IN MEMORY OF BRUCE McLAREN
August 30th 1937— June 2nd 1970
12:22 pm on June 2nd, 1970 Bruce McLaren was killed testing his newest Can-Am
car at the Goodwood track in England. He was 32. His mother Ruth, in bed in Auckland,
New Zealand, woke suddenly at the very moment of the crash. She had sensed what
I had an early breakfast on June 3rd. and when I opened
the daily paper and turned to the sports section the words hit me like a sledgehammer.
In bold headlines were the words that said that Bruce McLaren was dead. I read
it again and again and the words and their terrible meaning refused to sink in.
Something had broken on his car and he had met death instantly when it hit a concrete
structure at Goodwood. What was haunting is that I had seen Bruce McLaren crash
almost under the same circumstances almost eight months earlier at the Riverside
In October of 1969 the Bruce and Denny show was
coming to town. I was filled with excitement as it meant a return to normalcy
in my life. After a two year absence from the area due to military service I was
back home. I had been an occassional SCCA corner worker at the track and had seen
all the “greats” sweep through those classic “esses” on their way to victory.
As a corner worker I could meet the drivers, and watch the races for free. This
years Times Grand Prix would be sensational with the legendary Can-Am Group 7
cars battling it out for bragging rights and glory. If you are too young to have
ever been to a Can-Am race then you will never know what incredible glory you
have missed. There were few things more exciting than thirty plus Can-Am cars
with 600-700 horses of American “big iron” all converging on Turn 1 at Riverside.
Then through turns 2, 3, and 4, the famous “esses”, at 140+ mph the cars all blended
as one and took the shape of a gigantic serpent with one car behind the other
snaking their way to Turn 6. It was alive, it was loud, it was outrageously exciting,
and the pride of New Zealand, Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme were the ones to beat.
I would watch the race at turn 1. It was just past the pit straight, a
dogleg to the left that would connect to the esses. It was very fast as the drivers
didn’t even apply the brakes here and they barely lifted their right foot. This
is the site of the famous crash between the Corvette of Doc Bundy and the Ford
Probe of Lyn St. James and the Jag of Chip Robinson in the 1986 race. In the horrific
video Lyn’s car burst into flames and Robinson nearly cart wheeled into the crowd.
After the warm up lap the flag dropped and all hell broke loose as 35
cars crossed the start/finish line and thundered into turn 1 with Bruce and Denny
leading the way as usual. I also remember the Ferrari of Chris Amon driving the
brutish looking 712P with its awesome 6.9 liter V12 engine, the biggest Ferrari
engine ever built. He lasted only 5 laps before it retired but could that engine
scream. By far the strangest car in the race was the Chaparral 2H driven by John
Surtees. Dubbed the “Great White Whale” it had a huge wing on struts hanging high
up over the mid-section of the car with a large spoiler at the back. Surtees would
retire on lap 5 when the engine let go. Gurney’s usual bad luck would not occur
today as he would finish 4th in his McLaren nicknamed the McL’eagle.
lap 34 it happened! As Bruce approached Turn 1 at nearly 150mph something broke
in the car’s rear suspension. The car snapped to the right and slid backwards
across the track and started to climb directly up the shallow embankment where
I was standing. People were transfixed as it happened way to fast to react. How
he kept the car from flying into the spectator area and killing scores of people
I will never know but he did with remarkable skill. As the car spun around for
the last time the rear side of the car slammed into the corner worker who had
his back to the traffic. There was a shocking scream of horror from the crowd
as the poor guy was flung through the air like a rag doll and came down a good
70 -80 feet away in a sickening thud . People started to jump over the barrier
to render aid. The other corner workers were in a state of shock but soon were
calling for help on the radio. Soon a large number of people had surrounded the
victim lying lifeless on the ground.
While all this was going on Bruce
was un-strapping his harness and removing his helmet and balaclava. He stepped
out of his car cool and collected, like the wild ride he had just taken had never
happened. He started calmly walking around his car, inspecting the damage, and
trying to find the cause of his crash. He walked all the way around to the rear
of the car and started inspecting what was left of the rear suspension. He was
calm meticulous, focused, and had morphed himself from hell for leather race driver
to engineer in a heartbeat. Meanwhile 80 feet away — utter chaos as people are
frantically trying to keep a young man’s life from slipping into the abyss.
walks up to Bruce, and he greets him with a smile, he starts making gestures with
his hands and arms explaining how he loss control of the car and then breaks into
laughter. No more than three to four minutes have passed since the disaster. Turn
one is under a yellow flag, the race still goes on. At one point Bruce gives Denny
a big thumbs up as he drives by, the sign that all is well. But all is not well.
As Bruce stands by his crumbled car with hands akimbo the ambulance with
lights flashings arrives at the scene and stops. I was watching all of this just
60 feet away and I swear I could read his lips and gestures. He shrugged his shoulders
and raised his arms and his lips were saying “What’s the ambulance for everything
is ok.” The corner worker points over McLaren’s shoulder to the crowd of people
huddled around something unseen on the ground and told him the awful news.
will always remember his face at that instant as it transfigured from unattached
calmness to absolute horror. What the horrific crash could not do, the realization
that his shunt had badly injured someone else completely unnerved him. He threw
his hands over his head in a gesture of shock and grief and ran up the hill where
the man was lying and forced his way into the crowd that had surrounded the victim.
The paramedics followed him and they soon had the man on a stretcher and were
carrying his seemingly lifeless body to the ambulance. Bruce walked next to the
stretcher helping them put the man in the back of the ambulance and then I believe
got inside the back of the vehicle and they were off to the local hospital. Denny
Hulme would go on to win the race — but I didn’t care. Nobody standing there at
Turn 1 cared either.
Thirty-six years later I am honored to say that I
saw Bruce McLaren as a race car driver, but I also had a rare insight of Bruce
McLaren the man who showed compassion for another human being in need.
in peace Bruce, you are gone but not forgotten.