“Who is that great driver?” Spectators on the grey November Sunday at Riverside leafed feverishly but vainly through their programs. They found the entrant of the loud red #69 4.9-liter Ferrari—Frank Arciero, a well-known Montebello building contractor—but there was no mention of his car’s driver. Yet here he was, leading the main event ahead of an elite field that included Carroll Shelby, Walt Hansgen, Richie Ginther, Masten Gregory, and Paul O’Shea, all piloting respectable equipment.
Driving a Maserati 450S, by far the most powerful sports-racing car available in 1957, Shelby led early but spun. The lead was seized by the unknown newcomer piloting Arciero’s 375 Plus (s/n 0478AM), his speed on the long straight a record-setting 163 mph. Shelby later caught up, but passing was another matter; the Ferrari fended off the Maserati’s advances until five laps from the end of the 25-lap race. In the end, Dan Gurney finished five seconds behind Shelby.
Few drivers have made more of a reputation by finishing second than Gurney. The crowd around his Ferrari in the paddock was immense. And when he and wife Arleo walked into the ballroom at the Mission Inn for the prizegiving that evening, he received a standing ovation.
Winner Shelby was generous in his praise for the tall, blond, good-looking 26-year-old Californian, who was—astonishingly—competing in only his 13th automobile race. That is, the 13th officially sanctioned event, for Gurney had been racing on the roads for years.
GURNEY’S CONTEMPORARIES had already marked him as a man to watch. As friend Perry Bronson told Steve McNamara, “We had laid out a home-made track outside of town. Dan came out in what I remember was a stock ’40 Ford. Most of us had pretty hot roadsters and we knew the track pretty well. Dan came out there and he drove like there was no tomorrow. Everybody thought, ‘This is it!’”
Hot-rodding was cost-effective for a cash-strapped teenager, but European-style road racing still attracted Gurney: “Right away road racing appealed to me. Road racing is real driving; it’s related to driving on a regular road in a regular car. I liked dragging and record runs, but there was something that I missed in those that road racing seemed to offer. I felt that it asked more of the car. There seemed to be more inventiveness and engineering involved. You had whole factories competing against each other rather than private individuals all running the same kinds of concepts. It just seemed far more exciting with more scope and tradition, and the international aspect interested me.”
Road racing was getting under way in California then under the aegis of the California Sports Car Club. The Sports Car Club of America was also involved, but it was more of an East Coast movement and competition between the American coasts was as active then as now. Gurney’s first sight of a road race up north at Pebble Beach in 1950 did nothing to discourage him, but professional road racing in America was still unknown—trophies were the only rewards. Gurney nurtured the dream of making a living as a driver but reality dictated otherwise.
A friend from his hot-rodding days, Skip Hudson, was just as besotted. Together, they schemed to break into the charmed circle of the sport, where fellow Californians like Phil Hill and Ginther were already ensconced. “Through their connections with various people, primarily but not just with John von Neumann, they were off and running. They had a support system. That was a hard rung to reach for, but that was our goal. And like all good competitors if they could kick your hands off the rung of the ladder, they’d do it, naturally! Of course!”
After successful Triumph and Porsche drives, Gurney became a bigger blip on the Southern California radar screen. Hudson had been heightening his own profile as well, and both drivers were weighed up by Frank Arciero, who was trying to tame a cranky sports-racing Ferrari he had bought from Tony Parravano. The 4.9-liter machine was fast—clocked at 179 mph at Bonneville—but declared by driver after driver to be unmanageable. Maybe a new driver was the answer, mused Arciero. He asked the respected Ginther about Hudson and Gurney: Which would be his choice? Ginther gave Gurney the higher rating.
Arciero soon called Ginther’s pick, asking, “Would you like to come up and test this 4.9 Ferrari at Willow Springs?” Knowing well the car’s reputation, Gurney decided to start with the basics. He took the car to Willow’s paved parking area and proceeded to spin it on the throttle a few times to get a feel for its traction—or lack of it. This flabbergasted Arciero and his mechanic: What kind of nut case are we dealing with? they asked each other. Then Gurney took to the track.
