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Racing to a Midlife Crisis
Sam Moses
May 26, 1980
In 16 years of driving race cars and another 10 building them, Dan Gurney, 49, has faced some testing moments, but none more crucial than getting his newest Eagle ready for Indy
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May 26, 1980

Racing To A Midlife Crisis

In 16 years of driving race cars and another 10 building them, Dan Gurney, 49, has faced some testing moments, but none more crucial than getting his newest Eagle ready for Indy

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For Gurney the urge to go faster! faster! came even earlier. At six, when his parents drove past the old Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, he would roll down a window and listen from the back seat to the sounds of the racing cars inside the stadium. "I still remember that," Gurney says. "Listening to those exotic sounds coming from the stadium, crazy to go in there and feel it all. I guess something was tugging at me even then."

When Gurney was 17, his father decided he had had enough of the opera, and he packed up his family and moved to Riverside, Calif., where he bought an orange grove. Gurney's next few years were like a lot of young men's. He attended two junior colleges, was excited about neither and worked at various jobs.

Riverside at this time was little more than a town with a Spanish mission surrounded by orange groves. On dark summer nights the 19-year-old Gurney would slip behind the wheel of his five-window Deuce coupe, whose roof was chopped so low his crewcut scrubbed the head-liner. He would head for the city limits and the groves, which were connected by dirt roads. Gurney and his buddies would set up detour signs in strategic locations in order to deflect traffic, and build road circuits that meandered between the sweet-smelling trees. They would race around till dawn, kicking up lingering trails of dust illuminated in the night by wedges of light from the headlights of their hot rods.

"We'd gather beforehand at Ruby's drive-in hamburger stand," Gurney recalls. "Guys would drive up with cars that had secret camshafts and carburetors and cylinder heads and fuels and stuff, and they'd all park around the corner until the challenges were made. Mickey Thompson, who was just starting on his hot rod career, was one of them. He was sort of the 'Pigpen' of the group, just hell-bent for leather and coated with grease. Then there were the guys we called the Bean Bandits. They were like a family, a group of Mexicans that really went fast. Dyno Don Nicholson came to Ruby's with his brother in a '34 Ford that was like Swiss cheese, it had so many holes in it to make it lighter. It was a fabulous era with tremendous mystique to it, and it was really exciting to me."

Soon came a girl, a marriage and the draft. He spent 18 months in the Army, 16 of them in Korea, and when he returned to Riverside he tried to settle down in a job at an aluminum plant. But that thing tugging at him prevented him from settling down very far, despite the fact that he had two children now (there would eventually be four in this marriage). After three restless years he was fired because his boss wanted him to make a commitment to aluminum and Gurney only wanted to commit himself to cars.

By 1957 Gurney had five or six sports-car races under his belt, and had managed to promote himself a Ferrari, no less, for a race that fall at Riverside. It would be the first major event at the new road circuit. Though he was unknown, Gurney got the ride in the Ferrari: no one else cared to tangle with the car because its reputation was so nasty. The rich field boasted some of the biggest names of the day—Carroll Shelby, Paul O'Shea, Walt Hansgen, Masten Gregory—in some of the best cars: Maserati, Mercedes, Jaguar, Aston-Martin. After the race, at a roisterous victory celebration, the winner, Shelby, said of the novice he had barely beaten, " Dan Gurney is a potential world champion."

Gurney's performance in that infamous and ill-handling Ferrari attracted the attention of none other than Enzo Ferrari, and Gurney was invited to try out for the Ferrari factory team.

"Alone and frightened," as he recalls, he went to Italy, where he was met by Phil Hill, a fellow Californian who would win the world driving championship in a Ferrari in 1961. Hill was already a member of the Ferrari team and his assistance to and acceptance of Gurney marked the beginning of a friendship that remains close today. Gurney was booked into a hotel near the Modena circuit and told he would be called when he was wanted. For the next three days no one said boo. Ferrari was notorious for playing on the doubts of his drivers, and Gurney was as ripe as they came. At long last, on the third evening, he was told, "Be at the autodrome at eight o'clock tomorrow morning."

"It was winter, so when I got to the track it was still pretty dark," Gurney recalls. "It was a heavy, damp, overcast kind of morning; a lot of people were just sort of standing around with their hands in their pockets. I couldn't talk to anyone because they didn't speak English. There were all these engineers and officials, and Enzo himself, all wearing big old black overcoats with black fedoras and smoking French cigarettes down to a quarter inch. It looked like the Mafia was waiting for me.

"Then out of the gloom comes this bloody transporter. It's got three racing cars on it, and I'm the only driver within sight. I remember thinking, 'This is the real McCoy.' "

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