Sean Heckman and Ryan Eversley from ‘Dinner With Racers’ sat down with Dan Gurney’s son and one of the men behind All-American Racers, Alex Gurney. Among other things, they discovered that he was just as good playing the odds as he was behind the wheel.
If you’re anything like the rest of us, you knew the Gurney name as a racing dynasty behind the flap, All-American Racers, and trophies from just about everything the family ever touched.
What we didn’t know until we listened to the Dinner With Racers episode was that Gurney basically funded his college tuition by betting on races in the Nineties.
“I started betting on IndyCar races. The best races to bet on are the 500 milers because anyone can win, the odds are all over the place,” he revealed.
“I won a good amount of money when Villeneuve won in 1995. Eight grand. I flew to Vegas for a couple of hours, felt like a total degenerate, I got on a plane to go place bets at the MGM Grand.”
Heckman and Eversley were probably just as surprised that they weren’t in on this scheme as they were that the clean-cut kid of American hero Dan Gurney was routinely throwing thousands of dollars into the pot. Did he do this for every race or series at the time?
“No, just stuff where I feel like I have some insight,” he said. Even back in the early days of online betting, there were ways to try and keep the odds in your favour.
“Usually on a 500 miler you’d pick 10 guys so you have a really good chance of winning. A few you win a ton of money on, and a few you’re going to break even with. Between a few of us guys we won, like, fifteen thousand.”
Fifteen grand is a lot of money now, let alone over 20 years ago. Buoyed by his early successes, Gurney roped in more college friends.
“1999, this is the Michigan 500. We get that online, I think it was sportsbook.com. Looking up the odds, there was a very high likelihood we can win a lot of money here. Tony Kanaan is 100/1 and they took the bets after qualifying. Max Papis is 75/1, all these big names. What are these guys doing? Anyone here can win a 500 miler.”
“We were down at my brother’s place down on the beach, watching the race as it’s coming near to the end. Papis is leading, Kanaan is second and Montoya is third with a few laps to go. We’re going to win 75 grand if Kanaan wins, 65 if Papis wins and nothing if Montoya wins. Last lap – we’re all stoked because we’re first and second!”
“On the back straight, Papis runs out of fuel. He goes into Turn 3 and is slowing down, Kanaan is coming in and has to check up. All of us stand up, see Papis slowing down and the next camera shot is Montoya coming with what looks like 100mph more than Kanaan to the finish. There’s $75,000 on the line.”
“Kanaan does it. Seventy five thousand bucks!”
Kanaan had held off Montoya to win by 0.032 seconds in a spellbinding finish. At this point, we’re finding the whole story as incredible as the Dinner With Racers guys. Clearly, Gurney is the greatest man in sports betting ever, and hid it all with his own talent on track. However, it wasn’t all Vegas and cash bets, as Gurney tells.
“This is the cautionary side of the story – it gets 100 times worse. A week later, it was the Indy Lights race at Detroit. For some reason, they’re taking bets on an Indy Lites race. Whoever sets the odds has no idea what they’re doing and they left the odds up after qualifying.”
“I’m looking at it and telling all my friends ‘we can take first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth after qualifying. We’re guaranteed not to lose any money, or we’re going to win huge. It’s a lock, it’s an absolute lock!’
“This is the best bet of all time. I’m convincing my friends – I have never seen a bet like this. So we put an enormous amount of money on an Indy Lites race in Detroit, something like 15 or 20 grand between us. It was stupid. The race is not on TV but you can watch the live timing on the internet.”
Picture the scene – Gurney and friends, sat in a homemade nerve centre with timing screens, a bunch of college boys in Colorado trying to take Indy Lites and sports betting in general for a ride with huge sums on what looked like a sure-fire big win.
“We’re all sitting in a dark huddled room with all this money on the line. Derek Higgins is starting seventh. No-one passes at an Indy Lites race at Detroit, one hour, no crashes. I was already the hero from the week before. We got this.”
“Two laps to go, Derek Higgins is in second and he does it. He wins and we lose it, man. We lose all that money.”
Heartbreak. The surefire jackpot had been wrecked by an Irishman who’d come to Indy Lites from two Mexican Formula 3 championships. Derek Higgins had a lot to answer for after winning that race from seventh.
“There’s thing one cool thing that my brother has,” said Gurney. As if anything could make up for Detroit.
“He told the story to Tony Kanaan, and Kanaan signed a hero card for him. “Show me the money.”