Dan and Me
HEROES IN THE EYES OF A 12 YR OLD
If you ask any 12 yr old kid who their heroes are, and you’ll hear anything from sports athletes to entertainment celebrities. If you would have asked me who my heroes were when I was 12, I would have said, “A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, and Dan Gurney”. I was a gear head, but among my friends, I was a bit of an anomaly. They could quote stats consisting of their hero’s batting averages, steals, and touchdown passes. I could rattle off elapsed times, top speeds, and the names of everyone in the first three rows of last year’s Indy 500. They used to poke fun at me when I would start hyperventilating at the sight of a Hemi ‘Cuda or a 427 Corvette, but I didn’t care.
Even at 12 yrs old, I already knew that I wasn’t going to grow up and be a stick and ball professional athlete. No way. I wanted to be a professional race car driver. I wanted to be Dan Gurney.
DAN WAS THE MAN
Of all of my racing heroes, there was nobody cooler than Dan Gurney. He was a totally different breed than my other racing idols. A.J. Foyt was a guy who could win in anything he drove, but had a temper and wasn’t afraid to bust somebody’s jaw if they crossed him. Mario Andretti was incredibly talented, but never minced words when things didn’t go his way, and it often made him seem like a brat. Don Garlits was an assassin in a greasy t-shirt, and made it a point to whoop up on his competitors who had double his budget. Don Prudhomme was an emotional guy who didn’t like distractions at the track that shifted his focus off of winning at all costs. But Dan Gurney was different. He was always calm, cool, and collected. Dan always carried himself with a quiet confidence, and without a hint of arrogance. The man could drive anything and win with it. He was a dedicated family man, with kids around the same age as me. He was the exact same age as my Dad. If there was any professional that a 12yr kid needed to emulate, it was Dan Gurney.
THE RISE OF ALL AMERICAN RACERS
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it seemed like Dan Gurney was everywhere. In the late ’60s, he was in the process of winding down his career as a winning team owner/driver in Formula 1. He had won the 24 hrs of LeMans in a factory-backed GT40. Gurney had won multiple races in NASCAR, and had nearly won the Indy 500 three years in a row. Once Dan Gurney decided to hang up his driving gloves, he was nowhere close to being done with racing. While still racing, Dan teamed up with fellow legend Carroll Shelby to start a company called All American Racers (AAR). In a very short period of time, All American Racers became a force to be reckoned with. Both Gurney and Shelby were hot rodders before they became racers, so they staffed their company with the best hot rod fabricators in the country. They produced beautiful, well-engineered race cars that rivaled their much higher budgeted competitors. In 1970, Gurney bought out Shelby’s half and became the sole owner of AAR.
AAR GOES TRANS-AM RACING
In 1970, I was just 7 yrs old, but I remember when Trans Am racing was at its peak. It was a wildly popular series, spawning the birth of the Z/28, the Boss 302, the AMX, and of course, the Trans Am. It also launched a pair of Chryslers that soon achieved legendary status as street cars, the Challenger T/A, and the ‘Cuda AAR. I was a fan of Mark Donahue and the Penske cars, and naturally, Gurney’s AAR ‘Cuda. The ‘Cuda was only ran for one year, but in the ten races it entered, it sat on the pole three times and never qualified lower than 6th. Unfortunately, it had reliability issues and did not finish in 6 of the 10 races it entered. I remember reading a Popular Mechanics magazine at the time, and there was a picture of Dan Gurney at the races with the coolest windbreaker jacket I had ever seen. I wanted one so bad. Here’s a picture of Dan Gurney and Paul Newman, in the dyno room at AAR, drinking Coors, and BOTH wearing that same jacket!
WHEN EAGLES RULED THE BRICKYARD
I was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. We were only 115 miles south of Indianapolis, so the Indy 500 was THE race for us. There was a period where AAR –built Eagle Indy cars absolutely ruled the Brickyard. They won in 1968 with Bobby Unser. In 1973, 21 of the 33 cars in the field were Eagles, including race winner Gordon Johncock. Bobby Unser repeated his Indy win in an Eagle in 1975. All in all, Eagles won a total of 51 Indy car races. It was a great time to be an Eagle fan!
TAKING ON IMSA, AND KILLING A SERIES IN THE PROCESS
Fast forward about 10 years, and Gurney and the AAR Boys are back on the scene, but this time in the IMSA series. In 1983, the Toyota Corporation contacted AAR to build a pair of Celicas for the GT class. I was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in Georgia. I cut out pictures of the AAR Celicas from all of my magazines and hung them on my dorm room walls. After much success in GT, they stepped up to the GTP class and absolutely set it on fire. In 1991, they introduced the Eagle MKIII, which ultimately won 21 of the 27 races it entered. The car was so dominant that it has been blamed by many for the collapse of the GTP series! Would that be called a dominant or a destructive result?
A SWAN SONG FOR AN EAGLE
A few years later, the Indy racing bug bit Dan Gurney again. AAR built a new Eagle chassis, powered by an untested and unproven Toyota engine. The results were not what they had hoped for. They never won a race and only got a Top 10 every once in a while. To me, it didn’t matter. I still pulled for them, even though it was difficult to watch a team that was once so dominant now struggle just to keep pace. At this point, I knew the days of seeing Dan Gurney standing on the podium spraying champagne were probably over, and that made me a bit sad.
Back in the early 2000s, I was at a racing memorabilia store and by luck, was on the same day as a signing event by the renowned racing artist, Hector Cademetori. Hector was there to commemorate the release of his print of the #98 AAR Eagle GTP race car. I started talking to Hector, and we got on the subject of Gurney’s Formula 1 car from 1967, and his eyes lit up. Like me, he was also a Gurney fan. He reached under the table, opened up a box, and pulled out a print that he had completed a few years before. It was of Dan Gurney winning the 1967 Belgium Grand Prix at Spa in his Eagle AAR104-Weslake V12. The print was for sale. I had to have it.
Hector pulled out a pen and signed it, and told me that Dan was really cool about signing stuff if you asked him. I had every intention of making the 90 mile trek from my house to Dan’s shop in Santa Ana. My busy work schedule got in the way and I soon forgot about it. The print was put into a giant flat protective sleeve and carefully slid under the bed in the spare bedroom (along with many other prints….) and forgotten about. That is, until January 14th, 2018.
WOULD HAVE, SHOULD HAVE, COULD HAVE…
As soon as I heard the news about the passing of Dan Gurney, I went to the spare bedroom and slid out the unframed print. The sleeve had collected the usual dust from storage, but the print was still in perfect condition. I saw Hector’s signature, and also the empty space where I had planned for Dan to sign it. I had even put a piece of white paper in that area to mark it. A flood of regret came over me. I should have taken the time years ago to have it autographed. There’s an old saying about the fact that you never should meet your heroes for fear of being disappointed. Something tells me that with Dan Gurney, that wouldn’t have been the case.
Rest in Peace, Dan Gurney. Thanks you for always being a class act and the best hero a 12yr old could ever ask for.
Author’s Note: All Gurney photographs were sourced from the All American Racers website: