Dan Gurney photo in Autoweek story. (I wish that I had scanned my slides for a suitable photo of my own to put here.)
Every kid should have a hero; somebody they can look up to and emulate; someone they can put a target on and think, “I want to be like that when I grow up.” That’s why heroes should live to a higher standard; something that seems increasingly hard to do. Perhaps that’s why the age of heroes is dwindling.
I found my hero during a Southern California junior high school shop class. Shop—like the gym—were compulsory classes for a well-rounded education. I hated them. Because I was such a nerd I didn’t do well, and the other boys could smell my insecurity and would circle me, like sharks in bloody water. The cookie cutters that I made weren’t the perfect circles and stars like they made. I probably only got a passing grade because I showed up each day.
That was at the outset of the Southern California car mania, and we were all jacked up on pre-pubescent hormones and we substituted souped-up Fords and Chevys for unrequited sex. At least, those were the magazines allowed in the classroom. In class, I rummaged through piles of Hot-Rod and Motor Trend and found a single issue of Sports Car Illustrated, a car magazine about small European cars and racing more than just accelerating down a drag strip. I took it home and read it cover to cover. This magazine had articles about Jaguars, Porsches, and (drool) Ferraris—with their glorious high-pitched V-12 engines, “OMG; I have to hear that someday.”
It was the first time I read about the pinnacle auto racing circuit—Formula One. The magazine wrote about the European stars such as Graham Hill, Jimmy Clark, Jack Brabham, and a tall American—from California no less—Dan Gurney. That was a life-changing moment and I left drag racing behind and followed a different path.
I read about Dan’s career as he won Formula One races and then Le Mans. In high school one year, my friends drove out to the Riverside track and watched as he schooled NASCAR’s best drivers on a road course (five times in a row). On TV, I cheered his Indy attempts. He was the first driver to win races in Formula One, Indy Car, and NASCAR. His persona was more suited for the Indianapolis milk gulp than Champaign and that may be the reason he invented the inverted Champaign spray—an honored motorsport tradition. After he retired from driving, he continued in racing as a successful team owner and car builder. I admired him enough that when I got to pick out car number in my brief racing career, I chose number 48; as a tribute.
In my early thirties, I was working for a company that flew me to a morning seminar in Orange County. Since my afternoon was free, I booked a later flight and called my friend Gary Wheeler and arranged to have lunch. Gary worked for Dan’s company as an engineer at the time, so I was very interested in hearing about his job. After lunch, Gary took me back to the shop and showed me around. We even went into the boneyard where old racecar parts were kept. I wanted to snitch something for memorabilia, but I didn’t have a way to get it on the plane. In the middle of his tour, Dan came out of the office with an errand that he needed Gary to run. Gary said sure, and in return, he asked Dan if he could drop me off at the Orange County Airport. I was stage-struck when during the introductions anyway, but my heart leaped into my throat during that conversation. Dan said, “Of course, get your things.” I grabbed my briefcase and followed him out to—of all the exotic cars that I envisioned Dan driving—the shop’s Pinto. For me, the five-mile ride to the airport was a New York ticker-tape parade. My head was in the clouds.
Yesterday, my friend Jeff forwarded news that Dan had passed at the age of 86 from pneumonia complications. It’s a very dark day for motorsports worldwide and me personally. I will miss his soft-spoken voice and infectious smile, but I will always remember his triumphs. It’s a very sad moment in my life.
Thanks for the ride Dan.
Until next time — jw