|Bruce Leslie McLaren|
|Bruce McLaren: Hidden Fears, but Absolutely no Handicaps|
|by Jeremy McMullen|
| There would be moments, usually when tired or unaware of anyone looking, that Bruce McLaren would walk with an obvious limp to his step. To the casual onlooker the immediate thought would be 'results of an accident'. This would be far from the truth. The truth of the matter is that there were many aspects to Bruce McLaren that he would manage to hide from the general public, even family members. But one thing that is certainly truth, and that is this: in spite of the limp, he certainly did not stumble into greatness in motor racing. |
Great trials and adversity have the ability to produce one of two outcomes: either they will destroy, or they will inspire and motivate. In the case of McLaren, the later would certainly be the case.
When Bruce McLaren lost his life while testing one of his Can-Am cars at Goodwood in 1970, the motor sports world would lose an incredibly humble and likable ambassador. Always ready to flash that famous smile and very approachable, Bruce McLaren was much more than a world-class driver. Astute and a perfectionist, Bruce McLaren also had an incredible ability to shut it all off and relax with those whose company he was keeping.
If pain can be your teacher, then McLaren never missed a lesson from his earlier childhood. It would define the man. It would help to give him the determination and the drive, but it would also teach him to be humble and to enjoy life.
Born to Les and Ruth McLaren on the 30th of August in 1937, in Auckland, New Zealand, Bruce's early years would be simple times pestering his father at the service station his father had invested in after leaving driving oil tankers. Then, at the age of nine, Bruce would suffer from a fall and would develop a hip joint disease known as Perthes Disease. This would leave the young lad confined to a bed at the Wilson Home for about two years.
While such an experience at a tender age could have demoralized many, Bruce would come to find the lighter side of life and would even be the instigator of many 'unofficial' races and late night trips out of the home with other suffering kids still in their beds. It would be during this very difficult period of life that the signature McLaren smile would be born, right along with his tremendous humility and kindness.
When he was finally allowed to leave the home on crutches neither Bruce nor his parents were going to let the handicap keep him from living out his true potential. Urged on by his father, Bruce would begin to show an interest in racing. Bruce's father was himself, an engineer and automotive man. He knew how to tweak a car and would champion many of Bruce's early racing efforts. Soon, Bruce would be the holder of a competition license. The world of racing, though something of a passion for Bruce even from a young age, would be a far cry from the never-ending agonizing days in the 'spinal chairs'. Still, while on the verge of his first-ever hill-climb, on the verge of a life he had always dreamt of, Bruce would be secretly frightened beyond belief.
Just as he had dealt with the debilitating disease at a young age, Bruce would fight through and would manage to put aside his fears and would launch on a motor racing career that would soon make him one of the noted drivers of his time.
While McLaren's racing career would be a remarkable experience, it would start out in a rather normal way. Bruce would compete in local events around his native New Zealand. At the same time, he would focus on his engineering studies, studies that would serve him well over his all too short life.
Extremely focused and dedicated in everything he did, McLaren would progress with his engineering studies but would also become the first to win the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association's 'Driver to Europe' scholarship. This would be a very important achievement in Bruce's racing career, but it would also author one of the more unnerving moments in his life.
The scholarship funded a driver to Europe, but left them on their own upon arrival. Bruce would arrive in England in 1958 with just his friend and mechanic Colin Beanland. At just 20 years of age, McLaren needed contacts and father figures in his life. Providentially, there would be an important connection already in England that would become like a father to Bruce. Fellow southern hemisphere and commonwealth citizen, Jack Brabham, would come along and take McLaren under his wing.
Actually, Bruce would find Jack already awaiting his arrival in England. Jack and Bruce had already had the opportunity of getting to know each other after Bruce's father made the decision to purchase Brabham's bob-tailed, 1.5-liter Cooper that Brabham had campaigned around New Zealand between January and February of 1957. Bruce's father was so determined for his son to have the best equipment and best opportunities for success that he would negotiate with Brabham for the car. Brabham would agree to the terms and Bruce would use the car to earn his 'Driver to Europe' scholarship. But before his departure, Bruce would give anyone who paid attention a taste of what was to come when he followed Brabham home in 2nd place in the 1958 New Zealand Grand Prix.
