BACK IN the 1960s—the Golden Age of racing, when Indy was the American sporting spectacle and Hollywood leading men didn't just want to portray Formula 1 drivers, they also wanted to be them—auto manufacturers lived by the mantra, Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. In 1966, Mercury's marketing director explained to SI, "We advertise the new Cougar as 'The Man's Car.' And what is America's image of 'The Man'? Someone loyal, brave, strong, persevering? It's Dan Gurney."
Indeed, Gurney was an apt inspiration for the drivers portrayed in John Frankenheimer's '66 Oscar-winning film Grand Prix, in which Gurney also appeared. Another SI story from the time of the movie's release noted that Gurney's "magnificent face, even in repose, makes cinema racing drivers look faintly suspect," and also credited him with having "the world's deadliest dimples."
But Gurney was there for his ability to wheel a car, not his looks. And there wasn't a car that Gurney couldn't drive fast. He won in stock cars and open-wheelers. In one seven-day stretch in '67 he took the checkers at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (with A.J. Foyt) and at the Belgian Grand Prix (in a car he owned). At the former, he introduced the practice of spraying champagne from the podium.
Gurney's career numbers weren't mind-blowing: zero championships, no wins at the Brickyard. But that's largely because he refused to specialize, instead testing himself at every level against every hotfoot he came across. Among the sport's greats, his legacy was never in question. In 2004, Sir Jackie Stewart proclaimed, "A world-class competitor, Dan is hands down the best American driver ever."