Renowned motorsports photographer and columnist Richard Dole looks back at the legacy Dan Gurney leaves as one of the most influential people in the sport. The legendary driver and car builder passed away on Sunday at the age of 86.
When I think of Dan Gurney, I think of the men Tom Wolfe wrote about in his 1979 best seller “The Right Stuff.”
“…the idea (as all pilots understood) was that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back at the last yawning moment…”
Wolfe was writing about the test pilots and astronauts during the early days of the space program. He easily could have been writing about racing drivers during the same era.
Pioneers forge their own way. And Gurney certainly created his own very unique path.
He was an innovator and an inventor, a man of endless curiosity and determination, a gentle man and a fierce competitor… And a racer in every sense of the word.
I was fortunate to photograph him on a few occasions. The most memorable occasion was in 2012 at the All American Racers shop in Santa Ana, Calif.
I was there as part of the DeltaWing program, along with Ben Bowlby, the car’s designer, Duncan Dayton, sports car owner and historic racer, Paul Ryan, the public relations guru and driver Marino Franchitti.
Gurney and his AAR organization were heavily involved with the DeltaWing project, especially during the early days.
After a tour of the facilities, we had about 30 minutes with Gurney to shoot some photos and video.
The location could best be described as part conference room, part trophy room, and part museum. At the far end of the room was a large case, which contained “the bottle.”
The bottle was the magnum of Moet & Chandon that Gurney sprayed upon the crowd following his victory, with co-driver A.J. Foyt, at the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours.
Yes, Dan Gurney was the first athlete to spray champagne following a sporting victory.
Gurney took the bottle from the case, sat on the edge of the conference table, and began to tell us stories about it.
He gifted it to his friend Flip Schulke, the Life magazine photographer, who three years earlier had taken the driver ringside to the Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston boxing match in Miami Beach, and was in France to document his historic victory at Le Mans.
Gurney warned him to shoot quickly and to get out of the way before the spraying began.
Schulke took the bottle back to the States, drilled a hole in the bottom of it, and made a lamp, where it sat on a table in his Florida home for decades. The photographer eventually returned the bottle to Gurney.
Since then, the Smithsonian has requested the bottle for its archives.
Then Dan showed us his technique for spraying the champagne, his unique way to achieve the most velocity, the maximum amount of fluid and longest-lasting celebration.
Needless to say, we were all enthralled. Someone asked him if he would show us again so we could record it on video and share it?
“Hell no,” he replied. “If other drivers can’t figure it out, I’m not going to give away my secrets.”
And then he smiled that Dan Gurney smile, always the competitor and enjoying the moment.
The tributes, the obits, and the history books will record his accomplishments on and off the racing circuits and the details of his remarkable life.
It was a very American life, from a very American era, where setting lofty goals and achieving them through hard work and ingenuity was the norm, instead of the exception.
It was when a select few had the rare ability to lift oneself, a vehicle, and a nation to greatness.
“A man either had it or he didn’t. There was no such thing as having most of it,” Wolfe wrote.
The Right Stuff. Daniel Sexton Gurney had all of it.
America’s last true hero now races among the stars.