So, in Jack Brabham, Bruce would have a mentor and a champion for his own success. In addition to Brabham, Bruce would make a couple of other important connections in those first days after arriving in England. Already working with the Coopers, Jack would introduce Bruce to John and Charles Cooper who would also become important connections in Bruce's life and racing career.
The best antidote to loneliness and feelings of home-sickness would be to get to work. And that is exactly what McLaren and Beanland would do. Holed up in the Cooper garage, the two men would begin working building their own Formula 2 Cooper. This would be the best opportunity for Bruce to put into practice all he had learned from his engineering studies. It would also serve as the perfect foundation for what he would do years later.
Understanding the mechanical facets of a racing car while being very astute behind the wheel meant Bruce understood racing inside and out. He understood the mechanical, and the human, elements that were necessary for success. As a result, it wouldn't be too long before he began making an impact in Formula 2. One of those great moments in which it was clear McLaren had arrived would come at the 1958 German Grand Prix.
Racing in a Formula 2 Cooper amongst a field of both Formula One and Formula 2 cars, Bruce would look the infamous Nurburgring square in the face and would end up finishing the race 5th overall, 1st in Formula 2. It is a race that would make Brabham take notice, and therefore, would do the same for the rest of the motor racing world.
Bruce's performances had caught the attention of another master in the motor racing world, Ken Tyrrell. Tyrrell would become a legend in grand prix racing for his understanding of setting up racing cars and tuning them for each particular race. He would recognize McLaren as having similar understandings and would offer Bruce a seat driving one of his Formula 2 Coopers. This would end up making for a remarkable partnership.
Tyrrell excelled in the intellectual aspects of motor racing, and with Bruce's engineering background the two could communicate and understand each other perfectly. It would only help that Bruce was as much a perfectionist as Tyrrell. Tyrrell's Formula 2 team would also employ a couple of perfectionist mechanics in Groham and Barney. Both of these two took it as personal insults if one questioned whether they completed such simple tasks as filling up the gas tank. But it wouldn't matter, McLaren would still quietly look anyway just to make sure.
With such redundancy inherent within the team it was painfully clear the team would not miss much that would possibly give them an edge. Bruce and Tyrrell would turn their relationship into a success one and even more opportunities would open up for McLaren as a result.
To get the technical feedback Tyrrell required he needed a driver capable of driving on the limit at a steady pace. This would help give feedback as to car performance. The engineering mind McLaren possessed understood this perfectly. It was also something Jack Brabham more than understood. Therefore, Bruce's joining the Cooper factory would bring together the like-mindedness of McLaren and Brabham, and Cooper would only benefit from the close relationship of the two.
When Bruce came to join the Cooper factory team the driver line-up included Masten Gregory and Jack Brabham. Therefore, Cooper would have an incredibly potent list of drivers in its stable. And in the case of Brabham and McLaren, Cooper had a healthy competitive relationship that only helped Cooper improve technically. The effect of these two southern hemisphere drivers would never be more apparent than in 1960 when Bruce would finish the Formula One World Championship 2nd in the Drivers' Championship standings just nine points behind teammate Brabham. And the pairing of the two would prove to be a lethal combination in the Constructors' Championship standings. With their drivers finishing 1st and 2nd in the Drivers' Championship standings it would not be much of a stretch to realize Cooper dominated in the constructors standings as well.
1960 would be an incredible year for Cooper and Brabham and McLaren. Bruce would take his second career victory in the first round of the World Championship that year. Then, during Brabham's run of five-straight victories, there would be two occasions when Cooper would have Brabham and McLaren finishing one-two.
Though the talents of Bruce were undeniable, the presence of Jack Brabham and the rise of Lotus would make victories hard to come by. Still, Bruce's talents were just too valuable and it would not be at all surprising when he would take over as Cooper's number one driver when Brabham left in 1962 to start his own team.
