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The remarkably unremarkable Bruce McLaren

Oct. 28, 1968
Oct. 28, 1968

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Oct. 28, 1968

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The remarkably unremarkable Bruce McLaren

Charisma he hasn't got, but in the rich arena of Can-Am sports-car racing New Zealand's Mr. Modest has become a powerful, affluent Mr. Big

The Canadian-American Challenge Cup series is unique in international automobile racing and, although only in its third year, the 80,000 fans expected at the Riverside International Raceway in California Sunday for the fifth event on the season's calendar will testify to the fact that it has already captured the imagination of the racing public. It isn't hard to see why. The series is for Group 7 sports cars, and in the lexicon of the Sports Car Club of America and the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile that means quite simply that anything goes. The cars are loud, the cars are fast (with top speeds approaching 200 mph), the cars are boisterously beautiful, with wildly carved bodywork, with spoilers, airfoils and air scoops sticking out everywhere. Most important, they are sports cars in name only. The only serious restrictions are that they have a passenger seat—although nobody rides shotgun—and that their wheels be covered. Otherwise, the only limitations imposed on design and construction are those of the imagination.

This is an article from the Oct. 28, 1968 issue Original Layout

The fans have to be on their toes, for the series is brutally short. There are six races—in Elkhart Lake, Wis.; Bridge-hampton, N.Y.; Edmonton, Alta.; Monterey, Calif.; Riverside and Las Vegas—in the space of just 10 weeks, and the demands on drivers, crews and the cars themselves are punishing. Staccato-fast the races come and go, as do the brief weekends of a football season, and no one dares fall behind. It is not a series in which one plays catch-up.

Above all, it is a rich competition. In 1966 the prize money came to $358,000. Last year the figure was $472,720 and this year it should reach $518,470—all in all, a situation ripe for exploitation by old, reputable and durable racing teams like those of Ferrari, or Lotus, or even the newer American ones of Dan Gurney and Roger Penske. But, in fact, the plucking has been done not by them but by a New Zealander named Bruce McLaren, a quiet, friendly chap, who is about as well known outside of racing as the pre-Miami Spiro Agnew was beyond Baltimore. McLaren walks with a limp, drinks lots of orange juice and has a tooth that sticks out at a 45° angle when he smiles. He is always on the verge of a smile, as though he is carrying out some joke on the world that only he knows about, and there is always the threat of that laugh of his, a great, crisp, male Melina Mercouri laugh that can be heard, easily, over the roar of mere engines.

McLaren is the founding father of Team McLaren, its No. 1 driver and the designer of its cars, which over the last two years have simply spread-eagled the Can-Am competition. This has been done in two ways. The first is through Team McLaren itself, whose road show features the following key personnel:

•Gary Knutson, a lanky Coloradan with perpetually frowzy, just-washed hair and an absolutely stunning wife. Knutson probably knows more about the 427-cu.-in. Chevrolet engine McLaren uses than the man who built it in the first place.

•Tyler Alexander, a very improper Bostonian, who is McLaren's crew chief. Alexander got involved with racing cars because he liked to take pictures of them and is the only man who can talk back to McLaren and consistently get away with it. After three years of touring with McLaren he even laughs like him.

•Teddy Mayer, a native of Pennsylvania who is the nephew of former Governor William Scranton, has a degree from Yale Law School, a tax consultant's diploma from New York University and blinks a lot.

And then there is the driver of the second Team McLaren car, Denis Hulme, the 1967 Grand Prix champion. The fact that he drives for McLaren is in itself unique. Hulme, also a New Zealander, is a faster driver than McLaren, and the boss is surprisingly free of any ego bruises that might impel him to choose a lesser man than himself for the second car. McLaren is content to let Hulme have the glory of winning. "Bruce, I think, realizes Hulme is faster," says a friend, "but he is quite happy to see one of his team cars win, nearly as happy as if he had won himself. They would never dice."

There are, however, driving and personality differences between them—nothing to provoke a clash, but interesting nonetheless. McLaren has an engineering background and an engineer's mind and is a superb car tester. Hulme is much more a seat-of-the-pants driver. "When Denny's testing," Mayer says, "all I want is a stopwatch and for him to say yes or no." Both prefer the company of friends, but where McLaren accepts the possibility of becoming a celebrity and the consequences of it, Hulme is uneasy in the company of strangers, as a pair of incidents last month at Edmonton indicated. After that race, in which Hulme and McLaren finished one-two, Hulme sat on the exposed radiator of his car, the red roses on his victory wreath already wilting, and nibbled at some cheese and crackers and sipped beer that Mayer had provided. Tyler Alexander talked with McLaren about what would have to be done to the cars before the Monterey race, while Chris Charles, a mechanic, was doing his best to finish off a fifth of Jack Daniel's before sundown.

Suddenly an agitated lady burst upon them.

"You're Denis Hulme, aren't you?" she said.

"Yes, ma'am," Hulme said politely.

"You're from New Zealand?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"My son-in-law is from New Zealand. Christchurch."

"Oh, yes, ma'am," Hulme said, "I know the place."

"He's married to my daughter. She's a professor. All three of my daughters are professors. And my son-in-law, he's a doctor."

