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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Celebrating Moss and Gurney at the inaugural William K. Vanderbilt concours d'elegance

by Gordon Kirby
These are tough times for sport. The Tour de France has been blackened and discredited, one of the NFL's best-paid stars has been indicted on dog fighting charges, an NBA referee accused of gambling on the sport and fixing matches, and of course one of baseball's biggest stars has been playing his way toward a legendary hitting record under a dark cloud of implied steroid use.

I had the great pleasure last weekend to enjoy a sharp and refreshing contrast to the bad odor of so much modern sport. The healthy elixir was provided by the inaugural William K. Vanderbilt Jr. Concours d'Elegance in historic Newport, Rhode Island. The Vanderbilt family was essential to the early days of American automobile racing with family scion 'Willie K' Vanderbilt competing in some of the pioneer American auto races and creating the Vanderbilt Cup race in 1904 on an open road course on New York's Long Island.

A little over a hundred years later The Preservation Society of Newport County has begun to acknowledge the Vanderbilt family's contribution to the sport by establishing the Vanderbilt Concours d'Elegance in Newport at and adjacent to 'The Breakers', the family's summer house.

This year's inaugural event hosted a superb collection of classic and historic cars and a smaller selection of racing cars. Many of the latter were driven by Dan Gurney or Stirling Moss who were chosen as the first honorees of the event. Dan and Stirling were on hand to receive lifetime achievement awards at a Racing Legends dinner on Friday night at 'The Breakers' and future events will continue to recognize American and international racing greats.

Moss and Gurney were two of the greatest drivers of their generation, and of all-time, too. Neither won the Formula 1 world championship, but both were considered by their competitors, the media and fans to be among the fastest, smartest, most successful and most admired drivers of their times.

Stirling and Dan won races aboard many types of cars and are celebrated as two of the most versatile drivers in the hundred-year history of motor racing. Back in the fifties and sixties, Moss and Gurney were icons of the sport, as big, if not bigger, than Michael Schumacher and Jeff Gordon today. Moss and Gurney were national heroes in their respective home countries, England and the United States, and equally famous around the world because they raced and won in a stupefyingly wide range of cars.

Moss made his F1 debut in 1951 and scored his first major victory in the 1955 British Grand Prix, driving a Mercedes-Benz. Over the next six years Moss won fifteen more Grand Prix races and finished second in the world championship five times. Moss was also renowned as a master of long-distance sports car racing, winning a dozen world championship sports car races. He's also reckoned by historians to have won more than twenty other major, non-championship sports car races around the world and eighteen, non-championship F1 races.

© courtesy Carl Moore
Stirling's remarkable career came to an end in a non-championship F1 race at Goodwood, England in April, 1962 when he crashed heavily because of a sticking throttle. The accident left Moss with a serious concussion and brain injury. He announced his retirement from racing In May of 1963, but has continued through the following four decades to enjoy competing purely as an amateur in vintage and historic races around the world.

Gurney made his name by winning a series of west coast sports car races in 1958 aboard Frank Arciero's Ferrari and went to Europe that summer to race at Le Mans in a NART Ferrari entered by American importer Luigi Chinetti. By the end of the year, Gurney was back in Europe to test a factory Ferrari sports car and was signed to drive sports cars for the famed Italian team in 1959. He did a great job in sports cars and made his F1 debut with the Ferrari team that summer.

Dan scored his first Grand Prix win with the Porsche team in 1962, then drove for Jack Brabham for three years before founding his own team, All American Racers, in 1966. Gurney raced his own Eagles for a few years in both F1 and Indy cars and forty years ago this spring, in 1967, Dan achieved an extremely rare feat, becoming the only American driver ever to win a world championship F1 race with his own car, engine and team when he scored a historic victory in the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps aboard a V-12 Gurney/Weslake-powered Eagle. The previous weekend, Gurney had teamed with A.J. Foyt to win the Le Mans 24 hours race aboard a Ford mk IV, so his Spa victory completed a rare double triumph in different types of cars.

Before retiring at the end of 1970, Dan also won races in Indy cars, CanAm cars, NASCAR stock cars and TransAm cars, further emphasizing his immense versatility. He finished second in the Indy 500 in 1968 and '69 and was third in 1970 in his last start at Indianapolis.

In retirement, Gurney pursued his second career as a car builder and team owner with equal relish. All American Racers designed, built and raced winning cars for many categories - F1, Indy/Champ cars, Formula Fords, IMSA GTO & GTP cars - over a 34-year stretch from 1966-'99, starting with the beautiful and fast 1966 and '67 F1 and Indy Eagles. AAR's record of success over that time encompasses fifty Indy/Champ Car wins (including the 1973 and '75 Indy 500s), two F1 victories, four in IMSA's GTU category, six in GTO and a record twenty-one in GTP with AAR-built Toyotas. No other top American driver has enjoyed anything comparable as a car builder and team owner.

Moss and Gurney competed against each other many times, but were teammates for just two races. In 1960, Stirling and Dan co-drove a 'birdcage' Maserati T61 sports/racer for American Lucky Casner's Camoradi team in the Sebring 12 hours and the Nurburgring 1000Ks. The original car, superbly restored and owned by Carl Moore, was part of the show of race cars at the Vanderbilt Concours and at the Friday night Racing Legends dinner Moss and Gurney talked about their remarkable win at the 'Ring.

"Stirling had a long-standing relationship with Maserati, so it was a natural," Gurney said about being invited to co-drive with Moss. "A lot of guys didn't want to drive with Stirling because they didn't want to be shown up, but I thought it was a tremendous opportunity to show that you could do something well. I admired Stirling a lot and I thought if I did my side of it, we represented a tremendously strong team."

