Two big things happened Sunday afternoon up in the north woods, and anyone who was within miles of the scene would have had a tough time determining which was the more important. First, an extremely gutty little Scotsman named Jimmy Clark won the United States Grand Prix, which is a road race like nothing you have ever seen. Second, there were so many people jammed around the Watkins Glen racecourse to watch him do it that it is a statistical wonder the whole crazy state of New York didn't tip over and slide into the Atlantic Ocean.
In just about the time it took for the crowd to open 50 million beer cans, Clark drove his English Lotus-Ford home at a record average speed of 120.95 mph for 248.4 miles. At the end, the right rear suspension on his car broke—at about 165 mph—and he finished on a wing nut and a prayer.
Behind Clark, in various stages of mechanical undress, came a weary gang of international Formula One racers who had put together a nicely frantic event—which is just what all those people had expected.
For the record, Clark's teammate, Graham Hill, was second. Between them they had managed to keep Denis Hulme and Jack Brabham, the year's superstars, from dulling up the season by winning again. It was a kind of ironic service, in fact, since Hulme placed third and Brabham fifth—which means their personal battle for the world driving championship will go all the way to the year's last event on October 22 in Mexico City.
October 8, 1967
Actually, it was a wonder in the first place that there were, assembled on the hilltop, 18 men brave enough to climb into flameproof coveralls and face the weekend's delicate terror. In practice runs their fragile, 1,200-pound cars went faster than any had ever gone at the Glen before—a scary business in which the drivers would roar hell-bent for the misty hills and then, for brief seconds, float eerily weightless like high-speed ghosts.
On Saturday afternoon, 22 hours before the race started, cool Graham Hill flashed around the 2.3-mile loop at 126.45 mph to win the pole and set the latest of the week's speed records. Not long before Clark had gone almost that fast himself—125.32 mph. He figured that was plenty.
While Hill was out howling, Clark relaxed in the pits and allowed, "We could go on all day pushing up this speed. But I am satisfied that I've gone about as fast as I care to go today, thank you."
New Zealand's Hulme, who is built along the lines of a three-bedroom cottage, grinned and said happily, "I am going so fast that I'm absolutely flying off the tops of those hills. It's weird. The car suddenly goes all weightless and waggles about a bit up there in the air, with nothing touching. In sports-car racing I don't mind it because I've got those shoulder straps holding me in. But here, no straps and all at that speed. The only thing that keeps me from floating right out of the damned cockpit is the fact that I'm hanging on to the bloody steering wheel. And hard."
Twelve drivers hung on tightly enough to break the track's old 121.07-mph practice-run record. Hot behind Hill and Clark came American Dan Gurney, he of the aerodynamic dimples, in his Eagle—a car as loaded with space-age titanium and magnesium parts as a Gemini capsule. Then came those steely-eyed Lotus-chasers: Hulme and Australia's Brabham in Brabham-Repcos; Chris Anion, who comes from New Zealand and drives a Ferrari with 12 tiny cylinders; his countryman Bruce McLaren in his own McLaren-BRM. Jackie Stewart followed in the qualifying sprints in a pure BRM, and John Surtees rounded out the top echelon of an exceptional field with his Honda, serviced by a battalion of Japanese mechanics, one crew to each sparkplug.
At stake were the richest purse in road-racing history, $102,400, with the $20,000 winner's share twice the take for any of the 10 other races, and all those points for the championship, which in glamour, prestige and cash benefits is worth roughly the New Zealand national budget.
Going into the race, Hulme and Brabham were far out in front of the others on points. Hulme, although three ahead of his boss, 43-40, was gigantically un-excited.
"Just suppose," said one newsman, using Hulme as a windbreak, "just suppose that you are out there running first and Brabham is running second and the boss wants to win and he waves you to move over?"
Hulme grinned wolfishly. "Oh, I don't think he would do that," he said.
"But suppose he did, what would you do?"
"Well," Hulme sighed, "I think we'd just have to dash for it together, wouldn't we now?" So much for devious strategy.
Meanwhile, the crowd began gathering. Estimates ranged from 80,000 to a million, and it is reasonable to assume that, as you read this, there are still car-loads of people trying to break the traffic jam and get out of town.
No matter. The U.S. Grand Prix has become such an important national fertility rite—the chill reverse of the springtime migration to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.—that everyone who is anyone in the bopper set has to be seen there. By the thousands they huddled in the fantastic cold—an ebbing, flowing ocean of blue lips and red noses. In years past it was de rigeur to burn every unguarded hay bale for miles around. But the In thing this year seemed to be a talk tent operated by an earnest group of collegians stoked on Vietnam, Black Power and the old college itch to gab.
The crowd became so large—and the roads leading to the track so jammed—that in order to stage the race at all officials had to airlift the drivers by helicopter from their downtown motel.
An ocean of people parted just enough to let the cars get through from the garage to the starting grid, and the field bristled away at the win-or-bust speed that makes this the most glamorous form of automobiling. For a time Hill led Gurney and Clark, but then Dan's Eagle busted and near midpoint Jimmy sailed around Hill and on to victory. In danger of losing a wheel the last three laps, Clark "had a look and saw the thing wobbling. I think it would have fallen off in another five or six laps."
Clark's win made it clear that the Lotus-Fords are the Grand Prix team to beat in the future, but it was too late to snatch the year's spoils from Brabham and Hulme. And in a parting word on Monday, calculated to jazz up American racing, Jack (who must win in Mexico to beat Denny for the driving championship) announced that he would build three Brabham-Repcos for the 1968 Indy 500. He would not name the drivers, but Mr. Hulme certainly had an available look about him.