Remembering Dan Gurney, always the coolest man in the room

Dan Gurney began racing in 1955 and won in nearly every racing series he attempted. Car and Driver magazine even launched a 1964 presidential campaign on his behalf. Reed Saxon/AP Photo

How cool was Dan Gurney?

You might already know the statistical part of his racing life. The first man to stand atop the podium in the world's four major racing classifications: Formula One, IndyCar, Sports Cars and NASCAR. The winner of 51 races in all, earning 98 trips to the podium during a behind-the-wheel career that spanned 312 events in 20 counties. In 1967 he had what might have very well been the greatest three-week span for any man to ever hold a steering wheel, when he started second in the Indianapolis 500; won the 24 Hours of Le Mans while co-driving with A.J. Foyt, the man who'd just beaten him at Indy; and then traveled north to win the F1 Belgian Grand Prix in a car of his own construction, still the only American to do so.

He made only 16 NASCAR Cup Series starts and he won five of them. He made only 28 IndyCar starts and he won seven of them. He never won the Indy 500 as a driver, finishing second twice, but Gurney-built cars won the race three times, driven there by Gordon Johncock and Bobby Unser, twice. Gurney made 86 F1 starts as a driver, winning four races, three pole positions and earning 19 podium finishes.

Jimmy Clark, two-time world champion, said Gurney was the only driver he ever feared. Clark, like so many of Gurney's friends and rivals, lost his life on a racetrack. Gurney stayed with us much longer, dying Sunday morning at the age of 86.

How cool was Dan Gurney?

He looked like every Hollywood casting director's vision of "race car driver," with permanently sharp-but-squinted eyes and a jawline that looked like it could cut steel. At 6-foot-4, he would zip up his white fire suit, slide on his goggles and wrap a scarf around his neck, looking as much like Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" as he did James Garner in "Grand Prix." Gurney was, in fact, in "Grand Prix," along with his F1 contemporaries Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio and Clark.

"If there was ever a discussion about how do I look or act or, hell, just stand there and look the part, the solution was simple," Garner recalled in 1999. "We'd look at Dan Gurney and say, OK, there's the answer, and that's what I'd do."

Garner said those words while standing on the street prior to the start of the Long Beach Grand Prix, a race that Gurney founded. The event was sanctioned by CART, the American open-wheel racing series he co-founded, featuring a car he owned and independently designed. No matter what team, every driver on the grid wore closed-faced helmets, thanks to Gurney, who'd pioneered their use, and every car on the grid featured a small strip along the back of its wing, aka the Gurney Flap. The same flap that can be found on airplanes, helicopters and pretty much anything seeking better aerodynamic performance. There have been stacks of books and research papers written about the Gurney Flap, trying to explain its simplistic magic.

Gurney devised and fabricated it in under an hour's time, on the fly during a test session with Unser at Phoenix International Raceway.

That's how cool Dan Gurney was.

He did all of the above with a decidedly American flair. Those self-built machines were called Eagles. His team was titled All-American Racers. Born on Long Island, he was the son of Metropolitan Opera star John Gurney. But the sounds that tingled young Dan's spine weren't those of duets or arias. They came from dual carbs and aspiration.

"Oh, I was drawn to the theater, but my theater was a racetrack called Freeport Stadium," Gurney recalled in 2000. "They rolled the cars out to John Philip Sousa music. There were marching bands and cheerleaders twirling batons. You mix that with the castor oil smell and the sound of the engines, I was hooked."

The family moved to Riverside, California, in 1948. The timing was perfect. Southern California was becoming the world center of hot-rodding just as 17-year old Dan arrived. He first honed his skills by slinging convertibles through the orange groves. He left to serve in the Korean War, returning home just in time for the grand opening of the soon-to-become-legendary Riverside Raceway, located practically in his backyard.

His raw talent caught the eye of Ferrari's new American-based sports car efforts. By 1959 he was wheeling the planet's most coveted racing ride, a Ferrari-built F1 machine.

"What I loved so much about Grand Prix racing was the Olympic element of it," he explained. "The flags, the pride of representing your home nation, no matter where in the world you were. That unique feeling of never feeling more American than you do when you're nowhere near the United States. There's a real sense of pride that comes with that."

But there was also no one faster in the States, even when it came to crossing those states as quickly as possible. On the track Gurney won in Can-Am, Trans Am, you name it. Off the track, he went just as fast. In 1971, one year after he'd retired from formal competition to focus on life as a team owner, he was coaxed off the bench by racing writer Brock Yates to participate in the still-new Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. They won the highly illegal secret event's second running, using a Ferrari Daytona to cover 2,863 miles in just under 36 hours, receiving only one speeding ticket. "At no time did we exceed 175 mph," Gurney deadpanned. A decade later, "The Cannonball Run" was released and Burt Reynolds essentially played Gurney on the big screen.

Yeah, that's how cool Dan Gurney was.

So cool, he's the man credited with inventing the celebratory Champagne spray, handed a magnum of bubbly while on the top step of the winner's circle at Le Mans in '67. Reveling in his defeat of Ferrari in an Ford, Gurney didn't take a sip and hand the bottle off to teammate A.J. Foyt. He shook it up and hosed down everyone around him. Winners from World Cups to Super Bowls have been doing it ever since.

So cool, that Car and Driver magazine launched a 1964 presidential campaign on Gurney's behalf. For the rest of his life he was asked to sign campaign buttons, stickers and T-shirts, and he rode in countless prerace parades atop convertibles fashioned with "Gurney for President" banners. He always promised: "If elected, I will set aside one day per year when all Americans can drive around with the muffler taken off of their vehicle."

Dan Gurney was cool because he was the fastest man on the track, the funniest guy at the bar, the smartest guy at the drawing board, the politest person at the table and the handsomest man in the lineup. He valued friendships as much he did trophies and he spent his entire 86-and-a-half years on this planet knowing his life was spent asking a question to which he would he would never have the answer. That was the fun part.

"How far can you push that stopwatch?" he asked aloud during a conversation in 2013. "Is the next turn the one that will do that? Or is the next one? I have spent my life wondering if the next one is the one that can convince that stopwatch to give up a little more ground. That chase never ends. I don't want it to."

How cool was Dan Gurney? So cool that he was always the coolest guy in the room. Even when that room was ridiculously stocked with cool.

"Everyone has their racing heroes, don't they? This ballroom is full of them, isn't it?" Mario Andretti said it, goblet of wine in hand, at a party being held on the eve of the centennial Indianapolis 500 in 2011. This was a room that included Andretti, Foyt, Parnelli Jones and an army of Unsers. Drag racer Don "The Snake" Prudhomme was there. Pop star Seal was there, along with wife at the time, Heidi Klum. Rumor was that Richard Petty was going to pop in later that night.

All took a backseat to the man whom Andretti had just been chatting up. As an Italian immigrant growing up in rural Pennsylvania, teenage Andretti had assumed he would never be able to pursue his dream of racing in Formula One. He was American now. Americans didn't get to drive Ferraris. Then he started following the career of a guy from California who'd impossibly made that jump. A decade later, inspired by that Californian, Andretti became the second man to win in sports cars, stock cars, Indy Car and F1.

"Here's the difference between Dan Gurney and the rest of us," Andretti continued. "To many, the rest of us might be fortunate enough to be one of your racing heroes. But to all of us, Dan Gurney, he's our racing hero."