the car?’ He said something about just needing a couple of laps. Then he jumped in and put it on pole with whatever the hell springs and rollbars were on it at the time.
“Dan and Denny Hulme were the two guys who brought Bruce McLaren Motor Racing back to life…”
But for all his verve in the cockpit, it was his ability to bring sense to the sport that took him in new directions following his retirement from F1 in 1970.
As its name suggests, in All American Racers, he realised his ambition to create a national team that could fly the flag for US motorsport and engineering. The team would go on to win the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the Sebring 12 Hours and a slew of CART and IMSA races. Inbetween those successes, he was also credited with the creation of the ‘Gurney flap’ – a small, right-angled flap fitted to the trailing edge of an aerofoil to increase downforce. It is still widely used in motorsport to this day.
According to his family, Dan passed away ‘with one last smile on his handsome face’.
From all of us at McLaren, we offer our deepest condolences to his family and pay our respects to a beautiful giant of a man who truly possessed a heart of steel.