Driven to Ride

Dan Gurney earned his reputation and made his mark racing and building four-wheelers, but his passion for riding has always burned bright.

Dan Gurney on his Honda-Single-powered Alligator

Dan Gurney on his Honda-Single-powered Alligator in his standard-issue riding gear

Dan Gurney on his Honda-Single-powered Alligator in his standard-issue riding gear.Cycle World archives

Among auto racing superstars, Dan Gurney is unique. While two other drivers, Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya, have equaled his versatility record, winning in Indy Cars, NASCAR, sports cars and Formula 1, Dan adds this significant distinction to his résumé: He's the only American ever to win a Grand Prix in his own car, the Gurney Eagle, victorious at Spa in 1967. But of greater interest to CW readers is Gurney's remarkable motorcycling lifetime.

For example, Gurney once partnered with riding buddy Kim Kimball to become Montesa importers. In 1970, they provided a bike for a promising Northern California dirt-track Novice named Kenny Roberts. Back then, “King Kenny” was a rough-hewn teenager doing weekly battle with Bultaco-mounted Gary Scott at famed Ascot Park in L.A. The night Roberts picked up that Montesa, his usual racer blew up. Using the engine hastily pulled from the new bike, he beat Scott and won the main event.

But consider Gurney’s rationale for his venture into Spanish bike importing. “It was a door through which I was welcomed into motorcycling,” he recalls. “Otherwise, I would have been just a four-wheel guy. There’s a barrier there. That venture fed the malady that I have.”

Let’s think that through. One of the greatest race drivers in history treasured his little motorcycle company because it ensured that the bike crowd would not dismiss him as “just a four-wheel guy.” Wow! And Gurney’s “malady,” his love of motorcycling, endures to this day.

"King Kenny," meantime, describes how he and Gurney finally met, 20 years later, riding in the California desert. "Dan did this huge flying W!" Roberts recalls. "He's a big guy, and his feet were 15 feet in the air! I couldn't believe he saved it. I said, 'Dude, do you have any idea how close you came to eating that front wheel?' And he said, 'Naaah! Well…yeah, okay, maybe it was kinda close!' Dirt riding was a passion for him. He loved it, and he was as impressive on two wheels as he was on four. It was fun to watch."

Born on Long Island in 1931, young Gurney owned one of that era's ubiquitous Whizzers. His early mechanical adventures foretold the hot-rodding spirit later embodied in his race-car company, All American Racers (AAR).

“My Uncle Dan gave me a book on model airplane engines, and that meant a great deal to me,” he recalls. “I figured out how a two-stroke works and became the best guy in the neighborhood at getting one started, you know, flipping the propeller with your finger. Next, I was tuning on the Whizzer, a bazooka pipe and that kind of thing. It was all about ‘put something exciting between your legs.’”

Then the family moved to Riverside, California, hot-rod and motorcycle heaven. Gurney owned several bikes, but after service in Korea, he got serious about automobile roadracing, thanks in part to another legendary motorcycle figure. Pioneering bike-magazine publisher Floyd Clymer also distributed European automobile roadracing titles, and Gurney was a dedicated customer. In 1955, Dan first raced his used Triumph sports car at Torrey Pines, embarking on the path to automotive greatness. His bike became a training tool.

“There were lots of dirt roads around Riverside, so my friend Skip Hudson and I could try each other out on those,” he recalls. “I used it as a means to stay sharp. Particularly on dirt, you develop a feel for traction and for the limit and how to cope with that.”

Though auto racing was Gurney’s priority, motorcycles remained his passion. He proudly recalls that in 1959, he finished 21st among perhaps 800 starters in the legendary Big Bear bike race, neglecting to mention that 1959 was also the year Enzo Ferrari hired him to drive for the fabled Ferrari factory team!

Asked to name motorcycle people he considers important in his life, Gurney reels off an eclectic list. "Swede Savage came to AAR from motorcycles. I knew Ed Kretz Sr. and Jr. and Eddie Mulder, who won the '58 Big Bear. I read a lot about 'Cannon Ball' Baker. I'm close friends with both Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. I was a big fan of Derek Minter, who was the king of Brands Hatch at one time. I have a great picture with four different World Champions, including Roger DeCoster, sitting in my Indy Car. Of course, I knew John Surtees very well. Joe Leonard was driving for our team when we first went to Indy. I knew Mike Hailwood very well. I knew John Britten, Erik Buell, Mick Doohan and Barry Sheene."

Dan Gurney and Joe Leonard doing wheelies

Three-time AMA Grand National Champion Joe Leonard wheelies alongside Dan Gurney

Three-time AMA Grand National Champion Joe Leonard wheelies alongside Dan Gurney.Dan Gurney Collection

The admiration is often mutual. When four-time 500cc World Champ Lawson first met Gurney, Eddie was chasing a second career in Indy Cars. He laughs, “All I wanted to talk about were his race cars and F-1 experiences, and all Dan wanted to talk about was bikes! I wonder how motorsports history would be different had he gone the two-wheel route. He could easily have been the first American to build and race a bike of his own construction and win a Grand Prix motorcycle race instead of being the first to accomplish that feat in a car.”

