McLAREN
Pioneer. Leader. Father. Champion.

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McLAREN
Pioneer Leader Father Champion
A documentary film directed by Ronald Donaldson
Review by Doug Stokes

I just viewed the new Bruce McLaren documentary and the distinguished racing journalist, Pete Lyons and a number of my friends who have seen it recently. I was left almost gasping for breath.

The archival footage is truly wonderful, the reconstructed racing scenes are very well done, the still shots and family photos are both fun and heartbreaking in the same instant.

Riverside, November 1970, both McLarens on the front row and team manager, the late Tyler Alexander, surely thinking about how he might make his two charges just a tick or two quicker, even as they’re already gridded to race. (photo by author)

The racing footage really reminds that those days (which only seem a short time ago to this reviewer) were far more lethal than they are now. But it’s the looks on the faces, the tightness of the voices of the cadre of racing greats who had been guiding us through the story, and when they are asked to remember that awful day in 1970, that said far more than their words.

(Bruce McLaren perished in a testing accident on 2 June 1970 at the Goodwood circuit in England, astoundingly to those who followed his racing career, he was only 32 years old. He was testing one of his Can Am type cars when a newly designed aerodynamic device came adrift and caused the car to go out of control with no warning … Not even for as skilled a driver as McLaren had become.)

These narrators all talked as if the accident had happened only the day before, not 47 years ago. For me, it speaks so deeply and eloquently of the man and his character. In some respects hard to see, but here the whole reason for the exercise.

Bruce McLaren was a young racing driver from New Zealand, crippled as a child with a disease that left one leg noticeably shorter than the other. To most, he seemed almost propelled by this handicap to do well, to overcome obstacles.

Born in Auckland, the son of a car repair shop owner. At one point, his cars (driven by himself and his fellow Kiwi Dennis Hulme) were so dominant in unlimited sport car racing that the series was almost universally referred (and without rancor for the most part) to as “The Bruce and Denny Show”. The funny thing is that the people who understood serious racing competition the best, the other drivers, never seemed to dislike or complain about McLaren and his lot. They were the best, they worked the hardest, and everyone at the racetrack knew it. That’s the story that’s told here in this new documentary film.

Like the remarkable Senna documentary, we know how this story ends before the lights ever go out in the theater. And like Senna, Bruce McLaren does not grow old in this film. Unlike the Senna documentary, this film does not have all the nasty political overtones that seemed to follow the young Brazilian throughout his racing career. Instead, this film shows McLaren’s amazing ability to understand and lead the people around him as well as he understood what it took to make race cars bearing his name the standard of the world of motorsports.

And, yes, Bruce McLaren’s name and company has lived on, producing both road and racing cars that have won in every type of motorsports event that they were entered. The latest McLaren road cars are considered by many to be the best-engineered and highest overall performing machines of their kind ever built and offered to the public. The bar that McLaren raised long ago is, for others, something of a moving target that his company keeps in a steady climb.

And even the distinctive orange color of the McLarens is something of a bone of contention. Google “McLaren Orange” and you’ll get a pageful of names “Volcano Orange”, “Ventura Orange”, numbers, and endless conjecture about the exact hue of the famed machines. I was once told by a very reliable source that that paint color was just happenstance. Whatever the origin, the color and the little Kiwi bird in the logo always hark back to the man, I’m quite sure it was simply a color that no other car could have worn, and I think that McLaren knew that.

I’ll close this review with a few paragraphs that I wrote to Howden Ganley, one of the men who figured so importantly in Bruce McLaren’s life, a few days after I had seen the film.

“… I watched him race (you and Denny too) but only got to speak to him once, at Riverside. My friend, Bruce Eglington, had been very seriously burned in a testing accident aboard the first LeGrand Formula A car. I visited Bruce in hospital once a week for many months, we’d talk (what else?) racing. He was a driver/engineer/car designer and this was just at the time that the McLaren Can Am cars had sprouted the high wing configuration.

For some reason there was some sort of question as to how the wing’s downforce was fed into the car. We all understood that a conventional wing, if inverted, would push down and I suspect at that time there were not a lot of photos of the car with the rear bodywork removed and the tall wing still in place. I told my pal Bruce that I’d find out at the upcoming Can-Am race at Riverside, and did.

McLaren and all the drivers were going to be ferried around the course before the race in a covey of MG-TC’s one of my old college pals had one (replete with a Ford V8 60 engine replacing the original 4-banger).

McLaren was his designated passenger and, while they were waiting to take the pre-race parade ride, I walked up introduced myself and asked about the design. McLaren knew of Eglington (who had raced briefly in Europe) and asked that I take his regards back to him.

He then took my note pad and drew a rear upright with what looked like a third suspension clevis at the top aligned vertically. The downtube from the wing ended in a boss that fit into the yoke and was held fast by a rather large single bolt … as simple as that. The film brought those few moments into very sharp focus for me.

Howden, it was really wonderful to see and hear from you and so many of the people of the era directly in this film. As I said, the pure take away from this one is simply what a kind, gentle, fiercely competitive (but so well able to control and focus that drive), genuinely likable human being who’s vision lived on long after he perished … it could have been any vocation, he would have had the same sort of story of respect … no … love from the people who he gathered around him in his too short, but instructive, life.

Howden, you know far better than me, but I’m thinking that this film was more than simply a nostalgic tribute to a young racing driver who started a race car company, and all about character, teamwork, respect, and deep friendship. Without that, motor racing is just a bunch of cars making a lot of noise going around in circles and ending up at the same place that they started from an hour or so later (if they’re lucky).”

Onward!
- Doug Stokes

For more information and to see the trailer:
www.mclarenfilm.com

Director
Roger Donaldson

Producers
Matthew Metcalfe
Fraser Brown

Writers
Matthew Metcalfe
Tim Woodhouse
James Brown

Editors
Tim Woodhouse
James Brown

Research
Keiran McGee

Music
David Long

Line Producer
Jill Soper

VFX Supervisor
Brenton Cumberbatch

Sound Design
Bruno Barrett-Garnier

In the end, one honestly does not have to be a racing fanatic, or, for that matter, even know who Bruce McLaren was, for this story to resonate. It’s, quite simply, about ideas, teamwork, and a leader who lead by doing. -DS

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