They were born too late to fight in World War II, but they survived an era when racing was deadlier than combat. Back then, racing was still just a sport rather than a marketing vehicle, and drivers were hired on the basis of skill and nerve, not how many sponsors they brought or how well they played with the media. Television coverage was rare and tape-delayed, and magazine reports dribbled in months after races had been run, so drivers didn't become pop-culture celebrities in the modern sense. Remote and somehow mythic, they were lionized as heroes, and their feats became the stuff of legend rather than the ephemeral fodder for endless highlight loops on ESPN. Many of these drivers are gone now, dozens killed in wrecks so ghastly that they would inspire universal opprobrium if they occurred today, in the age of YouTube and twenty-four-hour news cycles. And none of them are getting any younger, of course. So we sent photographer Rick Dole across the country to document some of the remaining icons of this bygone era. His portraits -- and their stories -- will run in an ongoing series that we call Generation of Heroes.
Dan Gurney was central casting's idea of an all-American racer -- tall, blond, and handsome, with a sunny smile that radiated the optimism of Southern California. He was so popular that David E. Davis, Jr., the founding editor of Automobile Magazine, inaugurated a "Dan Gurney for President" campaign in 1964. Oh, and he was blessed with talent, too. At Jim Clark's funeral, the two-time world champion's father confided that Gurney was the only driver his son had feared. Despite legendary bad luck, Gurney won more Formula 1 races than any American not named Mario Andretti, and he claimed five NASCAR victories (in six years) on the road course at Riverside. His driving career peaked during a remarkable eight-day stretch in 1967 that began when he and A. J. Foyt dominated Le Mans in a thundering Ford GT40 Mark IV.
(Afterward, Gurney invented the tradition of spraying the crowd with a celebratory bottle of champagne.) The next week, he conquered Spa-Francorchamps, winning the Belgian Grand Prix in an Eagle, a car of his own design. His race car company, fittingly dubbed All American Racers, built cars that claimed eight championships and three Indy 500s. Still working at 81, Gurney remains the fair-haired boy of American motorsports.
They called him Lone Star J. R., and the name worked on several levels. He lived in Fort Worth. He cut his teeth running modifieds at Devil's Bowl Speedway near Dallas. He raced with a Texas-flag motif on his helmet. He was braver than a Brahma bull rider. But Johnny Rutherford was no cowboy. Polished as a politician and a devotee of the arts, he became the public face of the Indy Racing League after quitting the cockpit. Seeing him now, poised and prosperous, it's hard to envision the rocky road he traveled en route to winning three Indy 500s. He was among the last drivers to race at the Speedway in a front-engine roadster, and a violent sprint-car wreck at Eldora Speedway nearly ended his career. After several years in the wilderness, he landed a dream ride with McLaren, and he later scored the first win at Indianapolis in a ground-effects car with the Chaparral 2K, a.k.a. the Yellow Submarine. Like Mario Andretti and A. J. Foyt, he hung on too long, failing to qualify for the 500 during his last three attempts before finally retiring at the age of fifty-six. But as IndyCar's longtime pace-car driver, he remains one of the sport's greatest ambassadors.