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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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Nineteen sixty-six was the year of the birth of All American Racers and the Grand Prix Eagle. Five thousand fans paid $15 each to join the All American Racers Eagle Club, which gave the project a truly democratic foundation. The car was built in Gurney's shop in California with American materials, but because the designer was English and the crew included an Australian, a Mexican, and a couple of Frenchmen, Gurney named the team Anglo American Racers. "This land is a melting pot of people who came over here to the American way, and our car has that same melting-pot approach," he would say.

In June of 1967 Gurney drove the Eagle to victory in the Belgian Grand Prix, beating Jackie Stewart by 63 seconds. He averaged 145.67 mph, at the time the fastest Formula I race ever. It was the first Grand Prix victory for an American car since 1921.

"The essence of life is to go as fast as you can without getting killed," Gurney has said. During the 16 years he raced, he had only two crashes of significance, neither his fault and neither resulting in serious injury to him. That remarkable safety record is a result of Gurney's awareness of where the fine line between too fast and too slow was. He would investigate other drivers' accidents and often found them to be the result of driver error. He would remember that error and resolve never to make the same one. And unlike many drivers, he would not deny his own fear.

"Once I was coming at this blind turn at 170 miles an hour," he says. "The track was dry at that spot, but it had been raining unpredictably in other places on the course—this was at Spa, a long, hilly circuit in Belgium. So for all I knew it could have been raining around the turn, and if I went in there with it floored, gambling that it was going to be dry, it would be like taking a pistol with a bullet and—click. Well, that's what I did anyhow. It was dry. But it was such a close call. Afterward I didn't think what I had done was all that bright. Just because it turned out to be dry didn't make it the right decision."

The essence of life is to go as fast as you can without getting killed. "When I was driving, pushing life that far," he says, "I would get up on the morning of a race and I could hear sounds of the household, maybe the kids doing something, sounds I would never notice if it weren't for that race. Maybe I'd smell the coffee in a way I hadn't before, or hear the rain, just humdrum things of that sort I would appreciate more. I guess that's one of the benefits of being scared stiff." Gurney chuckles.

Despite the maturity that kept him alive on the track, Gurney admits to lapses of maturity on the highway. That is a trait of the deep-rooted race driver: he simply can't stand to be passed.

Says Gurney, "When you're driving, what you're doing is controlled fury. Every good driver has a mean streak. For instance, if I'm sitting at a stoplight and someone gives me a look and I can tell we're going to have it out, I mean it's like drinking a gallon of adrenaline. All of a sudden it...just...that sort of thing occurs."

Gurney's recognition of this thing keeps him from buying fast street cars. "You own a fast car and you just can't resist the temptation to stretch its legs," he says. "Sooner or later there's going to be a cop around the corner." (This from the man who once held the New York-to- Los Angeles record of 35 hours and 54 minutes, co-driving a Ferrari Daytona. When asked how fast he drove, he replied with the Gurney grin, "We never exceeded 175 miles an hour.")

Gurney has never owned an exotic car. He often drives the old white AAR van; his family cars are a Mustang plagued by rust in the cooling system and a Honda Accord that plagues its occupants with an intermittent honk from the short-circuited seatbelt signal. Dan's second wife, Evi, whom he met when he was driving for Porsche and she worked for the manager of the racing team, says, "About three months after we moved into our house our neighbor, a lawyer with a Cadillac and a Mercedes, came over and introduced himself because he wasn't sure we were really the Dan Gurneys. He couldn't figure out why the driveway wasn't always full of racy cars. I'm afraid we disappointed him terribly."

That Gurney did not win either the Indy 500 or the world Grand Prix championship is a more acute personal disappointment. "I always thought I was capable of winning them," he says. "I can't deny that I really wanted to win them, and it certainly bothered me that I didn't. But I had the respect of my fellow competitors, my peers. That probably sustained me." A moment that Gurney says means as much to him as any in racing occurred when Jimmy Clark's father took Gurney aside after Clark's funeral in Scotland. Mr. Clark told him that he was the only driver Jimmy ever feared.

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