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Teacher gets a taste of glory on the Coast
Kim Chapin
November 04, 1968
No longer content to let prize pupil Denis Hulme lead their blitz of the Canadian-American racing series, New Zealand's Bruce McLaren took charge of the season's biggest event before a swinging California crowd
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November 04, 1968

Teacher Gets A Taste Of Glory On The Coast

No longer content to let prize pupil Denis Hulme lead their blitz of the Canadian-American racing series, New Zealand's Bruce McLaren took charge of the season's biggest event before a swinging California crowd

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Richter grew up in Fresno, Calif. and was initiated to racing at the dirt tracks in Northern California—as a spectator—long before he went to the University of California, made All-America and started on the road to football fame. When he retired from the Rams after the 1962 season, he was invited to become the president of Riverside, and in his fifth season of running the most versatile race course in the U.S.—it is the only one that successfully supports Grand National stock cars and U.S. Auto Club championship cars as well as sports cars—has put the track into the black financially and has seen it become the most charismatic racing attraction going. It draws the Hollywood crowd, notably James Garner, Dick Smothers, Paul Newman and Dan Blocker, whose party of 20 rented a Greyhound bus for the weekend; the international crowd, with Stirling Moss out front; and the split-level Torrance crowd as well, and they all have a good time, although it does take that security force of 50 men to keep the gypsy in everybody within reasonable limits.

What the gypsies—Hollywood, bare-tummied and otherwise—saw on the track was more of the old McLaren Can-Am magic. Team McLaren Owner-Driver Bruce and hired gun Denis Hulme had rented the 3.2-mile circuit on Thursday, one day before official practice began, to work some bugs out of their cars. Hulme never made it. His polar flight from London had mechanical difficulty. No matter. McLaren himself tooled around the course just 11 times, took two-tenths of a second off the track record and retired for the rest of the day to the swimming pool at Riverside's Mission Inn.

On Friday, McLaren did things officially, getting around in 1:38.51 at an average speed of 119.683 mph. Nobody else was even close. Gusty winds and a lot of oil on the track kept times slow during the final qualifying session on Saturday, but Hulme slammed his way into the first row alongside his teammate. That made the fourth time in the five Can-Am races to date that the Kiwis had been together on the first row.

Behind Team McLaren came Mark Donohue, half a second slower, and Jim Hall, two lengths behind Donohue. And poor Mario Andretti. Crew Chief George Bignotti had just received a new Ford aluminum 427-cu.-in. engine and a new Lola chassis and, in effect, tried to build a race car in a day. It didn't work, and Andretti, who deserves better, did not even make the starting grid. Both Peter Revson and Dan Gurney, the other two name drivers using Ford engines, fell out of contention early. Revson, who qualified fifth, had blown an engine late Saturday, and the replacement lasted just one lap of the race itself. Gurney, No. 6 on the grid, was blowing smoke on the first lap—oil was leaking onto the exhaust pipes. He pitted several times and completed just seven of the 62 laps.

The early laps of the race, like the qualifying sessions, were a mirror of the entire Can-Am series. McLaren and Hulme challenged each other only on the first lap, with McLaren winning a deep dive into the No. 9 turn at the end of the mile-long back straight, and in a very short time the field was spread out. After just six laps McLaren led Hulme by approximately three seconds; there was another five-second gap to the cars driven by Hall and Donohue and a startling 26-second margin between them and fifth-place John Surtees. And by the 25th lap those four Chevrolet-powered racers had lapped the rest of the field. It was definitely a day for beer drinking and girl watching, and both girls and beer, fortunately, were in plentiful supply.

Hall was forced to pit on the 38th lap with braking problems, which moved Donohue into third place. Thirteen laps later Hulme spun coming out of Turn 5. Another car had broken loose in front of him and Hulme had a sudden choice of hitting the other car or taking a detour. He chose the detour, had to pit to repair his bodywork, and McLaren breezed home an easy 36-second winner over Donohue.

Hulme did manage to finish fifth, but his little shunt may have cost him the Can-Am driving championship. Going into the race, the reigning Grand Prix champion had a seven-point lead over Donohue. Coming out of it, Hulme has 26 points, with McLaren and Donohue tied for second at 23 each. And that means the driving title, worth $40,000, won't be decided until the series' last race in Las Vegas on November 10.

McLaren quite naturally was pleased with his victory. It was his first of the series this year, and until this race he had been content to let Hulme bring Team McLaren the driving championship, mostly because Hulme was the man with the best chance to win it. But after the race he said, "I thought I'd be a driver today instead of an instructor."

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