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.
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.