“It didn’t want to put the power on the ground,” Gurney said of the car, which rode on a chassis shortened after a crash. “You couldn’t come off a corner with the tail out and expect to get anywhere. It would just spin the tires. So you had to adapt to it. You had to ‘diamond’ the corner, get the turn over with and be going more or less straight in order to accelerate.”
Probing the limits of the Ferrari’s chassis, Gurney found a way to gear it to the road. He did so, in fact, so well that he set a new absolute lap record for Willow. Arciero had a new driver.
Gurney’s next drive was his epic second place behind Shelby at Riverside in November. Next time out, in December at Paramount Ranch, he won overall, defeating 15 others in an hour-long race. Road & Track hailed the winner: “Gurney’s rise to local fame has been, to put it tritely, meteoric.”
April and May 1958 saw him win twice more in the big Ferrari, at Palm Springs defeating Shelby in a similar car. Gurney didn’t kid himself: “Carroll could outdrive me at that time. As he can be, Carroll was very nice to this new young guy coming along. He kind of praised me, and that was a big boost.”
Polished though his performance looked from the outside, in the cockpit Gurney was on a steep learning curve. “I found out something in that Ferrari,” he told Robert Cutter and Bob Fendell. “I found that the better you can concentrate while driving, the better lap times you have. It was also a different sensation. All the cars I had raced before this were tame and quiet. This Ferrari felt as if I had to hang on for dear life to control it. I couldn’t take my attention away from it for a second.”
Gurney would drive Arciero’s 4.9 in a few more races in 1958 and ’59, although never with the blazing success of that 1957-58 winter, and other Ferrari drives materialized. Twice in March 1958 he found himself in a Ferrari 250 GT coupe. Early in the month he finished fourth overall with one in an airport race near Phoenix, Arizona. Later in March he competed in Sebring, Florida’s 12-hour race, sharing a little French DB coupe with Howard Hanna. During practice, however, he took four laps in another 250 GT under the critical gaze of Ferrari’s man in America, Luigi Chinetti.
EARLY 1958 was a low point for Gurney: “very traumatic—almost like a failure. I applied for and went and received unemployment. I stood in line to get my check. It was awfully hard on my pride.”
He only had to do this once, though, because he then received a phone call from Chinetti. An Italian who had lived for many years in France and now in New York, Chinetti was famously incomprehensible in all his languages. But this time his message was clear: Would Gurney like to drive for his North American Racing Team at Le Mans? “Naturally I declined!” joked the racer.
Gurney spent the summer in Europe, teaming up with another tall American racer, Troy Ruttman, and his family. At both Le Mans and, later, in a Reims 12-hour race, his Ferraris were crashed by his co-drivers. For the eager Gurney, the summer was a revelation.
He lapped the Modena Autodromo in a Maserati. He saw racing at Monza and Silverstone as well as the Nürburgring and Reims. “I was at the ’Ring the day Peter Collins was killed, driving a Ferrari,” said Gurney. “I saw Luigi Musso killed at Reims, driving a Ferrari. And I’m thinking, ‘Boy! I can’t wait to get into this!’ The desire to race overcame all those concerns.”
In October ’58, Gurney was relaxing at his nearby home when the phone rang. Chinetti was on the other end: “He said that Enzo Ferrari himself had asked me to make a personal test and asked if I could leave at once for Modena in Italy. The plane ticket was ready and waiting for me. I whooped and yelled. My wife must have thought I’d gone crazy. It was a fantastic break.”
“Yes, I did recommend Dan Gurney to Ferrari,” Phil Hill shook his head, recalling this for Tim Considine. “I don’t know why. If I had any sense I would have said, ‘No, I don’t think Gurney should be here.’ Why would anybody possibly want, on the same team, the guy that stood to show him up the worst? Did Prost want Senna to come and be a part of the team?”
Having raced in America against Gurney, four years his junior, Hill respected the skill and determination of his fellow Californian. Defying expectation, the future World Champion didn’t kick the newcomer’s hands off that rung of the ladder. On the contrary, he offered a hand up.
Gurney’s trip to Italy in November 1958 began with an initiative test: finding his own way to Modena from the Milan airport. Once settled at the Albergo Reale, he waited two long and stress-enhancing days before receiving any word about the test. On the third morning, he was at the Modena Autodromo by appointment.