"Yes, ma'am," Hulme said, feeling now the same sort of embarrassment that Dustin Hoffman felt in The Graduate just before he perceived what Mrs. Robinson had in mind. "You must be very proud."

McLaren put his head down, barely suppressing a grin.

Finally she left. Hulme stood up and slammed the side of his car. "Lord," he said, "they bend your ear. I'm all seized up."

McLaren laughed his Melina Mercouri laugh, packed up his helmet and other racing gear and started driving out of the pits. On the way, he stopped to talk with Lothar Motschenbacher, who had had a nasty crash, and accepted congratulations from Mark Donohue, who had pitted early in the race because leaves had blocked his radiator. Bruce also chatted with Jim Hall—he of the automatic transmission and airfoiled Chaparral—who had challenged Hulme and McLaren for 13 laps before his braking failed. "After 12 laps I knew it was over," Hall said. "I gave thumbs down to my pits and decided to take just one more to see if I was stupid."

Hall had run the race's fastest lap, however. "I told you Hall was quick," McLaren said, to no one in particular. "If he ever gets that thing to hold together, he's going to win one of these races."

Back at McLaren's hotel, an informal victory dinner was in progress. Bruce and Denny joined it. Now another lady came to the table and, recognizing Hulme, asked for his autograph "for my daughter." No adult has ever sought an autograph for himself; it's always for a daughter, or a friend, or a niece or nephew back home who couldn't make it to the race. Hulme looked as if he were going to seize up again, but acquiesced. Then the lady turned to the rest of the table and asked, "Well, now, are there any other race drivers here?"

On the opposite side of the table, McLaren smiled and shook his head no.

Thus the status of the Can-Am king's public fame. He is genuinely content to be a sort of invisible winner—as long as the team does win. Over the past two seasons there have so far been 10 Can-Am races. In 1967 McLaren won two races, Hulme won three, and they split $165,000 in prize money, over one-third of the entire jackpot. This year Hulme and McLaren finished one-two at Elkhart Lake and Edmonton, led until the last few laps at Bridgehampton and finished second and fifth respectively two weeks ago at Monterey. Hulme's 1968 prize money to date is $35,100, McLaren's is an even $20,000, and in the race for the driving championship Hulme has a seven-point lead over Mark Donohue, with McLaren three points farther back in third place. The champion will collect an additional $40,000, second place is worth $26,460 and third $16,700, not bad for two months' work.

In races where the team cars have been beaten the winners have been cars originally built by McLaren, and this brings us to the second way in which Bruce is gaining prestige—through sales of production versions of last year's successful car. The 1967 Team McLaren racer was designated the M6A. At the end of the season he announced it would go into production as the M6B. Fourteen were built for sale, priced at $15,000 each and all 14 were sold practically before production started.

Consequently, about half of every Can-Am field this year has consisted of McLaren cars. Donohue has one, Peter Revson has one and Gurney has one, all modified to some extent but still very much McLarens. And the results have been startling. Including, of course, the cars Hulme and McLaren themselves drive, four of the top six finishers at Elkhart Lake were McLarens. At Bridge-hampton the figure was four of six, at Edmonton three of three and Monterey six of six. In fact, the only non-McLaren that has been consistently competitive is the Jim Hall Chaparral. Says one M6B driver, "We're still finding out things McLaren knew last year, but the cars are the best available."

All of this stamps McLaren as the preeminent builder of racing sports cars in the world and, as befits a king, his coffers are afilling. His shop, located near Heathrow, London's international airport—and at the hub of an area where such famous cars as Lola, Lotus, Cooper, Brabham, BRM (British Racing Motors) and this year's Le Mans-winning Ford GT40 have their operations—and other assets make him worth close to $1 million. That is a fairly decent pile, considering that McLaren is just 31 and that five years ago Team McLaren was only a wild idea bouncing around in the back of his mind.

It is the dream of everyone in racing to drive a car of his own design, but few have gotten to the tracks and fewer have succeeded, the most notable exception being Jack Brabham in his Grand Prix cars. For McLaren the journey began in an unusual way: when he was a small boy he fell off a horse. That happened near his home in Auckland, New Zealand at a time in his life when cars meant nothing to him. As a result of the spill, Bruce contracted a disease which stopped the growth of his left leg for two years. He spent those years on his back in a hospital bed, and when he came out of the hospital he walked with a pronounced limp. More for therapy than anything else, his father, who ran a garage and service station in Auckland, bought him an Austin sports car, and within a few years Bruce had become one of the best sports-car drivers in the country. He also raced through the New Zealand equivalent of high school and three years of collegiate engineering studies.

Then in 1958, when McLaren was 21, the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association began its Driver to Europe program, sending promising young Kiwis to the Continent to refine their talents in the major leagues of road racing. Bruce was the first to be so honored. Through his father, Bruce had met Brabham, then driving for Britain's Cooper factory team, and Jack helped him get a ride in a Cooper Formula II car. He stayed with Cooper for five years, occasionally winning a Grand Prix, though nearly always driving in the shadow of Brabham. But slowly the pieces of what eventually would be Team McLaren were falling into place.

