9 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Dan Gurney

Dan Gurney became a racing superstar in the 1960s thanks to his success in a variety of fast machines. From Le Mans to Formula One, Trans-Am, Can-Am, and NASCAR, he was one of the rare competitors who was able to win in all those forms of racing. News of Gurney’s passing in January led to many retrospectives on his life and career. But there is more to his remarkable life than just his racing results. Here are nine things you may not know about the all American racing star.

1. Gurney raced (and won) in NASCAR.

Dan Gurney is most known for winning at Le Mans and for being one of the most successful American drivers in Formula One. But he also ran 16 NASCAR events. From 1962 to 1970 (mostly road courses), Gurney won five stop-level stock car races, all of which came at the now-defunct Riverside International Raceway in Southern California.

2. He was the first driver to ever win a race in Formula One, Indycar, and NASCAR.

Mario Andretti and Juan Montoya may be household names today. But Dan Gurney was the first to accomplish one of their big claims to fame: winning in three of the top forms of motorsport. Gurney won his first F1 Grand Prix in 1962, his first NASCAR event in 1963, and his first Indycar race in 1967.

3. Gurney “invented” spraying champagne in victory lane.

A bath in bubbly for the top three finishers in an F1 Grand Prix is part of the celebration today. But back in the 1960s, it was just silly—until 1967. After winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40 co-driven with Indycar racing legend A.J. Foyt, Gurney sprayed champagne in celebration on the winner’s podium. That event sparked other racing event winners to do the same thing, leading to the custom that continues in many series to this day.

4. He never won the Indianapolis 500.

A driver as well known as Dan Gurney surely won the Indy 500 before, right? Nope. Despite being one of the most successful racers when he began annually contesting the Indy 500 in 1962, he never crossed the finish line first. In his nine attempts at the famous event, his best start was second in 1967 and best finish was second in 1968 and 1969.

5. Gurney was a teammate to Dale Earnhardt in NASCAR.

In 1980, Gurney got a call from his friend Les Richter, former NFL star and president of Riverside International Raceway. Seeking to draw in more fans to see the big, heavy stock cars go through left and right-hand corners, Richter wanted Gurney to come out of retirement to again run in the NASCAR event at his track. The car he would drive for the one-off event would be a Chevrolet Monte Carlo prepared by Rod Osterlund Racing. This also happened to be the team a young Dale Earnhardt was driving for. Gurney ran as high as second place before his transmission broke. Gurney retired again after the event. And “Intimidator” Earnhardt went on to win the 1980 NASCAR championship.

6. The Gurney Bubble was more function than form.

One of classic 1964-1969 Ford GT40’s styling trademarks was the two dimples on the top of each door that was also part of the roof. While these roof bubbles make the beautifully styled car stand out even more, they weren’t added for aesthetic appeal but because Gurney was too tall to fit inside without them. The 6’4″ driver needed the extra headroom so that he could comfortably fit inside Ford’s super racer with his helmet on.

7. There was an aerodynamic car component named after him.

In the early 1970s, Gurney had a small, vertical tab installed on the back end of a wing fitted to an Indycar that was slated to be tested by Bobby Unser. This slight modification allowed more air pressure to be generated on the back of the wing where it produces the most downforce. A design similar to this was used in aviation applications as long ago as the 1930s. But Gurney’s version was the first to be used to good effect in automotive applications. To this day, the raised edge of wings on cars are still referred to as “Gurney Flaps” at press events and car shows.

8. Gurney was the first Formula One driver to wear a full-face helmet.

Gurney was no stranger to big accidents. In fact, a crash stemming from brake failure in the 1960 Dutch Grand Prix resulted in a broken arm for Gurney and, more tragically, the death of a spectator. As a result, he was among the first to embrace new safety technology as it emerged. Full-face helmets are standard equipment in modern racing. But they weren’t generally well received by most racers then. They were either viewed as too obstructive or even cowardly. Thankfully, time has proven Gurney’s choice to be the sensible one.

9. He won Porsche’s only F1 Grand Prix as a constructor.

Porsche enjoyed great success as an engine supplier to McLaren in the 1980s. Niki Lauda drove to the 1984 title and Alain Prost scored the World Championship in 1985 and 1986 with Porsche (branded for sponsor TAG, as in TAG-Heuer) power. But the only win Porsche ever achieved as both an engine and chassis builder came in 1962 with Gurney at the wheel. Driving a Porsche 804 F1 car, Gurney won the 1962 French Grand Prix by a full lap over second place. He won again a week later (but this time in a non-championship race) at the Solitude Racetrack in Stuttgart, Germany, which was Porsche’s home track.

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