Icons / October 2017

Bruce McLaren: Motorsport's Overachiever

The life, death and extraordinary legacy of Bruce McLaren, founder of the eponymous marque and all-round motorsport icon.

New Zealand-born McLaren post-race, circa 1965, wearing a rather basic open face helmet, goggles and black leather gloves.

The glorification of untimely death is nothing new. “It is a lovely thing to live with courage and to die leaving behind an everlasting renown,” was supposedly Alexander The Great’s take on the matter, before he carked it age 32. A couple of centuries before Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix vomited their mortal coils into the abyss in return for a “27 Club” membership card, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron died at the ages of 25, 29 and 36, respectively.

In motorsport mythology, though, premature demise provokes an altogether different level of reverence. There can only be one reason for this. Practitioners of motorsport – in a bygone age, at least – put their lives on the proverbial green baize when carrying out their actual raison d'être. Fifty-one drivers have died on the F1 track alone, from Britain’s Cameron Earl in 1952 to France’s Jules Bianchi three years ago, via, most famously, Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna’s deaths on the same weekend in 1994. So it was both poignant and apposite when motorsport writer Eoin Young remarked that New Zealand motorsport legend Bruce McLaren “virtually penned his own epitaph” with a passage in his 1964 book From the Cockpit, dedicated to the death of his teammate Timmy Mayer:

“Who is to say that he had not seen more, done more and learned more in his few years than many people do in a lifetime?” McLaren wrote. “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one's ability - for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.” Six years after its publication, aged 32, McLaren was killed while testing a Can-Am McLaren at Goodwood Circuit (on the Lavant Straight, just before Woodcote Corner, his vehicle was destabilised when rear bodywork flew off and McLaren hit a marshal’s post).

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