Friday, November 30, 2012

Bruce McLaren

John Fitch came to mind the other day, when I read his obituary in one of the local newspapers.  Of course, I could have read of him in the sporting press, too, as Fitch was a well-known figure in international motor sports, as well as an inventor of safety devices.  I mostly knew him as the octogenarian who tended to drive around the Salisbury/Lakeville area a tad too fast.  Shortly after his 90th birthday, I seem to recall that he made the local paper's "police log" for getting a speeding ticket.  Anyway, Fitch and his wife were members of an Episcopal parish that neighbored mine, but his son and grandchild were members of my parish, so our paths crossed periodically.

I forget exactly how I wound up in a car with him driving, but there I was trying to distract myself from noticing how high the tachometer was revving or how a man of nearly 90 was driving almost that speed on the winding roads of Litchfield County.  As we were in a car of Fitch's own design, we started talking about the desire of some drivers to build their own racing vehicles, and of their checkered history of success when they do so.  We both agreed, however, that the best example of driver/engineer/car builder was Bruce McLaren.

Some of the most successful racing drivers come from places that I never would associate with automobiles.  Juan Fangio was from the pampas of Argentina, Jimmy Clark was a rural Scotsman, and Jochen Rindt was an orphan from bomb-destroyed Hamburg.  Bruce McLaren was from New Zealand.  While nearby Australia has a fine tradition of producing racing champions, New Zealand was little more than bucolic farmland not known for its highways or its engineering or automotive industries; yet the country was to produce the most unique of competitors.

In an age where the drivers of the Grand Prix circuit tended to be flamboyant, as they included personalities such as Italian playboys, lesser members of the English peerage, and heirs of cosmetic fortunes, McLaren was remarkably unassuming.  In fact, he would have been all but invisible if not for the fact that he could win races.

At the age of 22, he became the youngest Grand Prix winner ever when he triumphed at the United States Grand Prix in Watkins Glen, New York.  When Henry Ford II wanted to challenge Enzo Ferrari's dominance in European racing, and prove that American cars were better than any other, he selected McLaren to drive Ford's entry in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, the famous endurance race.  McLaren won.

However, that wasn't what marked him as the sport's most innovative competitor.  In the late 1960's, he decided to design and build his own racing cars.  While he was not the first to do so [the American racer, Dan Gurney, had won the Belgian Grand Prix in 1967 in a car of his design named the "American Eagle"], it is safe to say that there has never been another driver who has so transcended in that role.

McLaren's cars became recognizable fixtures in the Grand Prix racing schedule, and in particular in the Canadian-American series that was tremendously popular in the late-60's and early 70's.  At a time when cars still carried the livery of their nation of origin [British racing green, French racing blue, Italian racing red, etc.], McLaren created the unmistakable "New Zealand racing orange".  The other reason that they were so recognizable is that they tended to put their drivers on the winner's podium.

[It should also be noted that, during the victory celebrations at the conclusion of any of the Grand Prix series of races, the driver's national anthem is played first, then followed by the national anthem of the car. Yes, that's right.],

Although no longer orange in color, as corporate sponsorships now trump national pride, McLaren cars are still familiar to racing fans and still tend to put their drivers on the winner's podium.  In fact, in the season that has just concluded, the McLaren cars were responsible for six seven of the twenty victories.  [Maybe seven, as this is being written the day before the Brazilian Grand Prix.  Yep, seven.] 

Not a bad legacy for a humble driver from the middle of nowhere.  My regret is that Bruce McLaren could not be a familiar sight at contemporary races, a sort of "grand old man" of the sport, relishing yet another victory in what many consider to be the most technologically advanced car, as he was killed testing one of his own racing cars [yes, he was also his own test driver] back in 1970. 

However, while alive, he proved that a driver was not just a grease monkey or a mildly bemused aristocrat, but a full, creative partner in the medium of motor sports; and, since his death, a testimony to the eternal aspects of a dedication to quality.