Tag Archives: 24 Hours of Le Mans

RIP Dan Gurney, 1931 – 2018

The great American race car driver and constructor Dan Gurney passed away at the age of 86 on January 14th.

A very good Autoweek obituary is here and a fine list of Gurney’s remarkable technical accomplishments has been published by Jalopnik.

A titan of motorsports and a tireless innovator for more over 60 years, Gurney survived the most dangerous era of Formula 1 in the 1950s and 60s and not only lived to tell the tale but thrived. Gurney participated in 86 Formula 1 Grand Prix and took victory four times, most significantly at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1967, where he drove a car of his own design and construction, the beautiful Eagle Weslake, to become the first and still only American to win as both constructor and driver in F1. If that wasn’t enough in that banner year for Gurney and the USA, he had only a week earlier triumphed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with co-driver A.J. Foyt in a Ford GT, again becoming the first all-American team to achieve that illustrious feat at the most famous 24-hour race in the world. It was on the Le Mans podium that a delighted Gurney first sprayed champagne on his teammates and the crowd after victory, something that instantly became a permanent tradition across all forms of motorsport.

Of course the podium celebration was not the brilliant Gurney’s only lasting contribution to racing. Blessed with not only movie star good looks but also an engineer’s keen mind, Gurney devised several technical improvements for racers and their cars that are still used today. Unusually tall for a driver at 6′ 4,” the big American became one of the first high level competitors on four wheels to adopt a full helmet and perspex face shield similar to that of those worn by dirt bike racers back in his Southern California home. He debuted the protective helmet designed by Bell at Indianapolis in 1968 and soon thereafter it became standard equipment for all drivers. In 1971 he came up with the now de rigueur Gurney Flap, a small right angle lip at the edge of the rear wing to increase rear downforce by creating vortices that enhance the airflow coming off the wing. In the early 1990s Gurney’s All American Racers team came up with a radical design for their IMSA Prototype entry that featured not only a small 2.1 liter 4-cylinder turbo engine by Toyota capable of producing a whopping 750 horsepower but also a monocoque chassis made entirely of carbon fiber, a radical proposition at the time, especially in sports cars. The AAR car also featured built-in aerodynamic assists from the front air intake holes and superior ground effects beneath. The result was the Eagle Mark III, a beast of a car that won the 1992 and 1993 IMSA  drivers’ and constructors’ championships going away, including a streak of 17 wins in a row.

To the very end Dan Gurney was still utilizing his prodigious gifts as a designer and innovator, playing a key part in the radical Delta Wing project and even helping design and fabricate the carbon fiber landing legs for the reusable Space X rocket. But he shone brightest as a driver. In his heyday he won races in Formula 1, Indycar, NASCAR and sports cars. Only the great Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya have posted such a display of victorious versatility in all four major automobile racing categories. He survived several crashes in the unsafe cars of the 1950s and 60s, the second in a BRM at the 1960 Dutch Grand Prix that killed a spectator. It was then that Gurney remarked to legendary journalist Robert Daly that racing “is a cruel sport.” And yet even with a young wife and growing family Gurney persisted. Even through the deaths of his rivals and friends on the track over his long career — Wolfgang von Trips, Swede Savage, the Rodriguez brothers, Jimmy Clark, Bruce McLaren and Jo Bonnier  — Gurney persisted and kept his foot down. He had full faith in his ability to delineate a necessary risk from a foolhardy one and when he started designing his own cars in the late 1960s he finally had full faith in his equipment, as well. A wonderful story teller, a survivor of a deadly golden era, a rarely matched driver and innovator and an all-around gentleman, Dan Gurney lived a true racer’s life from his teen years as a hot rodder in Riverside trying stay one step ahead of they cops to his discovery by Ferrari’s man in America, the brilliant Luigi Chinetti, to his remarkable, decades-long career full of victories to his final moments on the Earth just a few days ago. As the Spanish are fond of saying about a truly exceptional person — ¡Qué Hombre!

Motorsport Books — Go Like Hell by A.J. Baime

The winter interregnum between the end of the major motorsport championships in Europe and America and the new seasons’ spring starts provides the perfect opportunity to catch up with some quality literature on the fine art of racing, the better to whet one’s appetite for the coming competitions of the new year. One of the more enjoyable reads a petrolhead can peruse is A.J. Baime’s excellent Go Like Hell, a terrific account of the epic 1960s Ferrari-Ford rivalry.

The subtitle of Go Like Hell pretty much sums it up: “Ford, Ferrari and their battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans”. The 1960s saw Ford go all out to try to take down Ferrari from their perch at the very pinnacle of international racing. Nowhere was that mission more ambitious than in the Blue Oval’s quest to somehow, someway win the greatest racing event in the world, the 24-Hours of Le Mans. It would be no easy task, as the Prancing Horse essentially considered the top of the podium in that epic 24-hour race their exclusive piece of prized real estate and Ford, despite their success in NASCAR, really had no international road racing experience at that time.

