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It's In The Blood

Kool-Toyota Atlantic race: His parents didn't want him to become a race car driver, but Alex Gurney couldn't help but display talents similar to his father.

April 15, 1999|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One sees the name Alex Gurney listed among drivers in the Kool-Toyota Atlantic race in Long Beach this weekend, and there arises an image of yet another second-generation driver encouraged by his family to follow in Dad's tire tracks.

That's the way the Pettys, Unsers, Andrettis and many others did it. But not the Gurneys.

"My parents were 100% against me pursuing a career as a racing driver," the 24-year-old Atlantic rookie says.

Then what is he doing preparing to drive the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach course in a Saturday support race for the CART FedEx main event?

"Once I had finished college, and they realized how much it meant to me, they came around," he said, smiling the same crooked grin of his famous father, Dan Gurney.

It didn't hurt, either, that he showed precocious talent.

Only a couple of days after graduating from the University of Colorado with a business administration degree, young Gurney joined the Skip Barber Dodge Midwestern series.

He won his first race, then six more in succession, as the worst fears of his mother, Evi, materialized. He had the talent to do it, so he was going to become a race driver.

"Why did he have to win so quickly?" Evi said with a mother's anguish, then quickly added, "but we're so proud of him. He has done a wonderful job."

Even though he grew up around racing, working at times in his father's All American Racers shop in Santa Ana, Alex did not start racing until his junior year in college.

"A buddy of mine from home, Ernest Krueger, and I started running karts together in Colorado, just for fun," Gurney said. "We went to the same high school [Corona del Mar in Newport Beach] and he went to Colorado School of Mines. We used to get together and race karts on local tracks around Boulder and Denver.

"Then my friend's dad bought a Dodge Neon to go SCCA club racing, so I started driving that too."

Gurney won three races in the Neon and set a track record at Second Creek Raceway in Colorado in an SCCA regional race.

"That pretty much decided I should get more serious about racing, so as soon as I graduated, I went straight to the Barber Dodge series," he said.

After winning his first seven races, Alex cooled off a bit but still finished second in the series with 10 wins in 14 races, missing the championship by only two points. He was rookie of the year.

That earned him a professional ride with Barry Green's Team Kool Green in the Barber Dodge Pro Series last year. He won his first pole at Homestead, Fla., and finished 10th in standings.

Green moved him up to the Atlantic series this year. Long Beach will be the first of 12 races.

"I've never raced at Long Beach, but I've driven around the course with my dad in a Toyota Supra. He told me what to expect and what to think about," Gurney said.

Among the drivers Gurney will race is Buddy Rice, 23, of Phoenix, who won the pole last year at Long Beach as a rookie, and Lee Bentham of Canada, the series champion looking to become the first repeating Atlantic champion since David Empringham won in 1993 and '94. Gurney's long-range ambition is to drive in Formula One, where his father raced for 11 years, winning four times, once in the historic 1967 race at the Belgian Grand Prix in a Gurney AAR Eagle--the only time an American driver in an American car has won a Grand Prix.

"I would like to win the Formula One world championship," he said. "It's a lofty aspiration, but that's what I dream about. First, though, I want to climb through the American ranks. If I can."

Alex was born four years after Dan retired, so he never saw his father race.

But he said, "I traveled with my dad a lot to Indy car and [sports car] races. And I've been around racing all my life. It's what my family does."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Kool-Toyota Atlantic Race

* Cars: Swift chassis, Toyota engines, Yokohama radial tires.

* Qualifying: 4:45 p.m. Friday and 12 p.m. noon Saturday.

* When: 4 p.m., Saturday.

* What: 37 laps on 1.85-mile street course.

* 1998 winner: Memo Gidley.

* TV: April 24, 25, ESPN2 (tentative)

* Drivers to watch: Lee Bentham, Buddy Rice, Elton Julian, Alexandre Tagliani, Alex Gurney.

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