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The remarkably unremarkable Bruce McLaren
Kim Chapin
October 28, 1968
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
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October 28, 1968

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

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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.

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