The sky was cloudy and the air cool over the flat circuit in the town’s periphery, tracing a small airport’s perimeter road. The big red Ferrari transporter rolled up with three racing cars, all there to educate and evaluate Daniel Sexton Gurney.
Three black Fiats followed. “All these men got out of their Fiats,” said Gurney. “They wore dark overcoats and fedora hats and had their collars turned up because it was cool. It looked very mysterious and official, like a movie version of a Mafia get-together. Among them was Enzo Ferrari himself and the racing engineers and the regular racing mechanics, who were unloading all three cars. They had a 2-liter sports car, a 3-liter sports car and a 2.5-liter Grand Prix car. I drove the cars in that order. They decided how many laps I did and I didn’t do more than ten laps in each one. You don’t have much time to get familiar when you drive three different cars. Time is very limited.”
Gurney found out later that he’d done what they wanted: turning progressively faster laps without spinning. His best lap in the Formula 1 car was 62 seconds; the Autodromo lap record was around 59 seconds to the credit of Jean Behra in a similar car. Gurney drove a car that Mike Hawthorn had raced; its roomy cockpit easily accommodated him.
Hawthorn had retired after winning the 1958 Formula 1 World Championship. In what was otherwise a ghastly season for Enzo Ferrari, both Musso and Collins were killed in his cars. Phil Hill, who had driven his first Grands Prix for Ferrari at the end of ’58, was still aboard. Frenchman Behra and Briton Tony Brooks were recruited by Ferrari from BRM and Vanwall, respectively, for 1959. This seemed a strong team, but it was unproven. Added strength would also be needed for sports-car races, thus Gurney’s presence at the Autodromo.
Not a word was said to the American about how well or poorly he did. Mino Amorotti, the engineer who represented Ferrari at the races, said, “Okay, tomorrow you and our test driver, Severi, are going to Monza.”
They arrived to find not only clouds but heavy rain. Visor at the ready, Gurney took the wheel of the Testa Rossa sports car after Severi set a bogey time. “Martino Severi was never a great race driver but he was a very good test driver,” Gurney said, “and he certainly knew his way around Monza! I got into this car and I didn’t fit. The seat was too tight and my knees were up around my ears.”
Even worse, the driver had a wad of lire notes in his hip pocket that cut off his circulation and put his throttle foot to sleep after a couple of laps. Nevertheless he succeeded in matching Severi’s time through the mist and rain.
“After they finally called me in, I spun the car on the cool-off lap. It didn’t go off the road. I never said a word about it and I don’t know if anybody ever knew it. That was the end of my second day of tests for Ferrari.”
Although Gurney went back to California not knowing how Ferrari rated him, he felt as though he had achieved something in the tests: “I felt that I was going to get a chance.” That chance soon materialized in a telegram that asked him to drive on the sports-car team in the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Targa Florio, and the 1,000-km. Nürburgring race. Gurney would receive one return-trip air ticket and the equivalent of $163 a month with no guarantee that he would race—but half the starting and prize money if he did.
“So naturally I signed up immediately!” said Gurney. “I figured that I would make it. I ended up making $7,600 in 1959, which was enough to exist on pretty well in those days.”
IN JUNE 1959, after competing in three sports-car races for Ferrari, Gurney was asked to go to Monza, where Jean Behra was testing the latest evolution of the Formula 1 car. “They said, ‘You might get a chance to drive it.’ No promises.”
After “Jeannot” set a new Formula 1 record for the circuit, Gurney was offered the wheel. He had refreshed his recollection of the track—experiencing it for the first time in the dry—with a few laps in his Volkswagen.
“Finally, late in the day, I was given my chance,” he recalled. “I liked the car, although it wasn’t quite as user-friendly as I had imagined it would be. It wasn’t the sort of car that invited you to take liberties. You had to be reasonably precise and careful with it, as opposed to one where you could get it sideways and hoof it and opposite-lock it and that sort of thing. It didn’t like that. Nevertheless, if you bore down and tried to extract every last little bit from it, it would stand up to it. It would pay off.”
