Bruce McLaren was born in New Zealand in 1937. Early in adolescence, he was plagued by an unusual illness that affected the growth of his legs. Bedridden for stints of his childhood, Bruce was restless. By age 13 he was enrolled in a technical college and assisted in his father’s racing endeavors. Blazing through Formula 2 in his early twenties, no limp could slow the ‘Flying Kiwi’ down- even if one leg was longer than the other.
At age 22 he was the youngest driver to win a top tier Formula1 race in 1959. A short number of years later, McLaren started his own team christened with his namesake, thus creating one of the most successful cross- discipline racing teams of all time. With Bruce at the helm, the team conquered in the Canadian-American Challenge Cup- or CanAm series, while developing a significant Formula1 program.
All the while, external pressures tried to lure Bruce’s attention to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the early to mid 60’s, the top drivers from around the world looked at Indy as an ultimate testament to one’s ability and engineers came to play with their newest and best innovations. This was the era of the great ‘Tire Wars’ when Goodyear and Firestone were locked in eternal battle to establish superiority. Seeing Bruce’s talents and innovations, Goodyear urged McLaren toward the Greatest Spectacle. Driver and fellow Kiwi, Denny Hulme added to the whispers, asking Bruce to build him a competitive car.
So in 1970- a month before Bruce’s fateful death, the team rolled in three M15 cars for Hulme and Chris Amon to drive. Bruce himself was supposed to pilot a Carroll Shelby turbine, but the builder would pull it from qualifying- citing safety concerns. Early in the month, Hulme’s ride caught fire and he sustained burns on his hands and feet. Amon reportedly came out to see the famed Speedway but was shaken by its speed and magnitude, and thus backed out of his driving obligation. Carl Williams and Peter Revson then filled the M15s. They would finish 9th and 22nd respectively and Team McLaren would win the prestigious Designers Award.
While shaking down a CanAm car in Goodwood, England a couple of weeks later Bruce McLaren suddenly crashed and lost his life- but the McLaren team did not die with him.
Flying the trademarked ‘Papaya’ Orange, Team McLaren would carry on in all racing fronts- winning USAC and CanAm Championships.
In 1974 and again in 1976 Johnny Rutherford drove a McLaren into Victory Lane at Indy. He publicly states that those chassis were some of the best he has ever piloted.
Only after Bruce’s death did McLaren’s Formula1 program write themselves into the record books. To date, the program has twelve championships, second only to Ferrari with fifteen. Some of the greatest drivers in history have raced with McLaren including Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Alain Prost, and Aryton Senna.
The new era of McLaren Formula1 has seen some problems. Mika Hakkinen was the last to bring home the bacon in 1999 and since, McLaren has fallen from grace. The sport has changed, the engines have evolved and current McLaren pilot and two-time World Champion, Fernando Alonso decided that it was time to make a new statement.
On April 12th of this year, Alonso and team announced that they would be withdrawing from Formula1’s biggest race of the year, the Monaco Grand Prix, to race at Indy. Shock, awe and criticism ensued but Alonso stuck with his decision to drive the orange no. 29 McLaren Honda with Andretti Autosport for the month.
“We came out here to unite the two worlds of racing” explained Alonso “and I think we did just that…” Fans from around the world made a special trip to see Alonso on racing’s Greatest Stage and Indycar.com reported that over 2 million people tuned in just to see his rookie orientation.
The Andretti guys took him under their wings and after a month of being at the top of the practice leaderboard, Alonso was ready to qualify. He lined up 5th for the race and spent the majority of the day up front. After slipping down to 6th at the start, Alonso came roaring into the lead on lap 37. A crowd of 300,000 came to their feet to see the rookie take point.
Alonso and the other Andretti drivers would command most of the race—but after a triumphant fight, Alonso coasted to a smoky stop with 20 laps to go. A disappointed crowd applauded him for his heroic efforts, and it was clear that the abrupt end hurt the Spaniard.
“I can say that I found a new family here”…Alonso said afterward, “I need to tell the F1 guys, you have a good thing going here.” Though he was scored as finishing 24th, Alonso’s efforts rekindle a historical relationship—one uniting Formula1 with Indycar and resurrecting a team’s pedigree at Racing’s Greatest Spectacle.