Bruce would remain with Cooper for another four years, serving as the team's number one driver. However, without the kindred-spirit that Brabham was to keep his interests solely within the Cooper team, McLaren started to look to branch out into other forms of racing.
McLaren was very familiar, comfortable with, life's ups and downs. And so, by the mid-1960s, when Cooper's and his own success in Formula One began seemingly to wane, Bruce would look to what else he could do in racing that he felt comfortable with and that could prove successful.
A humble man, Bruce would be one of the first to realize when another driver was quicker than he, and that his own racing career, in each particular series, would have a lifespan to it. On top of everything else, his engineering side would not be allowed to so quietly in the night. While he certainly was a racer, he also had the technical abilities to build his own cars. Therefore, he would make the jump, like Brabham, into creating his own racing team building his own cars.
As it had when he first arrived in England, McLaren would turn to Cooper and would take some of their cars and would rework them to race under his new company, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd., and would begin racing them in the Tasman Series back in his native New Zealand alongside Tim Mayer. McLaren's prowess would prove indomitable and he would go on to win the title in 1964 and 1965.
But it wouldn't stop there. Bruce would really begin to branch out when he started to race in the United States. His first car would be a Zerex sports car purchased from Roger Penske. This would lead to Bruce building his first open-wheel racing car after scoring a deal with Firestone to test their tires.
Branching out would be a natural thing for McLaren, for, like so many other drivers of his era, diversifying between single-seaters and sportscars was normal. Still, that didn't mean that all were good both in grand prix and sportscars. However, recognized for his driving and technical abilities, McLaren would have the opportunity to drive everything from Lotus 15s to the Maserati Tipo 63 ‘Birdcage' and would perform well. However, McLaren's greatest moment in sportscars would come during the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans.
McLaren became very much interested in the new Canadian-American Challenge Cup series, or what would be known very simply as Can-Am. Virtually unlimited, the Group 7 racers perfectly suited both the driving and the technical side of McLaren. Therefore, he would begin building his own Can-Am racer as well. Over the course of the 1966 season, McLaren would earn a couple of 2nd place finishes and would end up 3rd in the championship standings. However, it would be while driving in the United States that he would come to earn a drive with the Ford factory team and its pursuit of victory at Le Mans.
Paired with fellow New Zealander Chris Amon, the two men would go on to complete 360 miles and would lead home an incredible and dominate one-two-three finish for the Ford GT40. The famous finish would become one of the most iconic in the whole history of Le Mans. It would also provide a glimpse of the future as one of the co-drivers of the 2nd place car would be Dennis Hulme. And the two would become famous in Can-Am racing, leading to the moniker the 'Bruce and Denny Show'.
McLaren's time, as a driver, in Formula One would become ever-more frustating. By 1966, he was building his own chassis. While this excited the man, who had also become very astute as a businessman, as a driver, it would be a frustrating time as it took time for a team to become a dominant force in Formula One.
By 1969, it seemed as though McLaren had returned to form in Formula One. Earning his first victory in a car of his own design at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix, the 1969 season would see Bruce score no less than three podium finishes and would result in a 3rd place finish in the Drivers' Championship for that year. As a team owner, his McLaren-Ford team would finish the season 4th.
But while the 1969 season would seem like a break-out year for McLaren and his own team in Formula One it would vastly pale in comparison to what everyone would witness in Can-Am racing that year.
By 1967, McLaren would already have his first championship title in Can-Am. However, 1969 would prove to be a season like no other and would firmly establish what had already become known as 'The Bruce and Denny Show'.
Over the eleven rounds of the championship that season, McLaren's McLaren Car team would earn victory in all eleven. It would be an amazing season to behold. One race it would be Bruce that would take the victory. The following round would see Denny take the checkered flag. It seemed like it went on like that all season long. In the end, it would be perhaps the most dominate performance by any team in any racing series. Bruce would win the championship title once again having twice as many points as the 3rd place finisher Chuck Parsons driving for Carl Haas' racing team. Denny Hulme would finish in 2nd place, obviously, just five points behind.