Of course, Dan is an uncommonly tall man, while Stirling is on the short side, so it took a lot of messing around to make the driver's seat and pedals suit their different physical traits. "We were a little bit like Mutt and Jeff--one tall guy and one short guy," Dan remarked. "The way we solved that problem was Stirling had a seat and his seat would fit within my seat. He would jump in the car with his seat. When it was time to change drivers he'd take his seat with him. It worked great."

Explained Moss: "I would put a thicker cushion into the seat. It was something I inserted each time I got in, and I took it with me whenever I got out. It worked out ideally because I was really comfortable, and I'm sure Dan was too."

At Sebring, they ran away with the race, only to suffer a gearbox failure after eight hours. But in Germany two months later around the Nurburgring's original 14-mile 'Nordschleife', Moss and Gurney scored a classic victory, coming back from a burst oil line to defeat the factory Ferrari and Porsche teams.

When almost the entire Formula 1 field spun out in the rain at the new Nurburgring a week or so ago, I thought about how Gurney and Moss won the 1960 Nurburgring 1000Ks in the most appalling conditions, never once putting a wheel wrong. It rained throughout the race on the 'Nordschleife', one of the world's most demanding racetracks, but Gurney and Moss made no mistakes, neither of them spinning or sliding off-course as they scored an epic victory.

The weather at the Nurburgring for the 1000Ks was particularly bad that May weekend in 1960 with cold rain and heavy fog around much of the track. Moss started the race and in the very difficult conditions he was untouchable, leading by almost two minutes when he came in to hand over to Gurney after fourteen of the forty-four laps. Two laps into his stint, however, Dan ran into trouble when an oil scavenge line burst because of the cold, humid conditions.

"About halfway around the lap, about as far away as you can get from the pits, an oil line came off," Gurney recalled. "There must have been an inch of oil in the bottom of the cockpit all around my feet, sloshing back and forth on my legs. I thought an engine doesn't blow up instantly if it loses an oil line. So I decided I was going to limp back to the pits. Wherever I could, I'd shut the engine off, let the clutch in and coast. Then I'd fire it up and run a little further on light load. I brought it into the pits using that process, going seven miles.

"They reattached the oil line and tried to clean up the mess," Dan added. "It probably took two minutes, maybe a little more. It seemed like an eternity."

Dan rejoined, now in fourth place, four and a half minutes behind Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips' leading Ferrari. Conditions grew worse as the race wore on with the fog sinking lower and thicker. In those demanding circumstances Dan was running far quicker than the three cars ahead and was steadily catching them. "The mist was so thick," Autosport magazine reported, "that it was impossible to see what was happening at the pits from the press stand opposite---and still Gurney was catching the leaders! Gurney (was) driving absolutely brilliantly under the conditions."

Eight laps after his pit stop Dan passed the Hill/von Trips Ferrari to retake the lead. Two laps later he came in to hand over to Moss for the final fourteen lap stint. Moss crossed the line almost three minutes ahead of the Jo Bonnier/Olivier Gendebien Porsche and more than four minutes in front of Hill's Ferrari.

"That win was very special for me," Dan reflected. "We won under pretty awkward conditions with rain and quite a bit of fog, typical of the 'Ring very often. It was also fun that we blew off the Ferrari team, just a natural competitive feeling."

Moss has nothing but good things to say about Gurney as a teammate. "Dan in my mind was a terrific driver," Moss said. "He was a very good teammate. I never had a disagreement at all with Dan. He was very easy-going, a lovely bloke. We were obviously after the same success. I never had to argue with him in any way. I'd say, 'Let's do this,' and we'd talk about it and agree what the plan was or how long one would drive--all those things. I found him very good to deal with."

Moss rates Dan at the top of his personal list of drivers. "I thought Dan was one of the finest drivers in the world. I put him extremely high on my list of people I've driven with. He'd certainly be one of the few who, dare I say, equaled myself. I've driven with people at the 'Ring where I'd say, 'You do three laps out of forty-four, and I'll do the rest.' But Dan was quick so you didn't have to try to keep him out of the car. I had a great respect for his ability and he wasn't hard on the car, so there was really no downside. The only downside was us not being the same height, but we got over that quite easily.

"Dan's a racer, like I reckoned I was," Moss added. "When I gave the car to him I knew very well that he'd take care of the car and drive it as fast as he bloody well could. Overall, I would say there are two or three people I would put on a very high plane. Dan is one of them. And the other is Tony Brooks."

Moss and Gurney's places in the grand pantheon of racing greats are forever assured and the fact that both men are and always were sportsmen and gentlemen of the finest kind makes their careers and lives doubly worth celebrating. And in case you didn't know, Brooks was Moss's teammate at Vanwall in 1957 and the pair shared a car to win that year's British GP. A tall, lean Englishman, Brooks was Ferrari's F1 and sports car team leader in 1959 but retired after the end of the 1961 season. A superb driver--eminently smooth and slashingly fast--Brooks raced as a hobby more than a profession and retired to focus on his marriage, family and career selling and servicing cars.

My congratulations to the Preservation Society of Newport County for creating the William K. Vanderbilt Jr. Concours d'Elegance to celebrate racing's greatest sportsmen and the spirit of the sport in its purest sense. This year's inaugural was a tremendous antidote for the increasingly dysfunctional world of modern sport and a life lesson from Messrs. Moss and Gurney about how any sportsman should comport themselves as a person, a professional, or a gentleman.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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