It was crazy hot for mid-October on the Monterey peninsula. It was dry and dusty, I was covered with grit from head to toe yet in my glory. I was a ten year old kid, one of 42,000 plus on hand to witness New Zealander Bruce McLaren destroy his competitors at Laguna Seca.
His car was the iconic M6A, a swoopy, papaya colored sports racer with a booming small block Chevy engine. This win was particularly satisfying for me as my older brother had chosen the previous year’s winner, Jim Hall to win in his high winged Chaparral. On this day however, the tall Texan was fighting over heating problems and finished a full lap behind (sorry Scotty). Tenacious George Follmer was third in a Lola driving for Roger Penske.
A year later (1968) the weatherman conjured up something completely different…rain. McLaren was back with a new, less curvaceous M8A and stuck it on the pole. “My Car” was back too, now in Penske’s Sunoco livery with capable Mark Donohue up. Atop the velocity stacks was a gaping air box and the whole package was finished in royal blue with yellow pin striping. It was pretty and fast, fast enough to claim fifth starting position on the grid. In a downpour however, Donohue struggled on slick tires, eventually finishing eighth. McLaren himself couldn’t do much better, ultimately claiming fifth. I didn’t see my car again for 28 years.
My hunch is that Penske sold the M6A to sometimes professional driver Jerry Hansen before the ’68 season concluded. If I’m right, the car probably languished as a club racer for several years after that. Hansen was one of SCCA’s most accomplished drivers and won 27 national titles but walked the thin line between being an amateur and a pro (possibly because he had a regular job and couldn’t follow the entire series). After that…who knows? My car fell off my radar until the Can-Am Reunion held in Elkhart Lake Wisconsin in July of 1996.
By then vintage racing was the rage and the M6A had been restored to its original configuration. Harry Mathews was the owner/driver and made a respectable showing, especially when you consider the evolution of the division. The year after McLaren had won his first championship, most competitors jumped to bigger displacement engines (Since there were no rules restricting this, why wouldn’t you?). Consequently, even Team McLaren’s power plants went from 359 to 427 cubic inches in one year. By the demise of the original Can-Am series in 1974, there were fire belching, twin turbo charged, monster engines in competition, some producing in excess of 1,000 horsepower!
There were over sixty cars in competition at Elkhart Lake and of the small blocks, Mathews was among the five fastest. He qualified 24th overall and held his own in the race, on a course with a long straightaway where horsepower mattered.
Also in attendance that weekend was another vintage racer named Richard Griot. When Griot inquired as to whether or not the iconic McLaren was for sale, he was told “No, I don’t think I will ever sell it”. Turns out Griot had patience and kept after Mathews, making regular calls. In the years that followed Griot continued to grow his car care products business and in 2008, when it looked like the world was coming to an end, Mathews finally said over a routine phone call by Griot, “Fly on out and bring your checkbook”. Griot was on a plane the very next day and the deal was done.
Today the McLaren is the centerpiece of Griot’s personal race car collection housed at corporate headquarters in Tacoma, WA. In the same way you would never admit to having a favorite child, Griot won’t admit that the M6A is his favorite race car…but his fondness for the yellow orange missle is evident.
“Actually, it’s my car,” I told him when we met at his open house last weekend. And then I proceeded to relate my story of claiming the car as my own some 47 years ago. Griot was amused by the tale and took it in the spirit in which it was intended.
“Okay,” he smiled raising his eyebrows, “But I get to drive it!”