Part of Bruce's talent was his humility. Already having faced certain realities in life, McLaren was never really one to let his pride get in the way. Instead, he would likely find an outlet for a faster driver to benefit himself while also providing the means for that other driver to shine. Denny Hulme in Can-Am would be a prime example. Bruce and Denny would share the Can-Am spotlight for four years. But besides Formula One and Can-Am, Bruce would also branch out into Indycar racing and would provide more outlets for drivers to exercise their talents.
In fact, it would be this humility that would ultimately cost Bruce his life, but it would also ensure that McLaren's racing enterprises would carry on strongly into the future. And that would never be more evident than in 1970.
Bruce had become one of the very few, if not the only, great drivers-constructors, and designers of all time and his success in Can-Am as a designer and team owner would lead to a number of knocks on the door by interested parties looking for success. One of those that would be looking for success would be Goodyear. The famous tire supplier desperately wanted to break Firestone's hold on the famed Indianapolis 500 and believed McLaren would be the one capable of designing a car capable of beating the rest of the competition. Bruce would take up the challenge and would enter the world of Indy Car racing.
Bruce had all of the necessary elements of success in the Can-Am cars from the previous couple of years, and therefore, would design an open-wheeler Indy Car based upon the design of the M8. The design would be simple enough. Called the M15A, McLaren's team would enter four cars in the 1970 edition of the 500 mile race. Peter Revson, Chris Amon, Denny Hulme and Carl Williams would all take to the wheels of a car in the race. And though the first attempt would not yield a victory the performance of the car was such that it would earn the Designer's Award.
However, Bruce's decision to yield to the other talented drivers and not to race at Indy, this humble decision, likely and providentially determined the course of events that would transpire just a couple of days after the race.
The day after the Indianapolis 500, Bruce was already on an airplane heading back to England. He had an important engagement. The latest evolution of the M8, the M8D 'Batmobile' as it would become known, would be ready for testing. Keen to repeat as Can-Am champion, McLaren would make the return trip to take up duties as test driver.
Powering the new M8D down the Lavant Straight toward Woodcote, the rear bodywork came loose at high speeds which upset the car and caused a spin. While attempting to recover control of the car, it would strike a barrier used as a flag station. McLaren would die as a result of the injuries.
Immediately, the tragic loss of McLaren would send shockwaves all throughout the racing world for Bruce had not just been part of one racing series, but was an influential figure in quite a number racing disciplines.
To lesser teams, the loss of their figurehead would be absolutely catastrophic. And while his loss would be incredible terrible on the company, Bruce's humility and prowess would enable the company to be in a strong position at the time of his passing. And it would be his death that would show just what strong organization and strong cohesive partnerships could produce. Hulme would go on to win the Can-Am championship in 1970. Peter Revson would take the title in 1971. Soon, McLaren's Indy car program would produce some of the most potent and fast cars ever to enter the 500. And, in 1974, with Emerson Fittipaldi driving an M23, McLaren would have its first World Championship title as a constructor.
There are all-around drivers that are talented enough to compete in a number of different racing disciplines and prove fast and capable in each. However, there are a very few in the entire history of racing the fall into the category of Bruce McLaren. Bruce was an all-around racer of an entirely different sort. Technically proficient and skilled as a driver, McLaren was able to combine all of his talents to be a winner as a driver and a champion as a designer and constructor. His legacy is secure. And the fact that the McLaren name continues to be one of the most dominant names in Formula One is not merely a testament to his talents for sure, but also, to that love of life and of dedication to his craft that championed the talents of others to make the whole stronger.
Bruce McLaren, therefore, wasn't so much a man as an ideal that attracted and drew the most talented in every aspect of motor racing. It would be this ideal that lives on, and, as a result, so too does the man himself.'The Bruce McLaren Biography', (http://www.bruce-mclaren.com/info_pages.php/pages_id/2). Bruce McLaren Trust. http://www.bruce-mclaren.com/info_pages.php/pages_id/2. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
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