Monday, January 15, 2018

Remembering Dan Gurney

Gods are not immortal, after all.
Dan Gurney, one of the most versatile and talented racers in the history of US auto racing, died Sunday at age 86 of complications from pneumonia.
Gurney’s family announced his passing with a written statement, saying, "With one last smile on his handsome face, Dan drove off into the unknown just before noon today. In deepest sorrow, with gratitude in our hearts for the love and joy you have given us during your time on this earth, we say 'Godspeed."
Gurney won seven times in IndyCar Series competition, five times in what is now NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series, and four times in Formula 1 races from 1962 to 1970. He also excelled in Sports Car racing, teaming with A.J. Foyt and Ford Motor Company to win the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, and claiming the inaugural running of what is now the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1962. His career resume includes 51 career victories and 47 podium finishes in 312 starts.
He is one of only three drivers to win in all four major motorsports disciplines, joining Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.
The highlight of his legendary career came during a spectacular, two-week span in 1967 when he finished second in the Indianapolis 500, drove a Ford GT40 MKIV to victory at Le Mans with co-driver AJ Foyt, then won the Belgian Grand Prix in his own Gurney Eagle; becoming the only American to win an F1 race in a car of his own design.
Bobby Unser demolished the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by an incredible 17 mph in 1972 at the wheel of a Gurney Eagle, leading easily until the ignition failed. The next year, 19 of the Indy’s 33 starters drove Eagles, with Gordon Johncock claiming the win.
The Long Island native – the son of an opera singer -- is credited with creating the wicker bill; an aerodynamic device still widely used in both the motorsports and aviation industries, and the first to use a full-faced helmet. He was also the first to celebrate a race victory by spraying the celebratory champagne, rather than drinking it.
Shortly after retiring as a driver, Gurney was convinced to take part in the 1971 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an unsanctioned, highly illegal event that covered public highways from New York to California. Co-driving a blisteringly fast Ferrari with the late writer Brock Yates, Gurney completed the 2,863-mile event in 35 hours and 54 minutes, quipping “at no time did we exceed 175 mph.”
Gurney was a co-founder of Championship Auto Racing Teams, which sanctioned open-wheel racing in the United States from 1979 to 2008.
"Dan Gurney was not only a great innovator, he was a great driver,” said Foyt of his fallen comrade. “It didn't matter if it was a road course or an oval, an Indy car or a stock car. I never use the word `legend,’ but in the case of Dan, he was a true legend of our sport. We became close friends at Le Mans in '67 and winning it brought us closer together. He was a super guy. Even though we were competitors in the Indy cars, we always respected each other highly.
"As we got older we became closer, (we called) each other on birthdays or when we were sick. Now I'm glad we got to spend the time together we did at Long Beach last year, along with Edsel Ford. We told a lot of stories and we had a lot of fun talking about the old times. It's hard to believe he's gone and I'm really going to miss him. My thoughts are with Evi and his family."
Mario Andretti eulogized Gurney on Twitter, saying, “I was first inspired by him when I was in midgets, dreaming of being like him. I was last inspired by him yesterday. Yes, I mean forever. He understood me better than anyone else, which is why he wrote the foreword for my book in 2001.”
"When we talk about legendary American drivers, owners and car constructors on an international stage, Dan Gurney is one of the all-time greats," said J. Douglas Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "His skill in all three areas helped him make an indelible mark and serve as a huge influence in this sport. Dan was a giant in the racing world in every sense. Our sincere condolences and prayers are with his wife, Evi, and the entire Gurney family. Godspeed, Dan Gurney."
Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile said, "Dan's success -- and his sheer presence -- helped elevate our facility to the world-wide stature that our founder, Bill France Sr., originally envisioned. As a driver, (he) helped establish the speedway as a pre-eminent road-racing circuit. Years later, as a champion car owner in IMSA, he helped cement the speedway's legacy in that regard. We all are fortunate to have crossed his path."
The Gurney family will hold a private funeral in the near future. They have asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Hoag Hospital Foundation in Newport Beach, Cal.

