For as long as there has been a Dan Gurney, which is 49 years and change, there has been a Gurney grin. It was often disguised by a half-grimace during Gurney's race-driving years, from 1955 to 1970—his intense-young-man period—but it was undeniably there. As he mellowed over the last decade, the grin became quick, broad and irrepressible. Today it is often accompanied by a short laugh. The grin expresses optimism.
But even as Gurney grins he says things like, "The picture's not bright, but we have hope." He uses the grin with expressions like "whistling in the graveyard." Curious. Lately people have been beginning to wonder, "Why is that man smiling?"
Good question. This has not been an easy month for Gurney. While his competitors were busy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway practicing for this Sunday's 500, Gurney was 2,000 miles away at his shop in Santa Ana, Calif., up to his elbows in camshafts and piston rings. His mission was to save the 500 for his team, All American Racers. They were at the Brickyard getting Mike Mosley qualified for the event in a radically new Gurney Eagle car whose stock-block Chevy engine was not yet the powerhouse Gurney believes it can be. So he was working night and day at Santa Ana, building what he hoped would be a breakthrough engine for the race: the Chevy refined for glory. It was a formidable task. The standard Indy engine is the turbocharged English Cosworth V-8, which has powered the last 17 winners of Indy-car races. With a Cosworth pushing, Johnny Rutherford won the pole for this year's race at a speed of 192.256 mph. Despite an oil leak, Mosley got into the field last Sunday in 26th position, at 183.449 mph.
Gurney is taking an enormous gamble with this Eagle-Chevy, for if the car fails, All American Racers could go down with it. The problem is economics. At about $42,000 per copy, the Cosworth is extremely expensive; the Chevy, at $14,000, is more like it. Other teams would like to reduce their expenses, too, but Gurney is the first contender with the courage—or the need—to turn away from the dominant Cosworth.
Few have been as faithful to Indy-car racing over the last 15 years as Gurney, and if its demands should claim All American Racers, it would be a sad irony and a major loss. Gurney twice finished second at Indy as a driver, won in 1975 as an owner with Bobby Unser driving, and last year came in third as an owner with Mosley driving. He contributed significantly to the takeover of the 500 by lightweight rear-engined cars when, in 1963, he helped persuade Ford and the Lotus works in England to build the Lotus-Ford. His 1972 Eagle was so good that 20 of the 33 starters in the 1973 race drove Eagles.
In addition to accomplishing so much at Indy, Gurney built the AAR Formula I Eagles and drove one to victory in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix. That was the first time an American car had won a world championship race in 46 years. Gurney, the Eagle and All American Racers have been an all-American success story. Why is that man smiling? He has his reasons.
One of the things that has made Gurney a winner is his willingness, almost eagerness, to take risks. "You're either a dummy for trying or a star if you pull it off," he says with a laugh. "So big deal if we end up dummies. It's more fun trying to stay a jump ahead."
The Gurney method of staying a jump ahead has often been considered eccentric, and it has brought failure as well as success. But it has never been anything less than true to the man. In his 16 years at the wheel, he established himself as one of the greatest American drivers of all time, with victories in Grand Prix, sports car, endurance, stock car, Indy car, Can-Am and sedan racing. He was America's best road racer in the '60s, a horsepower-crazy era that is gone but not forgotten.
It is a time etched in the memories of those who were part of the culture so greatly influenced by Gurney. Says H. Allan Seymour II, 36, who watched Gurney win the first of his five Riverside 500 stock-car races, "Growing up here in Southern California and driving over the twisty Ortega highway toward Riverside to watch Dan Gurney was a rite of fall, really. We used to go in this old '47 Chevy sedan with a sofa tied to the roof, playing Beach Boys songs on the radio the whole way over: 409, Little Deuce Coupe, Four on the Floor. I remember the first stock-car race there in 1963, Gurney against the Southern drivers. We parked by the Esses and watched them all go through: Joe Weatherly, wearing an Aloha shirt—really, it was yellow with red hibiscus flowers on it—wrestling his Pontiac Catalina with one hand on the steering wheel and the other grabbing the window wing; A.J. Foyt wearing a red bandanna over his face and just punching it through the turns like he was driving a sprint car. And there was Gurney: his black helmet, light blue racing uniform, sitting upright in his seat with his arms outstretched and holding the steering wheel at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock in the classic Formula I driving position, just gliding his Galaxie through the Esses like a hot knife through butter. No one drove through the Esses like Dan Gurney. It was something to see."
Gurney looked pure Southern Californian then, and he does now. Maybe it is the comfortable way he dresses in corduroy slacks and V-neck sweaters and sneakers. Maybe it is the Gary Cooperesque profile and 6'2", 210-pound physique—25 pounds more than in his racing days, but still looking lean. Maybe it is the blue eyes and blondish hair and smooth face, lacking both whiskers and wrinkles. Maybe it is even that quick grin. But in fact he grew up on Long Island. Gurney's father was a leading bass-baritone in the New York Metropolitan Opera, and his mother hoped her only son would become a doctor or lawyer. An urge to design and talent to construct is something Gurney may have inherited from his father, who is also a superb cabinet maker. His father designed machinery and invented a ball bearing that bore the Gurney name. What did he get from Mom? Well, says she, a petite, warm woman in her 70s, "When I was 11 years old and out for a drive in my father's car, I would always sit next to him and say, 'Faster! Faster!' "