The Bruce McLaren Biography
By Frank Falkner as published August 1970 Road & Track
IN MOTOR RACING we all mentally form intimate lists categorizing world class drivers. One is headed “Safe, highly experienced and skilled; indestructible.” Bruce McLaren headed many such lists. The shock, apart from the grief, following his sudden death at Goodwood while testing the new McLaren Can-Am car was therefore intensified. Especially ironical and cruel was the fact that he had thoughtfully elected not to drive either of the two McLaren entries at Indianapolis and returned to England after that race to busy himself, typically, with testing the usual impeccably prepared Can-Am cars.
Bruce being only 33, with his ageless, joyful, youthful appearance, it was easy to forget that of all the world-class drivers he was, with the exception of his friend Jack Brabham, the most experienced of all in terms of years.
At 16 he was a secretly frightened competition license holder competing in his first hill-climb in a highly tweaked Austin 7. His father, an engineer and motor car man, had encouraged him and was his greatest supporter.
Bruce, especially when tired, had a marked limp as a result of an illness known as Legg-Perthes disease which classically descends out of the blue on previously healthy nine-year-old boys and caused them, in those days, to be placed flat on their backs in traction for periods up to two years in an orthopedic hospital. After recovery the hip joint is never completely efficient and is occasionally painful.
In retrospect, it is clear that Bruce’s glorious sense of humor, resilience, patience and puckishness was born, or at least solidified, during that long period. One incident needs to be recalled. He was always a quiet leader and led, during this sojourn in the hospital, his like-aged colleagues in a grid of four-wheeled “spinal chairs” on a secret night foray down the winding, smooth, downhill paths. The steering and handling were, of course, lamentable, and there was naturally an awful multiple shunt into the flower beds. The important part of the story is that all involved-by team effort and leadership got back to their rightful bed stations totally undiscovered and unharmed.
Also of great importance in his early life were his parents. Their support and parental concern clearly helped evolve Bruce’s unquestioned adult happy acceptance of life’s ups and downs, his compassion; kindness, interest in others and his huge determination to succeed.
It is entirely appropriate to add the objective genetic factor of inheritable traits at this point. Bruce was the first of the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association’s “Driver to Europe” scholarship winners. This scholarship got the young driver to Europe all right but left him virtually on his own on arrival. A somewhat forlorn 20-year-old Bruce with his friend Colin Beanland, acting as mechanic, set foot in England in 1958. Jack Brabham, John and Charles Cooper provided the much-needed father figures and the two New Zealanders moved into the Cooper works to literally build their own Formula 2 Cooper.
It wasn’t long before Bruce was getting entries at good Formula 2 races and causing enthusiasts to look at the program to see who this small, very young Commonwealth type might be. Everyone was suddenly made to really sit up at the 1958 German Grand Prix, a combined F1 and F2 race at the Nurbürgring. The end of this episode is best summarized by Jack Brabham. “I don’t know. A couple of Arabs came over with three spanners and a spare wheel just to fill up the entry list and then they win the bloody race.” Bruce was 5th overall and first F2 car and stood on the victory dais beside Tony Brooks, who had won the F1 race in a Vanwall that day. At this point Bruce had truly arrived and his career in the big time started.
In this same year, 1958, Tyrrell, one of the great spotters of driving talent, offered Bruce the drive in his F2 Cooper and this friendship and educational experience was also important. The perfectionist in Bruce began to show itself in many ways. The late “Noddy” Grohman and Mike Barney were perfectionist Cooper mechanics and friends also. One hour before the race, Bruce, with a little list in his hand would say, “Noddy and Mike, did you top her up with oil?” The two mechanics would not even deign to answer and gave him looks that could kill. When they were not looking, however, Bruce simply could not resist undoing the filler cap to peek.
The next year saw him join the Cooper factory team along with Jack Brabham and Masten Gregory. It is not widely known that Bruce received much training in engineering school and during the next years there cannot have been two other drivers who spent more time involved in testing, development and preparation than he and Brabham. This was a period of the most important and happy hard work.