Monday, January 08, 2018

COMMENTARY: Money Helps, But Talent Is Still King

It’s a top water-cooler topic across NASCAR Nation these days; the ongoing battle between money and talent in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Some observers – including many longtime fans of the sport – believe that the almighty dollar has supplanted driving talent in determining NASCAR’s Sunday afternoon starting grid. And while there is no denying the importance of financing, a simple examination of the MENCS roster reveals far more wheelmen than sugar babies.

MENCS champion Martin Truex, Jr. made good use of family money early in his career, campaigning family-backed entries all the way to what is now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. From then on, however, the New Jersey native has made his way solely on talent, winning a pair of Xfinity Series titles for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., before being promoted to the Cup ranks with DEI, Michael Waltrip Racing and Furniture Row Racing.

Runner-up Kyle Busch began modestly in the Legends Car ranks in his native Las Vegas, before advancing to NASCAR’s Southwest Tour. He brought little or no money to that series, but immediately displayed a level of talent sufficient to gain the attention of NASCAR owner Jack Roush. The same story can be told for older brother Kurt Busch, who climbed an identical ladder on his way to NASCAR stardom, there 2004 Cup Series championship and a win in last year’s Daytona 500.

Harvick brought nothing but talent
Last year’s third-place finisher, Kevin Harvick, came to national prominence by winning the 1998 NASCAR Winston West title for Spears Motorsports, an operation owned by Wayne and Connie Spears. Harvick was hired solely for his driving talent and brought no money to the dance. That talent eventually made him the heir-apparent at Richard Childress Racing when Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Brad Keselowski finished fourth in the 2017 MENCS standings, and his family’s racing story is well known. His parents, Bob and Kay Keselowski, mortgaged the family home on multiple occasions to keep their family owned race team afloat, before finally closing the doors for good in 2006. Keselowski’s big break came when Germain Racing tabbed him to replace the suspended Ted Musgrave in a 2007 Truck Series race at Memphis Motorsports Park, where he won the pole, led 62 laps and contended for the win. That performance convinced Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to put Keselowski in his No. 88 Nationwide Series Chevrolet, where he won the 2010 championship. Today, he is a perennial title contender for Team Penske. 

Hamlin: from humble roots.
Denny Hamlin came from similarly humble roots. He began racing go-karts at age seven, eventually progressing to the Mini Stock and Late Model Stock ranks at Langley (VA) Speedway. Hamlin won 35 LMS races in just two seasons, including 25 victories in 36 starts in 2003. That was more than enough to earn him a driver development deal with Joe Gibbs Racing, an opportunity on which Hamlin has clearly capitalized.

Kyle Larson was a top threat for last year’s MENCS title, eventually finishing eighth in points. “Young Money” raced his way to NASCAR through the USAC Open Wheel ranks, winning Sprint Car and Midget races at a clip that quickly got him noticed in the NASCAR garage. Like Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman before him, Larson made it to NASCAR without buying a single full-fendered seat, making his way to the top on talent, and talent alone.

Of the 16 drivers who qualified for last year’s playoffs, only three – Truex, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney – can be said to have benefitted significantly from the presence of family money. The rest got there the old fashioned way.

They earned it.

Edwards was willing to beg
For every winless rich kid floundering around in the middle of the XFINITY or Camping World Truck Series pack, there are a dozen drivers like Clint Bowyer -- who got his call to the big time while sanding Bondo in a two-bay auto body shop – and Carl Edwards, who famously handed out business cards begging team owners to give him an opportunity behind the wheel.

For every hapless newcomer with a ton of cash and no clue what to do with it, there is a Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Erik Jones or Chris Buescher, all of whom came to NASCAR with nothing but talent, then attracted top-dollar sponsorship by running consistently at the front of the pack.

There is no denying that Paul Menard’s career – including his win in the 2011 Brickyard 400 -- has been bolstered by the presence of family money and the constant guarantee of full-season sponsorship. Danica Patrick struggled through five winless Cup campaigns, assisted by the presence of high-dollar sponsorship.

Money has always played an important role in determining who wins and loses on Sunday afternoon. Richard Petty and David Pearson possessed awesome driving talent, but also benefitted from substantial sponsorship, factory backing and immense technological support. G.C. Spencer, Elmo Langley and James Hilton could also twist a pretty wheel, but never had the resources to compete with the big dogs. Some things never change.

In the end, an honest assessment of the NASCAR roster proves that driving talent remains the most important form of currency.