Gurney’s tactics in taming Arciero’s 375 Plus were turning out to be useful. “Within ten laps I was able to break Phil Hill’s race-lap record there and get within the same second as Behra,” said Gurney. “But I didn’t know any of this at the time. Nobody gave me any signals, so I had no idea how I was doing. Back at the pits I was told nothing. They simply changed two front wheels and sent me out again.”
The new wheels were larger; the driver was cautioned to proceed with care. After a lap or two Gurney reached his usual braking point before the fast right-hand Parabolica—only to have the front wheels lock. After an attempt to unlock them, he recalled, “I was way past any shut-off point, so I was headed for the bank outside the turn. I hit that going semi-backwards and the Ferrari flipped up in the air, threw me virtually out and then stuffed me back in. I had grass all up and down my back. It righted on its wheels—right side up. This new, young American driver had just crashed the fastest Formula 1 car that Ferrari had ever built shortly after Jean Behra had set a new lap record with it. So I figured I was doing a very good job!
“They asked me what went wrong. I said, ‘I thought I was being careful enough but there was nothing wrong with the car. It was my fault. You warned me. I acknowledged the warning and I went ahead. I made a mistake.’ I think that really touched old Enzo. He was used to guys coming in and blaming the cars. So, strange as it may seem, three weeks later I was driving my first Grand Prix race.”
Reims, in the French Champagne country, was the venue for his Formula 1 debut on July 5, 1959. “Team manager Romolo Tavoni told me, ‘We have four cars at Reims, and one is yours,’” Gurney said. “I had no other testing after that Monza test or before that race, no anything. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was: Ready or not, here we come!”
In fact Ferrari took five cars to Reims, which, as the combined French Grand Prix and GP d’Europe, offered one of the season’s richest purses. Fortunately for the Californian, it was one of the circuits on which he had raced a sports car the previous summer.
Gurney qualified 12th in his V6-powered Ferrari Dino, about two seconds off the front-row times. He did this, wrote Denis Jenkinson, “with effortless ease.”
Although this was the insouciant impression that Gurney successful projected then and throughout his racing career, the actual situation in the cockpit was somewhat different, as the driver told Steve McNamara: “Boy, is it dangerous! Reims is flat and it’s marked out with hay bales—but try hitting a hay bale at 160. Those high-speed bends are really something. I wasn’t prepared for that sort of thing and I don’t like them particularly. Did I have trouble putting my foot down? You said it. You have to figure whether you’re being brave or just being foolish.”
Practice had been hot but race day was sizzling, reaching 110° F. Under a blazing sun the road surface was starting to break up, as the drivers discovered on a few pre-race laps. Always chaotic, the start at Reims was even more so for Gurney, who from his fifth-row grid position had to dodge the stalled Ferrari of Behra in the second row. Fastest qualifier Tony Brooks’ Ferrari roared into a lead it would never lose. Gurney found himself in a midfield battle with Bruce McLaren’s Cooper and teammate Olivier Gendebien, among others.
“The race itself was anticlimactic,” said Gurney. “It didn’t last all that long for me, only 20 of the 50 laps. I was knocked out with a stone through the radiator thrown up by Graham Hill’s Lotus.”
He did get up to fifth at one point, and was sixth when he retired. “When I looked the car over back in the pits it was a sorry sight,” Gurney told Bill Nolan. “The engine was smoking, the windscreen was cracked in three places, and the entire body was pitted with numerous stone holes. I was disappointed not to finish, but relieved to be out of the hailstorm.”
This and a DNF at Le Mans would be Gurney’s only retirements in nine starts for the works Ferrari team in 1959.
MEANWHILE, the Machiavellian internal politicking that so often flourished in the Ferrari team was taking its toll on the fiery Behra. Gurney, a keen motorcyclist, appreciated his teammate’s experience as a rider for Moto Guzzi. They were teamed together at Le Mans: “I drove back to Modena with him after Le Mans; he was living at the Albergo Reale. We got along well, even though we couldn’t really communicate perfectly with my lack of French and his marginal English. Jean and I had a camaraderie that meant a lot to me. Behra was a fighter, even then something of a throwback to a different time. I admired him a lot, because he had this incredibly combative spirit. He was a goer.”
