A Special Link with GoodwoodHide Text
Racing legend Dan Gurney has a special link with Goodwood - which is why his helmet is our cover star. By Rob Widdows
Daniel Sexton Gurney is one of only a handful of Americans to Conquer the circuits of Europe as well as his homeland. Tall and handsome, the son of a New York opera star, "Dan the Man" cut a glamorous figure - a gladiatorial racing driver in the Hollywood mould who dared to take on the Europeans at their own game. As a young man in the 1950s Gurney was captivated by the hot-rod scene in California - and built his own cars, which he raced both on the Bonneville Salt Flats and at Riverside Raceway. By 1959 his natural talent had taken him to Grand Prix racing, initially with Ferrari, where he achieved podium positions.
His maiden victory came with Porsche in the French Grand Prix at Rouen in 1962, but it was the fearsome speeds at Spa that brought out the best in him. In the 1964 Belgian Grand Prix he was on pole in the Brabham. He set a new lap record in the race and led until the last lap, when he dramatically ran out of fuel. But he won the next race in France and the last of the year in Mexico.
Gurney captured the hearts and minds of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. They loved his fluid driving style and admired the way he'd risen through the ranks by dint of his pure, natural speed and his talent - in any kind of racing car. Such was the popularity of this erudite and charming man that in the mid-1960s, the US magazine Car and Driver was distributing "Gurney for President" bumper stickers and badges, urging his fans to propel their hero into the White House. The campaign rapidly gained momentum until it was pointed out that Gurney was still too young to qualify as a candidate. Nonetheless, it was a measure of his appeal.
In 1966 Gurney brought his All American Racers team across the Atlantic, choosing British engineer Harry Weslake to build him an engine for the Eagle Grand Prix car that he would race in Europe. The following summer, Gurney and his co-driver AJ Foyt trounced the Ferraris to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Ford, the first all-American victory. On the podium at Le Mans, Gurney spontaneously began spraying the crowd with champagne, establishing a tradition that continues to this day. A week later he won the Belgian Grand Prix in the Eagle, the only American ever to win a Grand Prix in a car built by his own team. His main rival that day was the great Jim Clark, whose father later confided to Gurney that he was the only man his son feared on the track. A fine engineer, he also invented the "Gurney flap", a small right-angle tab attached to the trailing edge of his car's rear wing that increased downforce. The device was soon imitated by his competitors and is still used today on both cars and aircraft. In 1968 he turned up at the German Grand Prix with a full-face helmet - the first ever driver to wear one.
The story of Gurney's racing helmet goes back to 1959, when he came to Europe to compete for Ferrari and later BRM. Drivers had been encouraged to display their national colours, with Gurney choosing blue with a white stripe. Tragically at the 1960 Dutch Grand Prix he had the worst accident of his career when his BRM suffered brake failure. He was lucky to escape with cuts, bruises and a broken arm but a member of the crowd, standing in a prohibited area, was killed. Although not normally a superstitious man, Gurney was badly shaken and decided to abandon the blue helmet, leaving it on a shelf with his trophies until 2012, when he presented it to Lord March. After the crash he had taken to wearing a black one, hoping it would change his luck.
Gurney continued to race at Goodwood throughout the 1960s, when the circuit hosted major international events, so when he heard that Lord March was bringing motorsport back to the Estate, he needed little persuasion to visit the Festival of Speed, where he was reunited with his Eagle-Weslake. He would return twice more, memorably bringing the Alligator motorcycle he had designed and built. Only 36 of these bikes, notable for a very low-slung seat, were made, and they remain collector's items.
In 2012 Goodwood Revival staged a celebration of Gurney's career, bringing together many of the cars he raced on both sides of the Atlantic. "That was a wonderful occasion," says Lord March. "Dan is a super-special guy and his helmet, the only one that ever existed, is one of my most prized possessions. I also have his AARley-Davidson motorcycle, which Dan and his All American Racers team re-engineered from a Harley. It arrived out of the blue, in a crate from California - so typically kind of the man."