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Dan Gurney: A Personal Remembrance

Dan Gurney all smiles during pre-race festivities prior to the 1968 Indianapolis 500. [Photo courtesy IndyCar]

by Paul Gohde

Paul Gohde and Dan Gurney

Dan Gurney’s passing on Sunday has brought about a volume of tributes from the extended motorsports community. A racing family that covered Can-Am, Champ car, NASCAR, Le Mans and Formula One.

“He was the epitome of class,” Mario Andretti said. “It’s hard to believe he’s gone,” Gurney’s Le Mans winning Ford teammate AJ Foyt added.

The 6’ 3” Californian won in his own Gurney Eagle in Formula One, Holman-Moody and Wood Brothers Fords at Daytona and a Shelby Ford GT40 at Le Mans. His Eagles also flew to seven Champ car wins with its owner at the wheel.

In this day of drivers racing in a very narrow career path (“I’m a NASCAR driver and won’t race in an Indy car.”), the likes of Fernando Alonso, Kyle Busch and recently Chris Bell have become rare commodities. But Gurney was all over the world map, racing and winning at Le Mans, France; Spa, Belgium; Riverside, California; Daytona, Florida (in both sports cars and stocks) and who could forget the Lotus Ford invasion of the Tony Bettenhausen 200 at the Wisconsin State Fair Mile in 1963 when Gurney finished third to his teammate and winner Jim Clark. France to West Allis; quite a trip.

The Twitter world erupted Sunday night with drivers, car owners and sponsors paying homage to the All American driver who many confessed to having been their hero. But whether you call him your hero, describe him as a gentleman with class, or best remember him as a champion driver/car owner or car builder/designer, he deserves to be remembered as one of the best of his generation.

Having said all that, I have two personal Gurney memories that will always stick with me. I took a picture of him as the car owner when his Pepsi Challenger Eagle ran at the Milwaukee Mile about 1981. I asked him to sign it at a future race, and after he saw it he asked if he could purchase a copy. He gave me his business card and I received the check in a short time (but still haven’t cashed it). I told him later that I was sorry if that screwed-up the books at All American Racers by not cashing it and he laughed and explained, “Don’t worry, we save a lot of money when that happens.” I was off the hook.

On Thursday of Indianapolis 500 week, the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers organization and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum hold a sold-out recognition dinner at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Indy. Many present and former drivers attend each year along with past and present owners, sponsors, mechanics etc. A select few are honored by induction into the IMS HOF each year.

In 2011 one of the honorees was to be Sir Jackie Stewart who almost won the 500 in 1966 and 1967. Stewart was in Europe, unable to attend the banquet, but asked Dan Gurney to come to Indy and accept the award for him and give a brief talk. Gurney gave an entertaining remembrance of Sir Jackie and hung around after the festivities much to the delight of the crowd.

I asked him if I could have a picture taken with him and a friend grabbed my camera while Dan arranged us for the photo. Standing somewhat shoulder to shoulder (he being inches taller) he suggested we “shake hands so we don’t look like we’re mad at each other.” We laughed and as I looked down before the image was taken I noticed that my photo partner with the sport coat and slacks was wearing an orange pair of Crocs sandals and no socks. Very California.

That picture hangs on the wall of my office to this day; a day when we remember a great in our sport. But somehow the orange Crocs and bare feet will always make me smile when I think of Gurney; just like they did on that photo.

Thanks Dan, not all memories are made at the race track.

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Paul Gohde heard the sound of race cars early in his life.

Growing up in suburban Milwaukee, just north of Wisconsin State Fair Park in the 1950’s, Paul had no idea what “that noise” was all about that he heard several times a year. Finally, through prodding by friends of his parents, he was taken to several Thursday night modified stock car races on the old quarter-mile dirt track that was in the infield of the one-mile oval -and he was hooked.

The first Milwaukee Mile event that he attended was the 1959 Rex Mays Classic won by Johnny Thomson in the pink Racing Associates lay-down Offy built by the legendary Lujie Lesovsky. After the 100-miler Gohde got the winner’s autograph in the pits, something he couldn’t do when he saw Hank Aaron hit a home run at County Stadium, and, again, he was hooked.

Paul began attending the Indianapolis 500 in 1961, and saw A. J. Foyt’s first Indy win. He began covering races in 1965 for Racing Wheels newspaper in Vancouver, WA as a reporter/photographer and his first credentialed race was Jim Clark’s historic Indy win.Paul has also done reporting, columns and photography for Midwest Racing News since the mid-sixties, with the 1967 Hoosier 100 being his first big race to report for them.

He is a retired middle-grade teacher, an avid collector of vintage racing memorabilia, and a tour guide at Miller Park. Paul loves to explore abandoned race tracks both here and in Europe, with the Brooklands track in Weybridge England being his favorite. Married to Paula, they have three adult children and two cats.

Paul loves the diversity of all types of racing, “a factor that got me hooked in the first place.”