The feeling was mutual. According to Raymond Mays of BRM, “At Zandvoort, Jean Behra had told us about this new young Ferrari pilot who was to be his co-driver in the forthcoming sports-car races.”
But the newcomer became a lightning rod for Ferrari’s anti-Behra faction. “Through no fault of his own,” wrote Denis Jenkinson, Gurney “began to drive as fast as Behra. Both on sports cars and Grand Prix cars Behra was finding that Gurney was close on his heels, and this gave the people at Ferrari who were not pro-Behra an opportunity to make unnecessary remarks in loud voices.”
“Behra had never been happy with us,” Phil Hill recalled. “He resented Brooks as a Number One, was uncomfortable at the performance of a newcomer like Dan Gurney, complained about always being given the slowest car—which was simply not true—and lost his temper more often than the Italians, which is going some!”
Some of the most lurid blowups occurred at Reims over the assignment of cars. The upshot was that Behra and Ferrari parted company that July, leaving a gap in the customary three-car F1 lineup.
Who would fill that gap? Briton Cliff Allison was on the Ferrari strength; he and Gurney had become close friends. Gendebien had finished a worthy fourth for Ferrari at Reims. But over and above these two, Enzo Ferrari chose Gurney to complete his Grand Prix threesome.
“I think he sensed that there was something there,” Gurney reflected. This was confirmed by Ferrari in Piloti, che gente… in which he remembered Gurney “as strong, down-to-earth and serious” and referred to him in almost affectionate terms as his “talented and courageous ‘Marine.’”
Enzo’s decision was fully justified by the American’s performance in the season’s final three races. He qualified third and placed second at Berlin’s high-speed Avus track where, Hill recalled, “Dan seemed to take to this banked type of high-speed competition.”
Most convincing was his performance at Monsanto Park in Lisbon. “The circuit was a genuine road course which tended to sort out the men from the boys,” reported Autosport. Of Gurney’s third place it wrote, “The young American certainly drove well and kept the red cars in the picture.”
Gurney finished the Formula 1 season with a fourth in the Italian GP at Monza. “Dan Gurney really showed his mettle,” praised Autosport. “The American was cool, calm and collected and did well to hold off the experienced Trintignant for more than half the race.” Later the British weekly wrote, “Dan Gurney is undoubtedly the find of the season. Almost unknown until this year, the young American has proved that he can hold his own with the best European drivers.”
One post-season summary read in part as follows: “Dan Gurney ranks as one of the Grand Prix discoveries of 1959. He is a tall, gaunt young American with lanky, gangling limbs, high cheek-bones, blunt nose and rather slanted eyes that give him a Slavic expression. He drove with the confident assurance of a veteran but two swallows do not make a summer. What appears to count with Gurney is that certain drivers he respects now take him seriously. He may, as has been reported, consider himself a potential World Champion, but there is no visible arrogance in him, nor any mock modesty either. Dan Gurney seems to me to be a very natural talented phenomenon.”
This was the trenchant assessment of Louis Stanley, brother-in-law of the owner of the BRM team for which Gurney signed to drive in 1960. Although some aspects of his future at Ferrari had been unclear—and the Californian would later regret not having clarified them personally with Enzo Ferrari—one was not: the Italian’s reluctance to succumb to the need to build one of those ugly rear-engined cars. In the race at Lisbon, said Gurney, “I had a front-row seat for the design contest. I could see that an engine in the rear, behind the driver, was the way to go.” And BRM was building a car like that for 1960.
Talent-spotter John Wyer at Aston Martin was keen to engage Gurney and had offered a package of £5,000 ($14,000) to retain him for both Grand Prix racing and sports cars, but Aston’s F1 car was front-engined. BRM agreed to match this amount and leave Gurney free for sports cars and other categories, and the three-year deal was done in November. “I think we are very fortunate to have signed him,” wrote BRM engineer Peter Berthon, “as he is the only young driver with the long-term potential of a Stirling Moss.”
Gurney raced for BRM for only one year after receiving what he called “a rude awakening.” Innocently, he had assumed after his Ferrari season that top-ranked racing cars were reliable: “Those Ferraris were like anvils. You could just whale on them and not feel concerned about them coming apart.” Teamed with Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier, he would have quite a different experience at BRM.