This was also the time when the leaders in the sport were quietly realizing that while it was important to get maximum horsepower, seconds could also be knocked off lap times by tuning the chassis. Ken Tyrrell was a pioneer here and he always thought very highly of Bruce in this regard. As Tyrrell explained it, one of the most difficult things a driver is called upon to do in testing is to drive constantly flat-out at exactly the same speed, lap after lap, and then report on the handling and so on. It was here that all the groundwork for the subsequent maturation in the whole field of motor racing was done.
At the end of 1959 Bruce McLaren became, at 22, the youngest driver ever to win a World Championship F1 race, the U.S. Grand Prix at Sebring. For Cooper, 1959 was the first of the two successive golden years, as they won the Manufacturers’ Championship, and in 1960 Jack retained his World Championship with 23-year-old Bruce second in the standings for World Championship driver. Bruce was to win a total of four grandes epreuves: U.S. (1959), Argentina (1960), Monte Carlo (1962) and Belgium (1968). As an indicator of his experience and reliability over the years, in accumulative championship points he ranked fifth behind Graham Hill, Fangio, Jim Clark and his friend Brabham.
He remained with Cooper until 1966, succeeding Brabham as their No. 1 driver when Jack left in 1962 to build his own cars. He started during this time his dogged versatile expansion into all branches of racing, including sports cars. He came to enjoy this very much and made many friends in the U.S. In 1966 he won the 24 hours of Le Mans with Chris Amon in a 7-liter Ford Mark IIA and in the following year the 12 hours of Sebring with Mario Andretti in a Ford Mark IV.
Another milestone was reached in 1963-64 because he was itchy to break out and have his own team. For the Tasman series he had his own two specially built 2.5-liter Coopers. The late Timmy Mayer had spent his first European season in Formula 3 driving in Ken Tyrrell’s nursery and Bruce invited him to join him Down Under, being much impressed with his talent. This was to be a sort of rehearsal as John Cooper had also been impressed enough to sign the young American as his number two driver to number one McLaren for the following season. Although Bruce won that Tasman series championship, the new team returned in sadness for Timmy was tragically killed in practice for the last race of that series. For Teddy Mayer, manager for his brother, and mechanic Tyler Alexander, however, this was the start of their long subsequent association and eventual setting up of McLaren Racing Ltd. in 1966 with Teddy Mayer as partner. From that point on we saw another quality emerge in Bruce, that of an astute businessman and hard working executive.
Bruce remained a world-class driver but more and more his maturity allowed him to be comfortable that others were quicker and that his future lay in design, building and development. McLaren Formula 1 cars were then produced and Bruce won Spa in 1968 in his own McLaren-Ford and later that year his team driver, Denny Hulme, won the Italian and Canadian GPs in McLaren-Fords.
During all this time, the planning was going on inside the heads of Bruce and Teddy Mayer which was to lead to the pinnacle of his overall career-the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series for Group 7 sports cars. McLaren Racing Ltd. won support effort from Chevrolet, Goodyear, Reynolds and Gulf and produced the McLaren car that won five of six races in the 1967 series, four of six in 1968 and all 11 in 1969. This superb domination of the series had many rewards and just before Bruce’s death, the Royal Automobile Club was ready to announce its presentation of the Seagrave Trophy to him for these outstanding performances.
But now Bruce McLaren has stopped. Suddenly and awfully, we shall all stop seeing the most famous and attractive grin in all of motor racing; waiting for the hesitation while he carefully thought something out before replying calmly, quietly and firmly. And waiting too for the chance of an accompanying funny remark which would in its turn produce a deep booming laugh which rippled up his whole small body into the laughing eyes. Can there have been in the history of the sport a more universally loved figure? Did anyone ever hear so often a man who, listening to a conversation in which some unpleasant individual was having his character assassinated, find some redeeming feature and defend him?
He would say that he had had a marvelous life; that he hoped we wouldn’t forget him and that we would always talk about him and of the myriad of exciting and happy times. We won’t ever forget and we will do as he would want. All his many friends are thinking of his wife and his daughter and extend their deep sympathy to them and to his parents.