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"It was so much simpler when I was just driving," he continues wistfully. "There were no problems with running a company or paying bills. All I had to do was concentrate on driving. I had a real excuse to dial it all out."
Maybe it was an uncontrollable urge to "dial it all out" that caused him to enter the Riverside 500 stock car race last January. "I'm a victim of my own nostalgia," Gurney said, trying to explain what he was doing there, 10 years after he had retired, racing at Riverside once more for old times' sake. "There's an excellent chance I'll get laughed out of the park, but I'm willing to take whatever comes," he said, a statement that characterized the way he has lived his life. But in his heart, he added, he felt he could run with the leaders or else he wouldn't be there.
Because of rain during practice, Gurney had gotten only about 20 minutes behind the wheel of his Monte Carlo, yet that thing still seemed to be there, tugging him to the seventh-fastest qualifying position.
On the morning of the race people in the pits and grandstands were wearing buttons that said GURNEY FOR PRESIDENT. Painted in big white letters on the track in Turn 6, in front of the grandstand that could be called Gurney's Gallery, was the encouragement GO GURNEY.
As he walked to the starting line, Gurney looked like a rich gentleman sports-car driver, as if he would stride in his springy, long-legged lope over to a silver Aston-Martin roadster, slip on kidskin gloves one finger at a time, comb his sandy hair in the rearview mirror and wink at a beautiful lady. And then he put on the famous black helmet, the result of his childhood fantasizing about being a' jousting knight in shining black armor.
Gurney used the early laps to settle into a groove. Then he began to move up, slowly, first past his teammate Dale Earnhardt, then past Bobby Allison and Darrel Waltrip when they had mechanical problems, then past Dave Marcis.
It all came back when he hooked up with Marcis. That gallon of adrenaline hit him, and it splattered the spectators all the way from the Esses to Turn 6. Gurney had been pressuring Marcis for eight laps, and Marcis finally made an error as they went into the Esses, six weaving, 100-mph turns. Marcis went straight off the track to his left in the first turn but shot back onto the track in the next, directly into Gurney's path. Instead of slowing down, Gurney drove off the track, to the right. Still not under control, Marcis drove off to the left again, and they were both off the track now, dirt billowing behind them as they raced for Turn 6. Bursting onto the track from a cloud of orange desert dust came Gurney, ahead of Marcis, who was still shaking his head as he crossed the GO GURNEY sign painted on Turn 6. "I knew Marcis would come back onto the track in front of me, so I just said, 'I'm coming through!' " Gurney commented. As the fan of the '60s had said, "No one could go through the Esses like Dan Gurney. It was something to see."
But Gurney luck would strike again, on Lap 79, with Gurney in third behind Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. It was probably the excursion into the dirt that had chipped a tooth on his gearbox, which now offered him only neutral. He coasted to a stop in Turn 6, where his gallery was still buzzing over the pass of Marcis. From the stands streamed a trail of kids who weren't even born the last time Dan Gurney drove, and they latched onto him as if he were a Pied Piper, to the bewilderment of Dan's five-year-old son Alexander, who had run down and was now swept along with them. The crowd cheered until Gurney climbed to the top of a motor home. He stood there wearing that huge, optimistic, Gurney grin as they cheered him still.