It was Lawson who introduced Gurney to Wayne Rainey. In the wake of the crash that confined Rainey to a wheelchair, Eddie built his friend a shifter kart, anticipating Wayne’s inevitable desire to compete. But the hand controls suffered a brake-bias shortcoming, so they turned to Gurney. “I didn’t know Dan at all,” Rainey recalls, “but he immediately had his guys draw up a two-piston master cylinder with built-in bias.” The AAR-crafted component was worth an immediate 2½ seconds per lap. “He just did it because he cared about me and wanted to see me compete,” Rainey concludes. “He’s a very nice man, a very humble man. You’d never know he’s famous.”

Such race engineering has been Gurney’s stock-in-trade since the mid-’60s when Goodyear, seeking to break Firestone’s long-standing Indy 500 dominance, commissioned him to build Indy Cars. But All American Racers had motorcycle connections from the start. AAR’s first dyno was set up by Ascot legend Al Gunter. Engine man John Miller was Dan’s riding buddy. When another successful flat-tracker, Chuck Palmgren, sought Miller’s help finding horsepower for his Yamaha Twin, Gurney got interested and built Chuck a much-improved dirt-track chassis. When Palmgen retired from racing, he went to work for AAR…and he’s still there!

In fact,AAR has always had an underlying agenda. Explains Gurney, “As we were busy trying to turn out winning automobiles in a very competitive arena, in the back of my mind was the nagging question, ‘Do these same things hold true with motorcycles?’ As we gained the capability of designing and building cars, that meant we were also in a position to build prototype motorcycles.”

The first of those prototypes was born in 1975. Gurney’s dirtbike experience convinced him of the value of a low center of gravity. With help from Palmgren, he carved up an old Honda Single and created the unique recumbent architecture of the “Alligator,” for which his son Justin later designed the bodywork. That hard-working Honda Thumper eventually grew to 708cc, hit 133 mph on 91-octane pump gas and powers the 30 or so ’Gators built to date. (Eddie Lawson loves his!)

Eager to embrace an American powerplant, Gurney is developing S&S V-Twin-powered prototypes, for which he has created but not yet tested liquid-cooled, four-valve heads. But building aircraft components and construction of the radical Delta Wing car for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans have priority over Alligator evolution. “We have to make a living,” he says frankly.

Nonetheless, Gurney dreams big about future ’Gators. “Our intention is to build our own engine,” he says. “It will be considerably different and make a pretty good statement.” He envisions a parallel-Twin with vertical cylinders, their crankshafts geared together and turning in opposite directions to cancel vibration. The architecture recalls Kawasaki’s KR250 roadracer, a mid-’70s two-stroke, but Gurney’s drawings are on a whole different scale. Capped by the aforementioned liquid-cooled heads, his proposed Alligator powerplant pencils out to 1800cc and more than 200 horsepower!

We’ll leave you with the latest chapter in Gurney’s motorcycle history, in which his ’99 Dyna indirectly saved his life. Dan’s Harley is powered by a 126-inch S&S motor making nearly 150 horses and 140 foot-pounds of torque. Characteristically, he has extensively modified the chassis until, he says, “I got it to where it handles pretty damned good.” So it was a shock when, on a recent Gurney family ride, Dan went off the road and crashed. Turns out he lost consciousness due to an undiagnosed heart condition that, doctors say, would have killed him if left untreated. Instead, both Dan’s heart and his Harley have since undergone the necessary repairs, and this legend of world motorsport looks forward to getting back in the saddle. We’re happy to report that nearly 70 years into Dan Gurney’s “malady,” his passion for motorcycling burns as brightly as ever.

Dan Gurney and friends around the Indy-winning Eagle built at AAR

Dan Gurney and friends around the Indy-winning Eagle built at AAR

Dan Gurney and friends around the Indy-winning Eagle built at AAR.Dan Gurney Collection
Dan Gurney on his Honda-Single-powered Alligator

Dan Gurney on his Honda-Single-powered Alligator in his standard-issue riding gear

Dan Gurney on his Honda-Single-powered Alligator in his standard-issue riding gear.Cycle World archives
Dan Gurney on Mike Hailwood's Honda 250cc Six

During the 1968 South African Grand Prix, Dan tires Mike Hailwood's Honda 250cc Six on for size

During the 1968 South African Grand Prix, Dan tries Mike Hailwood's Honda 250cc Six on for size.Dan Gurney Collection
Gurney hawks Montesa in an ad that ran in CW

Gurney hawks Montesa in an ad that ran in CW

Gurney hawks Montesa in an ad that ran in CW.Cycle World archives
The turbocharged Nissan four-cylinder powered racer

The turbocharged Nissan four-cylinder powered racer

The turbocharged Nissan four-cylinder powered racer.Cycle World archives
DeltaWing race car

AAR pushes the envelope with the DeltaWing race car that's headed to the Le Mans 24-hour

AAR pushes the envelope with the DeltaWing race car that's headed to the Le Mans 24-hour.Richard George
Dan Gurney and Joe Leonard doing wheelies

Three-time AMA Grand National Champion Joe Leonard wheelies alongside Dan Gurney

Three-time AMA Grand National Champion Joe Leonard wheelies alongside Dan Gurney.Dan Gurney Collection