On the back of the news that Fernando Alonso is taking part in this years Indy 500 it would be a good time to visit and debate who is the most versatile drivers in motor sport history.
Now unlike modern days where a driver races predominantly for one team and in one series only back in the heydays of the 50s, 60s and 70s drivers would regularly race in multiple series. The likes of Jim Clark and Sir Stirling Moss are held in such high regard in the motor sport pantheon due to their versatility. Within this article we shall look through the cases for the most versatile drivers ever. And we shall leave the floor open to you, the reader, to comment about your thoughts and suggestions.
Since the announcement about Alonso taking part in the 101st Indianapolis 500 this year the world of motor sport has been excited at the prospect. The double World Champions participation will see him miss F1’s crown jewel in the Monaco Grand Prix and will see the Spaniard become the first driver to race in Indy and F1 in the same season since 1994 and Nigel Mansell.
Over the years many drivers have driven in, and won races and championships, in different series. Ranging from F1 to Sports cars, motor bikes to rallying, the list is far reaching. So with such possibilities where do you start? Well a good starting point would be Dan Gurney. The American was successful as both a driver and team owner.
Born in New York the lanky Gurney first got the bug watching midget racing at his local sprint track in Long Island. Come 1948 he moved with his family to California where he caught onto the hot rod scene and even built his own hot rod, taking it down the Bonneville salt flats at 138mph. The racing career would be put on hold due to a spell in the forces during the Korean War.
After his time in the forces was over his first event was at Torrey Pines in 1955 in a Triumph TR2 before he upgraded to a Porsche 356 speedster. Within a year he was a winner and started to bring attention from over seas. His first international event was the 1958 Le Mans 24 hours in a Ferrari 250TR. However the race turned into tragedy as, while fifth overall, his co driver Bruce Kessler collided with the Jaguar driven by ‘Jean Mary’ (Jean Marie Bruissin). The Ferrari burst into flames with Kessler escaping however ‘Jean Mary’ was killed in the crash.
Gurney moved onto Formula One the following season with Ferrari as well as continuing with his sport car efforts, winning the Sebring 12 hours the same year. In his debut year he would finish second (Germany) third (Portugal) and fourth (Italy) capping a successful debut season. He would leave Ferrari for BRM the following season but the success would not follow straight away and more tragedy when he crashed at the Dutch GP, an accident that killed a spectator when his car suffered brake failure.
Through the following years Gurney would race for Porsche, Brabham and his own Eagle teams in F1, taking the first World Championship race wins for each team in the process. In NASCAR he took part in the Daytona 500 in 1962 and raced in selected events through the 60s. He was imperious at Riverside, winning the event there five times while he finished second at the Indy 500 two years running in 1968 and 69.
Gurney also partnered AJ Foyt (who will appear on this list at a later date) to le Mans victory in 1967 as well in the Ford GT40MkII. His final race was a Trans-Am race in 1970 at Riverside. He did make a one off return, again at Riverside, ten years later in NASCAR as team mate to Dale Earnhardt in 1980. Gurney also raced the celebrity race at Long Beach often and won it four times across the 80s.
By this time Gurney was a team owner during and after his racing career with his cars winning at Indy in 1968, 1973 and 1975 as well as running Toyota’s IMSA Sports car program from 1983 including championship wins in 1992 and 1993.
Gurney’s record shows itself with his career covering Formula One (4 wins across 86 starts) Indy Cars (7 wins across 30 starts) Sports cars (five overall wins along with five further class wins over 41 starts including overall success at Le Mans in 1967) and NASCAR (5 wins from 17 starts). He was also successful in Can-Am, Trans-Am, Formula Libre and even in a class win in British Saloon Cars, what we know now-a-days as BTCC.
This is clearly a great record for anyone and the versatility to handle the differing machines and be successful shows amazing skill. It was a trait that followed many a driver around in the 60s and 70s but Gurney was seen as someone who could take any machine and be quick in it, even though he didn’t win any major championships (Le Mans victory in 1967 aside). So should this lack of championships rule out the American? absolutely not.
Although in terms of titles Gurney was not as successful as some of his peers his racing skill, craft and knowledge was well known. As a car owner he created the ‘Gurney flap’ on the rear wing to improve downforce with little addition of drag and was the first to spray champagne at a victory, thus setting tradition. Gurney was also the first to wear a full face helmet in a Grand Prix, something thought as alien at the time but the idea of being without now unthinkable. He was an innovator on and off track and this legacy will forever remain.
For confirmation of how good a driver he was came at the funeral of Jim Clark in 1968. The Scotsman’s father took the American aside at the service and told him his son advised that Gurney was the driver he admired and feared on track most of all due to his skill. Considering at the time Clark was a double World Champion with the most wins and pole positions in the sport this was high praise indeed and shows where Gurney stands in the motor sport world. This was further cemented in 1990 with induction to the International Motor sports Hall of Fame. High praise indeed.
Photo Credits: Main: wikipedia
Le Mans spraying champagne: AllAmericanRacers.com