But they did have Carroll Shelby and a host of other 60s superstars. After winning the 1959 Le Mans in an Astin-Martin, Shelby had turned constructor and converted an underpowered British roadster into the all-world Shelby AC Cobra by dropping a big Ford 427 engine into that light chassis. Just like that, Shelby and his team of talented engineers and fabricators had created a giant slayer. Originally designed as a Corvette killer, the AC Cobra also turned out to be a Ferrari killer in its class. Shelby’s remarkable creation earned the GT class win and 4th overall at the 1964 24-Hours of Le Mans, beating out several Ferrari 250 GTOs for that illustrious honor. After coming to the conclusion that Shelby was simply superior at preparing a road racing car than their NASACR partners, Holman Moody, it was no surprise that Ford chose Carroll Shelby to spearhead the development of their new prototype, the legendary Ford GT 40, with all the resources of Ford’s factory backing at his disposal. That amazing car would go on to win Le Mans overall for a stunning four consecutive years, 1966-1969, including the amazing 1-2-3 finish in 1966.

1966 GT40s Le Mans. (09/08/2011)

1966: Ford GT40s finish 1-2-3 at Le Mans

But Shelby isn’t the only compelling character chronicled in Go Like Hell. There’s a who’s who of hall of fame drivers like Phil Hill, the former Formula 1 Champion for Ferrari who lends his wealth of experience to the new Ford team, Dan Gurney, Lloyd Ruby, A.J. Foyt, the peerless Mario Andretti and the lost legend who may well have been the best driver you’ve never heard of, Englishman and development driver extraordinaire, Ken Miles. There’s a young Lee Iacocca, displaying the qualities of vision and leadership that would make him one of the most successful auto executives in the world in the years to come. And of course there are the dueling factory owners with their titanic egos and shared drive to win. Enzo Ferrari, whom the Italian press dubbed Saturn for the unfortunate penchant of his drivers — his surrogate “sons” — to be devoured by machines of his own creation. And Henry Ford II, known as “The Deuce” for obvious reasons, whose desire to beat Ferrari sprang not only from a proposed merger gone bad between the Detroit powerhouse and the de facto Italian national marque from Maranello, but also from a son’s need to pay tribute to his ill-treated and prematurely deceased father, the unfortunate Edsel Ford, whom Ford founder Henry Senior had humiliated and belittled.

Rumored to be in the works as a film under the direction of Michael Mann, Go Like Hell is indeed a cinematic concoction and a thoroughly enjoyable one. Baime’s meticulously researched page turner captures what many consider racing’s finest era almost perfectly, when lighter cars and higher horsepower broke speed records at a blistering clip and technological advancements changed the game nearly month to month. It also bears witness to the extreme danger of competing in that era, where several drivers might lose their lives in a season and mechanical failure at a place like Le Mans could well spell death not only for the driver but for scores of spectators, as well. You can practically smell the castor oil, hear the roar of the engines as they tear out of the pits and down the Mulsanne Straight at 200 miles per hour and feel your pulse pound as you wonder which cars can survive that most treacherous of 24-hours in a normally peaceful French countryside gone berserk with noise, action and teeming humanity. Read it and enjoy it for yourself. If Go Like Hell doesn’t get your juices flowing and primed for another grand season of motorsport you better just stick to baseball.

Race alert — The 24 Hours of Le Mans is live now

This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the grandaddy of endurance motor racing, is underway at the Circuit de la Sarthe in the Pays de la Loire region of France. You can catch literally all of the action live on the Fox Sports GO site or through their app by logging in with your cable provider ID and password. The complete broadcast schedule is below:

– FOX Sports GO (Saturday, June 13 at 8:30 a.m. to Sunday, June 14 at 9:30 a.m.)
– Saturday, June 13 (8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., FOX Sports 2)
– Saturday, June 13 (7 p.m. to 8 p.m., FOX Sports 1)
– Saturday, June 13 (11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., FOX Sports 2)
– Sunday, June 14 (3:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., FOX Sports 1)
– Sunday, June 14 (7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., FOX Sports 2)
– Sunday, June 14 (9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., FOX Sports 1)

Can Porsche put an end to Audi’s remarkable run of dominance in P1? How will Nissan’s Nismo fare in its debut race? And of course it’s time to find out who’s the top dog in GT: Corvette, Ferrari, Astin Martin or Porsche. Watch the whole thing live or tune in at your convenience — you’re bound to see something dramatic, unexpected and likely hair raising. After all, it’s Le Mans.