The legend of Bruce McLaren
I was watching the Formula 1 season 1 finale in Abu Dhabi with a group of racing fan friends – alumni, others kids who had recently been introduced to the sport by the doc series. Drive to survive—When one of the kids, a Lando Norris fan, made a casual comment as he watched Norris run through the middle of the pack in his McLaren Mercedes.
“I wonder where the name McLaren came from,” said the ten-year-old.
The awkward silence of the half-dozen people in the room was broken by the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. It turned out that no one in the room knew the story of Bruce McLaren, a story so deeply human and so important to motorsport that I felt there was a need to share it immediately.
Bruce McLaren’s contributions to racing in the 1960s helped make the sport what it is today. Because of Bruce, the name McLaren is still synonymous with shine more than 50 years after his tragic death.
Its story began in the most unlikely place: the Wilson Home for Crippled Children in Auckland, New Zealand. As a child, McLaren was diagnosed with Perthes disease, a rare disease affecting the development of hip bones. He spent two years strapped to something called a Bradshaw frame, basically a wheelchair wheeled bed. Young Bruce started running through the halls of this convalescent home against other kids on Bradshaw Frames. If you had a dream about a story about a neglected child who came out of nowhere to become a great racing driver, that would be a great start.
He eventually walked out of the Wilson house with one leg much shorter than the other, for which he would still need corrective shoes. When he first started running he was limping heavily in his running shoes, one of his defining physical characteristics in the pit lane. The other was his extraordinarily warm and disarming smile.
McLaren’s dad owned a gas station and he helped Bruce get started in an Austin 7 Ulster. Then, in the late 1950s, F1 driver Jack Brabham, who was already making a name for himself in Europe, returned to New Zealand to run a few races and was offered accommodation in the McLaren house. In no time, Brabham had discovered young Bruce and brought him to Europe to race for Team Cooper.
McLaren fought for the title from the start. At the 1959 British Grand Prix, the rookie matched Stirling Moss for the fastest lap of the race. On December 12, at the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, McLaren became the youngest Grand Prix winner at 22 years, 3 months and 12 days. He is still the sixth youngest, even in today’s era of greenhouse runners grown from infancy. He became a top-notch talent throughout the 1960s, with 100 Grand Prix starts and four F1 wins. McLaren also won the highly controversial 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, as seen in the film’s climax. Ford vs. Ferrari, in which he was played by Benjamin Rigby.
Yet none of this is what makes McLaren a legend. Some race car drivers are cutthroat competitors. It wasn’t McLaren. His talent was in developing cars and building winners.
In 1964, at the age of 27, McLaren built his first sports car, the M1A. He turned out to be brutally quick in competition. McLaren also launched its first Formula 1 car, the M2B at the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix. But the big news was the Mclaren M1B’s debut in the first North American Can-Am series. The car was faster on the tracks than the F1 cars of that time. In their trademark papaya orange paint, McLarens would dominate Can-Am so much over the next five seasons that the series became known as the Bruce and Denny Show, as McLaren and fellow Kiwi driver Denny Hulme claimed a flag at checkerboard after the next one. During the 1969 season, McLaren cars won eleven Can-Am races, each on the calendar.
Lots of guys could go out and win races in the 1960s, but few could develop cars from scratch and then drive them to victory like Bruce McLaren could. He had all the necessary qualities: engineering talent, patience, dedication and natural talent.
“A racing car chassis is like a piano,” he once said of the development process. “You can make something that looks good, with all the threads the right length, the right size, and close enough to the right settings. But until it’s sorted out, it won’t play as well.
Apart from all that, McLaren possessed a sort of leadership skill that made his team winners. He was so loved and respected, so courteous to those around him, and so devoid of ego that anyone who worked for him was determined to do their best.
In 1970, McLaren published the autobiography Bruce McLaren: From the cockpit. Tragically, he wrote his own epitaph in this book. “Doing something well is so worth it that dying trying to do it better cannot be reckless,” he wrote. “It would be a waste of life to do nothing with his abilities, because I think life is measured in accomplishment, not just years.”
On June 2, 1970, McLaren was testing a Can-Am car at 220 mph at Goodwood. It was pounding right away when the engine exploded. The car basically split in two. With no way to control the car, McLaren lost control and hit a concrete barrier. Witnesses say the fireball was over 30 feet tall. McLaren was killed instantly.
He left behind a wife, a four-year-old girl, a whole community of runners, all broken with grief. To get a glimpse of the value and love he had in the sport, consider a passage from his New York Times obituary.
“The death of Bruce McLaren last Tuesday weakens us all. This gentle, caring man was more than a racing driver, more than a car manufacturer. He was friends with everyone in the race – in the pits, the pits, the trade office, the motel lobby. Bruce didn’t go out of his way to make friends, he just attracted them. As a team captain, he worked as hard as his men… Still in the picture of the victory, that shy, incredulous smile, so unpleasant that even his rivals forgave Bruce for beating them. But as long as they had to be beaten, they might as well be beaten by the best.
Unlike all the driver-builders of the 1960s, men like John Surtees, Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham, the Mclaren racing team and the brand of cars Bruce founded still exist today. As motorsport author Xavier Chimits wrote: “This is Bruce McLaren’s greatest victory. McLaren cars have won the F1 World Championship, the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yet, as much as his victories, the man himself and his warm smile should never be forgotten.