The day two heroes were made
June 14 marks the anniversary of one of the most important and outstanding days in McLaren’s history. It was the day in 1970 when the courage, fortitude and talent of two men not only helped to restore the morale of a team torn apart only 12 days earlier by the death of its much-loved founder Bruce McLaren, but laid the foundation on which it would rebuild.
Ironically, given McLaren’s present-day commitment, it had nothing to do with Formula 1, but with CanAm – a North American sporstcar series it dominated in the 1960s. Without what Dan Gurney and Denny Hulme achieved at Mosport Park in Canada that early summer’s day, however, McLaren might never have survived the darkest period in its history.
This most tragic chapter of McLaren’s great story began at 12.22 on Tuesday, June 2 1970. Bruce was testing the new ‘Batmobile’ M8D CanAm car at Goodwood when its tail was ripped off by aerodynamic forces as he sped down the Lavant Straight. He braked hard and ducked deep down into the cockpit as the car went out of control, but it slid broadside at well over 100 mph into a concrete-reinforced earth bank that protected an abandoned marshal’s post. Bruce, universally regarded as the safest pair of hands, died instantly.
He had once written: “Too often someone pays the penalty just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a situation or a set of circumstances is such that no human being can control them.” Unknowingly, he had described the precise circumstances of his own passing.
Denny, his close friend and team-mate, was in London’s Harley Street, having seen a specialist about burns he had sustained to his hands at Indianapolis. “That day was the worst of my life,” he said. “I heard it on the radio coming back from Harley Street. I'd had no reaction to my hands, no shock, no self-pity. Then suddenly Bruce was gone. It was the worst-ever in the week or so after that, because the reactions to both things hit me at the same time.”
Engineer Tyler Alexander was in the Howard Johnson Hotel at Indy, with Dan Gurney, when they got the call. Back in Colnbrook at the McLaren factory, the new de facto leader Teddy Mayer and joint managing director Phil Kerr gathered everyone and broke the terrible news.
“We all realise that something not very nice has happened but we have a company called Bruce McLaren Motor Racing and it has a CanAm race in two weeks, so best we get on with it!” Mayer said in his typically forthright manner.
In a highly successful double-act, Bruce would be the good cop, Mayer the bad. Teddy really didn’t care one way or another who loved him, but everyone loved Bruce. As his friend and one-time secretary Eoin Young wrote in a moving obituary in his ‘Straight From The Grid’ column in Autocar, “When things weren’t going right, he just smiled a little less often.”
And Young thought much of McLaren’s success in that era was down to the fact that any visitor would have been hard pressed to pick out the worker who had his name on the wall outside.
Kerr told everyone to take the next day off, but to a man their loyalty to Bruce saw them all turn up as usual at eight o’clock the next morning. “That’s when I realised, if you ever needed proof, that anybody would do anything for Bruce,” he said.
McLaren missed the Belgian GP, but a week later – on that June 14 day – Gurney won the opening CanAm race at Mosport, with Denny. They were all racers to the core.
Dan had agreed to come back to F1, and to CanAm, after he’d received an urgent call-up from Teddy. He was one of the finest drivers of his era, the man Jim Clark genuinely feared. He said that he came because of his regard for Bruce.
Denny, meanwhile, did what he did best. He said nothing, but just got on with the job. He’d burned his hands on May 23, testing the new Indy McLaren M15. Many years later he explained: “There were two [fuel] caps up front and we had a curly spring and a button to hold them shut, but for some reason the guys from [governing body] USAC didn't like that. They made us fit a gate-spring. Well, the harmonic vibration of the Offenhauser sprang one of them open earlier that day, and we just closed it back down. But the harmonics opened it again like a banjo-type twang. I was out on the track and I saw what I thought was water on the screen. The next lap I saw more, and of course I assumed it was rain. I was waiting for them to throw the yellow. On my third lap – boof! The thing caught fire. Well, methanol burns with an invisible flame and all I saw was the screen and my helmet visor just folding up. Then it got real hot in there...
The era of safer driver equipment was only just beginning. Denny was wearing Nomex overalls, but only leather shoes and gloves and a flameproof scarf across the area left unprotected by his open-face Bell helmet.
“My hands had shrivelled to claws but I finally managed to undo the seat belt and jump. The fire trucks all went to the car; the only marshal who came near me felt the wall of heat. Luckily, when my visor melted it welded itself all round. The paint on my helmet was blistered to hell. The heat was just enormous.”
Denny was so thirsty on the way to the Methodist Hospital that he drank the saline solution he’d been given to put his hands in. Later still, he refused morphine after it made him hallucinate. Every time that he drove a race car, the effort would destroy all the new skin that had started to form over the burns. “I looked like a skinned fish,” he said. “The pain was instant.”
And yet there he was that day at Mosport, alongside Big Dan. The inner strength and incredible esprit de corps of the McLaren boys, led on the ground by the uncrushable Alexander, had got the team this far. They had each found their own way to cope and had built a new M8D to replace Bruce’s wrecked car. But now everyone was looking to Denny and Dan for their lead. Their unflinching courage and commitment was outstanding, reflecting the inspiration of Bruce’s own quiet charisma.
The CanAm opener was their first race since Bruce’s death, and they were all hurting. But after fiddling with a whole range of springs and rollbars because he had done no previous testing in the car, Dan put his M8D on the pole in the last 10 minutes of qualifying, with Denny doing only what he had to do to line up alongside him just ahead of Jackie Oliver’s fast Autocoast Ti22.
Denny took the lead initially ahead of Dan, but Oliver overtook the latter and moved in on Denny. After the 40-lap hallway mark Denny’s hands suffered horribly from steering wheel kickback when he ran over a kerb avoiding a very slow backmarker, and Oliver pounced into the lead. Denny, his engine running hot, waved Dan by; and then the race really began as, lap after lap, Dan hunted down the white car until he managed to slip into the lead on the 59th lap.
When they came up to lap Lothar Motschenbacher’s M8B, he was able to open an invincible lead and eventually beat Oliver by 16 seconds. Denny was a brave third and received a standing ovation from the appreciative fans. For a very long time he sat in the car in the pitlane, one of his hands frozen in the clawed position on the steering wheel.
In the weeks of pain that followed in the CanAm and F1 he still never uttered a word of complaint to the outside world or betrayed an iota of the emotion he was feeling.
“You know what makes this team so special?” he’d once asked Bruce during the past days of ‘The Bruce and Denny Show’ in the CanAm. “We have more fun!”
But now it was work, not fun. Every time he peeled off his gloves and bandages, he peeled off a fresh layer of new skin and had to start the healing process all over again. The doctors had warned him that racing would make his hands take twice as long to heal, but he never cared much for sympathy. He just kept his own counsel and refused to give up. Dan won again at St Jovite before leaving for a number of reasons, and eventually Denny the Bear won six races and scored twice as many points as rival Motschenbacher to take his second and final CanAm title.
He did it against odds that would have crushed a lesser man and a lesser workforce. But he, Dan and the McLaren boys were racers, and they did it for Bruce, and for his team in which they all still so passionately believed.
Denny’s father Clive had won the Victoria Cross in Crete. They don't give them for motor racing, of course, but if they did his son would surely have deserved one.
On the 40th anniversary of Bruce’s death, in 2010, McLaren held a ‘minute’s noise’ at the factory. And then, like the racers they are, they fired up the 7.5-litre Chevy V8 in one of those glorious orange elephant M8Ds that he and Denny loved so much, and revved it hard for a minute.
And somewhere very hallowed, where the spirits of the good guys go, Bruce and Denny will have been laughing their heads off in approval of the men who continue to carry their flame.
By David Tremayne