On the morning of Saturday, August 22 — the day after my copy was due to have been finished — a phone call came that started with, “Michael, I’m afraid I’ve got bad news — Phil Kerr died this morning.”
So some fluff has been sidetracked to make way for a man who was involved very much at the business end of motor racing in Europe for over a decade and a half.
Phil, of course, told his own story in his superb autobiography, First, which really did, as the subtitle says, tell of his years inside F1, CanAm, and the Indy 500 — with much of his involvement being with the Mclaren team, for which he operated as joint managing director from 1968 until 1975, when he returned to New Zealand.
Mclaren had entered both F1 and CanAm in 1966, but it wasn’t until Denny Hulme joined Bruce in 1968 that they became a two-car F1 operation. Phil had come with Denny from Brabham and so, in joining Mclaren as it started to grow, was very much involved in the team’s formative years.
Driver to Europe
Phil had met the younger (by nearly three years) Bruce at a hill climb that they were both competing in, and they quickly became close friends. In 1958, a ‘ driver to Europe’ scheme was promoted by the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association, and the winner would be decided from three finalists — Phil Kerr, Merv Mayo, and Bruce Mclaren. As Merv told us in a Motorsport Flashback featuring him some years ago: “We all knew Bruce would win — and that was the right result!” But the other two — Phil and Merv — were there because they were both fine drivers too.
In 1959, Phil, having completed accountancy and management exams, also headed to Europe — but to use his qualifications and skills in operational and logistical areas rather than from behind the wheel of a racing car. At over 1.9m tall, Phil’s height would have been a definite issue, as racing cars became increasingly smaller through the 1960s.
Phil met Jack Brabham and, in 1959, became his manager and ran Brabham’s garage business on the edge of London. Phil remained with Brabham until the end of 1967 and, during that time, championed to his boss the attributes of a tough compatriot who he sensed had a real future. Unfortunately, Jack did not share Phil’s enthusiasm for Denny Hulme as a world-class driver, but Phil
kept plugging away until the chance came, and Jack relented. The rest, as they say, is history.
My first contact with Phil came in 1995, when I was preparing both a magazine article and a radio tribute to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Bruce Mclaren. I phoned Phil, introduced myself, and discovered that the passing of 25 years had not lessened his genuine affection for a muchrespected and loved mate. He agreed to join me live on air and told the listeners of the day that Bruce had died and the days which followed, at the factory,