At Cooper he met Teddy Mayer, who had come to Europe to manage the driving career of his brother Timmy. McLaren was just 26, and he decided the right time had come (and the right people had appeared) to form his own racing team. But Timmy was killed in a racing accident in February 1964, and Teddy went back home to become a Philadelphia lawyer. For two months. Then Teddy returned to London, and he and McLaren revived the dream.

McLaren's keenest interest had always been sports cars, and up to 1967 his biggest successes had come in the hefty, lumbering Ford Mark II and Mark IV endurance cars that he and the late Ken Miles tested before Ford's assaults on Le Mans. McLaren and Chris Amon, still another New Zealander, won the 1966 Le Mans in a Mark II and, with Mario Andretti, Bruce took the Sebring 12 Hours the following spring in a Mark IV. He had also chosen to continue in Grand Prix racing, but his effort there was something less than sensational. After leaving Cooper he first came out with a McLaren chassis powered by a cut-down version of the highly successful Ford Indianapolis engine, but the combination simply did not work. Last year he switched to a BRM engine, and that power plant was too sluggish to make him competitive.

Having no incentive to work the clock around on the lagging Grand Prix car, McLaren devoted himself to the Can-Am racers. Hulme had followed McLaren to England a year later on the same Driver to Europe scholarship and, like McLaren, had become involved in Ford's Le Mans effort. In the disputed 1966 Le Mans finish, when McLaren drove across the line abreast of a sister Mark II, the man in the second car was Hulme (who was co-driving with Miles). McLaren grabbed Hulme for his No. 2 Can-Am car. To round out the team, late last year McLaren signed on Phil Kerr—a boyhood friend and former manager of the Brabham team—to coordinate Bruce's Grand Prix program. At about the same time Denny let it be known that he would give up his world champion Brabham car and switch to McLaren for the 1968 Grand Prix season.

The McLaren touch now began to cure the ills of the GP cars. After the 1967 BRM debacle Mayer wheedled London's Cosworth shop, which beefs up English Ford engines for Grand Prix racing and has been eminently successful doing it, into selling McLaren a few. McLaren promptly lucked into victory in the Belgian Grand Prix when Jackie Stewart's Matra ran out of gas at the start of the last lap, and then Hulme won both the Italian and Canadian Grand Prix in the space of 15 days last month. With one race left, in Mexico City on November 3, Hulme trails the leader, Graham Hill, by only six points and has a fair chance of repeating as the champion.

At least in his own world the invisible man had acquired some substance. "The team doesn't mind working hard, because they know Bruce works as hard as any of them," Kerr says. "He runs the team, make no mistake about that, but he's not like a little Caesar. He has set very high personal, moral and ethical standards, and I think everybody respects him for it."

Building a racing car is, like politics, the art of the practical, and McLaren never lets the team forget his guiding mottoes. The first is BE THERE, which means it is no good to be ready to race at 2:05 if the race starts at 2. The second is FINISH, and the third, BE COMPETITIVE. Their order is significant.

"Ferrari [which was supposed to have a 6.2-liter Can-Am car ready a month ago] has probably got the fastest car," says Mayer, "but where is it?"

"When you're building or testing you need answers quickly," McLaren says, "and you don't need a computer to tell you what size nut to use. A good mechanic can do that." Computers and wind tunnels can provide guidelines, but nobody has yet built a device that can measure all the stresses a car's suspension encounters when it hits a bump in the middle of a 120-mph turn anywhere from 50 to 150 times in the space of two hours. A racing car is also a complex bundle of compromises. Beyond a point, if you gain speed reliability suffers; if you make the car stronger inevitably you must add weight and thus lose speed. Considering all the parts in an automobile, the combinations and permutations are endless. Thus radical changes in racing cars in recent years have been few—the great swing from front-to rear-mounted engines, the adoption of monocoque(frameless) chassis, Jim Hall's experiments with an automatic transmission and a wing high above the rear wheels. And the main goal of any racing team has got to be to work within the limits that are imposed by the availability of money (McLaren is bankrolled largely by Goodyear), the availability of engines and, finally, the nature of the chassis.

Jim Hall has said many times, "McLaren builds an unremarkable car very remarkably."

McLaren himself says, "I'm not an innovator, although I'm willing to try things now that I might not have considered three years ago, simply because I have more confidence in myself."

If Ferrari ever shows up with its new Can-Am car and Jack Brabham and Colin Chapman build cars of their own, as they are expected to do before very long, the edge the McLarens have undoubtedly will be reduced in 1969. As Teddy Mayer says, "You can't be perfect in racing. It's hard to reach the top, and when you do you're not going to stay there very long."

Wise words, but right now, at least, they are not much consolation to McLaren's competition. Peter Revson spoke for the rest when he said, glumly, "If you're sleeping on the floor you can't fall out of bed, can you?"

PHOTOCOOL KIWIS McLaren and world champion Hulme share a chuckle on Can-Am circuit.PHOTOAT BRIDGEHAMPTON THE SCOOP-NOSED, HIGH-TAILED McLARENS OF BRUCE (4) AND DENNY RACE IN TANDEM TOWARD A TURN