Roger Diez: Passing of a racing legend
Special to the Appeal
The racing world lost one of its giants last Sunday, as Dan Gurney took the checkered flag on a life well-lived at the age of 86. Gurney was a racer’s racer, a consummate and versatile professional who won in everything he drove. He was also a car builder, innovator, team owner, and mentor to a host of other racers. I was fortunate to have crossed paths with him and many of his creations in the course of my involvement in racing, and I’d like to share a few of those memories.
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But first, I’ll tally his major accomplishments. Gurney was the first and only American to win a Formula One race in a car of his own construction. In addition to Formula One, he won races in NASCAR, Indy cars, and endurance racing. Although he never won the Indy 500, he finished second to Mario Andretti in 1969 and won seven Indy car races in only 28 starts in the series. During the 1960s he was the bane of the NASCAR drivers at the Riverside road course, his home track. Gurney amassed five victories in NASCAR’s top series in just 16 starts. He teamed with A.J. Foyt to win the 24 Hours of LeMans in a Ford GT-40, and invented the tradition of spraying champagne after that victory. His Eagle race cars were always elegant, innovative, and fast, and his relationship with Ford resulted in the Weslake engines that were among the most powerful in Formula One in the 1960s. His All American Racers teams were successful in the Trans-Am and Can-Am road racing series, and dominated the IMSA endurance series with Toyota prototypes in the early 1990s.
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I first crossed paths with Gurney at Riverside in 1972 when I was flagging the Can-Am race there. I drove down with a friend and we arrived on Friday afternoon to check out the track when I spotted this guy watching practice at turn seven all by himself. We walked up, and the guy was none other than Gurney himself! We had a brief chat about racing, and then he left to watch from another turn. I had seen him race while I was flagging at both the Can-Am and Trans-Am series races at Laguna Seca in previous years, and at an Indy car race at Sears Point in 1970, but Riverside was the first time I got to talk with him. A couple of years later he brought a new Eagle Formula 5000 car to Laguna with James Hunt driving. The car was so new it wasn’t even painted, just bare aluminum bodywork, and I got one of my best racing photographs of Hunt coming through turn nine onto the front straight at full opposite lock. I later watched Juan Manuel Fangio II run away from a field of IMSA prototypes at Laguna in an AAR Gurney Toyota. Gurney was every bit as good as a team owner and car developer as he was as a driver.
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Dan Gurney was the kind of versatile racer that we don’t see today. In the pantheon of motorsport, only Andretti and Foyt come close to Gurney’s level of success in multiple forms of motorsport. He will be sorely missed. Godspeed, Dan.
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In local racing news, dirt track fans will be happy to hear that the 3/8 mile clay oval at Fernley 95A Speedway will be back in operation this season. Local racers with cars that meet Fallon’s Rattlesnake Raceway rules will be allowed to compete. Races are scheduled for April 7, May 27, July 21, Aug. 11 and 24, and Sept. 15 and 29, with a two-day shootout Oct. 20-21. There is also a Sprint car event scheduled for May 12. In addition to regular classes, chain cars will race at every local racing event.
Editor’s note: Roger Diez writes a weekly motorsports column that appears every Saturday in the Nevada Appeal.